The world of marginal benefits
Max Boot, writing in Commentary, looks at several ways forward in Iraq and concludes that all the get-out-quick scenarios are likely to lead to worse outcomes than one which seeks to build security after which a gradual drawdown can take place. Ross Douthat at the the Atlantic disagrees. Boot says:
The more security that our “surge” forces create and consolidate today, the greater the probability that a transition will work tomorrow. If we start withdrawing troops regardless of the consequences, we will not only put our remaining soldiers at greater risk but, as things inevitably turn nastier, imperil public support for any level of commitment, whether at 160,000 or 60,000.
Notwithstanding some positive preliminary results, the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment. But, for all its faults and weaknesses, the surge is the least bad option we have. Its opponents, by contrast, have been loudly trying to beat something with nothing. If they do not like President Bush’s chosen strategy, the onus is on them to propose a credible alternative that could avert what would in all probability be the most serious military defeat in our history. So far, they have come up empty.
Douthat argues that this is nonsense. It's time to change and the fact that no one has come up with a better plan is no reason to stay with a bad one.
This is not satisfactory. Those of us on the fence about the surge are well aware of the potential consequences of withdrawal, but we are also aware that at some point, unwinnable wars must be given up as lost. As bad as admitting defeat would be, it's preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.
I'm not entirely sure I follow Douthat's argument. The best way to argue for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be to demonstrate that it would probably lead to a better outcome than persisting with the Surge. But Douthat's argument appears to assert that even if withdrawal were demonstrably worse than remaining a it should be attempted anyway, because "it's preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake." That's a non sequitur. Even if the OIF were a mistake that is no argument for embarking upon a greater mistake. The only valid way to proceed is to adopt an improved solution, not just any solution. If X Americans were dying in a Surge strategy but 2x Americans would die and regional stability suffer from a rapid withdrawal, why would it logical to rapidly withdraw? Certainly not to gratify a desire for an acknowledgment. That would be tantamount to losing your pants for the sake of saving your face.
This does not mean, of course, that arguing for a rapid withdrawal is somehow crazy or off the table. On the contrary. If it were demonstrably superior to the Surge then its case would be made. Douthat tries to get around making the case by suggesting that now is the time to take chances since we are in a quagmire. "If we're risking further American casualties on a high-risk military strategy in the hopes of averting defeat, we need to be prepared to consider high-risk political options as well." But this avoids rather than confronts a comparison on the merits of the case. I think Boot is right in saying that if the Surge is the best available alternative then it should be pursued. Otherwise a better alternative should be advanced and it will sell itself.
The necessity to evaluate alternatives by their incremental costs and benefits is highlighted by MoveOn.Org's decision to punish Democratic Congressman Brian Baird for concluding, after a recent visit to Iraq, that the Surge was making some progress. MoveOn simply sidesteped the whole question of comparative consequences and goes straight to their talking point. Brian Baird, who voted against OIF, had inescusably flip-flopped and would be chastised. The problem is not with what MoveOn wants to believe. It is why they want to believe it that leaves something to be desired.
The liberal, anti-war group MoveOn.org will go up with an ad by the end of this week in Democratic Rep. Brian Baird’s district in Washington state, accusing him of a “flip-flop” on the Iraq war.
“MoveOn.org Political Action Committee is sponsoring the ad to call attention to the congressman’s decision to go against the views of his constituents, and his previous voting record, to support President Bush’s failed policy in Iraq,” the group said in an e-mailed statement.
“Congressman Baird’s new position, in favor of keeping our troops in an unnwinnable civil war in Iraq, is out of line with the majority of his district and the nation,” Nita Chaudhary of MoveOn said in the statement. “So far this has been one of the bloodiest summers in Iraq and voters don’t want to continue down a failed path. They want representatives who will stand up to President Bush’s reckless policy and bring our troops home.”
MoveOn's argument would be much more powerful if it simply established that the Surge was failing. But it neatly sidesteps that requirement and goes straight to a political argument. "MoveOn.org Political Action Committee is sponsoring the ad to call attention to the congressman’s decision to go against the views of his constituents, and his previous voting record, to support President Bush’s failed policy in Iraq." It's enough to say the war in Iraq has "failed". It does not seem necessary to consider whether it is no longer failing or whether a rapid withdrawal would lead to a greater failure. Those are apparently deemed unimportant or irrelevant considerations. But far from being peripheral, the question of incremental cost/benefit is actually central. If a rapid withdrawal from Iraq were actually the best course of action, then its advocates should unhesitatingly tout the virtues of withdrawal rather than begging the argument.
The structural advantage Surge advocates have over those who favor a rapid withdrawal is that OIF is a going operation, capable of measuring itself in some respects. This, plus the fact that most Surge advocates, including Max Boot, favor a an eventual withdrawal -- in fact treating Iraq like a large counterinsurgency oil-spot in a region where it is important not to withdraw until stability is established -- makes it hard for advocates of rapid withdrawal to make an empirical refutation. I think the honest champions of rapid withdrawal should concede that belief in a quick retreat rests on a gamble which they believe will produce far better results than any continuation of the Surge or macro application of the Oil Spot. The case for retreat really rests on the intuition that disengagement, containment and multilateral diplomacy is the better way to deal with the Middle Eastern and Islamic terrorism; that while there is no way to calculate the validity of this intuition, the betting public can be persuaded to take the chance. And there's no alternative but to confessing the consequences of withdrawal are unknown because there is no way to measure the fallout from a rapid withdrawal, both in terms of US security or regional stability without carrying it out. An advocate for withdrawal should explain that it's a potentially expensive gamble and then argue that the payoffs are high enough to risk it. The argument for a quick retreat is necessarily based largely on the belief in the superiority of intuition rather than a cold comparison of known alternatives. Going forward with the Surge is a low risk strategy in the short term with unknown long-term consequences. Retreating quickly is a high risk strategy in the short term with equally unknown long-term consequences. If I were a salesman for retreat I would admit as much and ask the electorate to "trust" the intuition without making any further pretense at empiricism. But that would be asking for too much candor from politicians. And that, much more than troops and weaponry, may be in the shortest supply.