Wednesday, September 1, 2010

One of the stupidest things you'll read about Iraq this week

Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress has a post up at the WonkRoom blog about how the Iraq drawdown actually validates CAP's 2005 proposals for a rapid and agressive end to American involvement in that war. No, seriously. The post is actually entitled "Obama Implemented CAP's Progressive Plan For Ending Iraq War -- Chaos Didn't Ensue." What incredible balls, right?

So let's talk about why this is so dumb. First, the most glaring reason: CAP's 2005 report "Strategic Reengagement," authored by Larry Korb and Brian Katulis (who happily echo Bergmann's insistence of their centrality to the war's end in their own op-ed on Foreign Policy), called for the withdrawal of 80,000 U.S. troops... IN 2006! That's prior to the Surge; prior to the Sahwa; prior to the JAM stand-down; prior to the Samarra mosque bombing; prior to the conclusion of ethno-sectarian cleansing across the neighborhoods of Baghdad; prior to the formation of the Maliki government; prior to the Iraqi offensive against Shia militias; prior to the conclusion of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA); and so on and so on. All of this seems so obvious as to not even need saying. In short, it's patently absurd to suggest that a massive troop withdrawal in 2006 would have gone as smoothly and produced similar results to the one currently taking place without the change in the security situation that took place in the intervening four years.

Bergmann argues that the real importance of the CAP report was the suggestion "that the US should set a date certain to prompt Iraqis to take control of their security and should withdraw its forces deliberately but responsibly in that period." Katulis and Korb echo this point:

Deadlines for a strategic redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq -- initially proposed in 2005 by leaders like former Representative Jack Murtha, championed by Democrats in Congress and candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, and outlined by the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group ["and by US!", they modestly avoid noting] -- all sent the important signal that Iraqis needed to take greater responsibility and ownership of their own affairs. The message that America's commitment to Iraq was not open-ended motivated forces such as the Sunni Awakenings in Anbar province to partner with the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda in 2006, a movement that began long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces.

The message that Americans were leaving also motivated Iraqis to sign up for the country's security forces in record numbers. The "surge" of U.S. troops to Iraq was only a modest increase of about 15 percent -- and smaller if one takes into account the reduced number of other foreign troops, which fell from 15,000 in 2006 to 5,000 by 2008. In Anbar province, the most violent area, only 2,000 troops were added.

This argument rests on the specious contention that promises of sustained American commitment to Iraq had a suppressive effect on Iraqis' enthusiasm to end the war that wracked their country. In a less charitable interpretation, one could conclude that Katulis and Korb think that sectarian violence and civil war drug out in Iraq simply because Iraqis weren't trying hard enough. (What else is there to believe, really, when you read the assertion that ISF recruiting numbers are causally related to vague assertions by opposition politicians and obscure think-tankers that the U.S. would not remain forever?)

Here's the thing, though: the U.S. was never going to "remain forever." You know how I know this? A SOFA mandating the removal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by July 2009 and from the entire country by the end of 2011 was NEGOTIATED AND SIGNED DURING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION. That's right: the "Obama plan" is basically the Bush plan, with the addition of a couple of mid-course deadlines for the "removal of combat forces," an almost entirely meaningless milestone. Bergmann's claims that "there was no conservative withdrawal plan" seems a bit silly in light of this fact.

The WonkRoom post also takes a few shots at CNAS, suggesting that the perceived success of CAP's competitor in the so-called "think tank wars" was more attributable to good PR than substantive policy differences. "The CNAS approach was essentially an effort to find a centrist withdrawal strategy," Bergmann writes, so they concluded that redeployment should happen on a slower timeline, and with a more substantial residual force for advise and assist and counterterrorism missions. Uh, doesn't this sound a lot like what happened in 2008 and 2009?

And so here's the almost literally unbelievable conclusion:
There is little doubt that the Obama plan to set a date certain and to withdraw more than 120,000 troops in 16 months was essentially what CAP had been arguing for since the fall of 2005. In other words, Obama went with the progressive plan on Iraq. . . The reason there are just over 40,000 troops [in Iraq] is not because of the surge, it is because Obama decided to withdraw more than 100,000 troops.
When you look closely, Bergmann's argument should really go something more like this: U.S. strategy in Iraq in 2011 is basically exactly like what CAP advocated in 2005... except that the country executed a combination of the CNAS approach and the AEI approach in the meantime in order to make "CAP's progressive plan for ending [the] Iraq war" even remotely plausible.

If you didn't understand my post the other day about how partisan national security politics is destroying my will to live, hopefully now it makes a little more sense. "Think tank experts" shamelessly shilling for one side or another and engaging in embarrassing self-gratification over their imagined success in impacting policy just intensify my disaffection.


  1. Maybe CAP decided they needed a new tagline for fundraising? I can almost imagine in my internal monologue faux Sally Fields voice "He likes us! The President really likes (and listens) to US (and not those CNAS dorks)!


  2. "In short, it's patently absurd to suggest that a massive troop withdrawal in 2006 would have gone as smoothly and produced similar results to the one currently taking place without the change in the security situation that took place in the intervening four years."

    Cool, you have a "rerun history" button that allows you to test alternative pathways. You'll soon be a millionaire.

    As a practical matter, the argument that that surge worked is purely post hoc ergo propter hoc. The surge did not work as surge proponents argued it would. They later on constructed an argument about how the surge had good second-order consequences -- the Awakening, etc., though even there the timing does not work out. The numbers do not lie. The surge did not increase security as promised -- indeed, civilian deaths were just as high in 2007 as in 2006 and 2005. But what happened was that by mid/late 2007 the Sunni has been largely cleansed/routed, allowing Shi'a groups to step down or get folded into official security forces.

    Now, as a practically matter, an earlier withdrawal might have resulted in a quicker and more decisive defeat for the "insurgency" at the hands of Shia militias or it might not. I don't think that is what CAP meant by encouraging the Iraqis to "step up," but the main dynamic in reducing the violence in Iraq was that the civil war ended in a decisive defeat for what we've dubbed the "insurgency." As a practical matter, it isn't clear to me that a withdrawal rather than surge in 2006 would have made much -- if any -- difference.

    I agree that this stuff form CAP is spinning, but it is no further from the truth than is surge triumphantalism. I am not sure this represents partisanship as much as it represents an ever present human tendency to only seek out confirming evidence so as to maintain cognitive consistency.

  3. Dude, check it out:

    ...without the change in the security situation that took place in the intervening four years.

    That does not read "...without the Surge."

  4. Aside from hilarious overstatements of their influence on policy (reminds me of Dick Clarke's book wherein he single-handedly battled Al-Qa'eda for 10 years up to 9/11) what do you think of the basic gist of their essay - that firm withdrawal timetables have a positive effect on the local actors?

  5. what do you think of the basic gist of their essay - that firm withdrawal timetables have a positive effect on the local actors?

    I sort of addressed that in comments on the Korb/Katulis quote: I think the idea that you convince host nation security forces or political leaders to act by threatening the end of your own engagement, especially in instances when it's clear to them that you have a particular interest in one course of action, is more than a little shaky.

    Can pressure tactics like a timeline sometimes have a positive effect on HN commitment/behavior? Sure. Can it sometimes be totally counterproductive? Certainly. It's dumb to take "setting deadlines is key to effectiveness!" as a lesson from all of this, especially when it's far from clear that talk about a possible, maybe, potential, proposed, conditional deadline that might happen some time in the future or at least some people think it's a good idea really had a determinative effect on the security situation in Iraq, or even the actions of the ISF/GOI.

  6. ISF recruitment wasn't a problem in 2003-2006. ISF funding the number of ISF being trained at any given time was the problem. The ISF couldn't train all the recruits who wanted to join them.

    What do the Center for American Progress think lead to increased ISF capacity?