Paul Pillar

Take the Off-Ramp

The idea of prolonging the agony of the U.S. military misadventure in Iraq beyond the end of 2011—when it will have gone on for eight years and nine months and is supposed to end according to an agreement duly reached between the U.S. and Iraqi governments—keeps getting pushed, in some official as well as unofficial circles. The latest push came from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he appeared the other day at the American Enterprise Institute for what he called his “last major policy speech in Washington.” In response to a question, Gates expressed the hope that Iraqi political leaders would “figure out a way to ask” the United States to keep troops in Iraq past the previously agreed deadline. (One can understand the reasons for a charade in which the U.S. defense secretary hopes that the other government will “ask” us to do something he wants to do, but it is still a charade. No matter how much any such request is stimulated by agitation from the halls of AEI, if U.S. forces do stay in Iraq beyond this year be prepared to be told repeatedly that they are there because Iraq “asked” for them.)

Gates could not express a lot of confidence that Iraq will make such a request because, as he correctly observed, “we're not very popular there.” But regardless of what Iraqi hearts and minds are saying, Gates sees functions that U.S. forces could perform that the Iraqis have trouble performing. He said nothing about how long he would envision U.S. forces performing those functions. There wasn't even an attempt at a “light at the end of the tunnel” argument. For all we know, it would be another eight and three-quarters years.

Although Iraq would be doing the “asking,” Gates sounded more interested in perspectives outside Iraq and in sending “a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving.” He said, “I think it would be reassuring to the Gulf states.” Reassuring in what way, exactly? That U.S. forces would still be helping to bolster an increasingly authoritarian Shia-dominated regime? Once upon a time U.S. support for the security of the Gulf states was perceived more in over-the-horizon terms. Now we are directly in the Gulf in a big way in Qatar and Bahrain. The advantage that boots remaining on Iraqi ground would add to this mix is hard to see. 

Gates also said, “I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing.” If what the defense secretary has in mind is developments solely inside Iraq, then the prospect of U.S. forces remaining indefinitely where they are not popular and where they sustain the radical narrative—in which the Iranian regime has indulged as much as anyone—about the United States occupying Muslim lands shouldn't discomfit Iran much at all. If what he has in mind is a threat to use military force against Iran, then this has the kind of untoward effect such saber rattling often does, which in this case means strengthening the political position of Iranian hard-liners who feed upon a perceived threat from the United States and strengthening as well the Iranian motivation to develop nuclear weapons.

Probably what is most in play here is reflected in Gates's comment that “we’ve made a big investment already, a huge investment, in treasure and in lives” in Iraq. Especially for those who thought the war was a good idea, it is disconcerting to accept any move that may suggest that the war is not worth prosecuting, now as much as eight years ago. It is also disconcerting to accept a move that might reduce any chance, however slim, of future events in Iraq leading history to judge the war a win. Even beyond such thoughts in the minds of the war's supporters, there is a much-repeated pattern of entire populations at war treating past losses as an investment that must be stuck to in a dead-shall-not-have-died-in-vain way. This is a matter of collective psychology and reduction of national dissonance, not sober pursuit of national interests.

In fact, all that “investment” consists of sunk costs. Nothing that happens in Iraq from this day forward will bring back to life the more than 4400 U.S. service members who have died there, or make whole the many thousands more who are permanently disabled either physically or emotionally, or repay the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States has spent on the war. The proper policy perspective is to weigh whatever incremental benefit is to be gained against the additional costs—human, material, and political—from staying in Iraq.

Yet another dynamic that also has been seen in other wars is the difficulty of finding an appropriate off-ramp from a road that, however costly it has been to travel it, has no clear end. With the Iraq War, the U.S.-Iraqi agreement on military forces provides an uncommonly excellent off-ramp. Negotiated under the previous U.S. administration—the one that launched the war—it is bilateral and bipartisan. As such, it is less likely to become the basis of future recrimination than withdrawals carried out without such cover. One of the much-quoted bits of wisdom attributed to Yogi Berra is, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” An appropriate refinement of that apothegm that is applicable to this war is “When you come to an off-ramp, take it.”