Paul Pillar

Iraq and the Benefits of Inattention

Max Boot has offered an op ed that does a good job of reminding us what a ghastly misadventure the U.S. military expedition in Iraq—which will be eight years old next month—has been while demonstrating the sort of thinking that leads to such misadventures. Boot enumerates the up-front costs to date: more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed, more than 32,000 wounded, and nearly $800 billion in direct monetary expenditures. There is the still dangerous security situation: for example, more than 250 Iraqis dying from terrorist attack in January, up from 151 in December. And there is the still unresolved political situation, with the different sectarian and ethnic groups at each other's throats and having failed to agree on a distribution of power in a new Iraqi political order. So why is Boot, who supported the war, reminding us of all this? Because he laments that Iraq, having been pushed off the front pages by other issues and problems, is suffering from inattention that “could undo the progress that so many have struggled so hard to attain.” More specifically, he is disturbed that President Obama seems resolved to fulfill both his own promises and the terms of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement negotiated by the previous administration and to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. Boot exhibits the old fallacious tendency to treat sunk costs as if they were not sunk and instead were some kind of investment. “It would be a tragedy,” he says, “if, after years of struggle and sacrifice, we were to lose Iraq now.” The costs and sacrifices the United States has suffered in Iraq cannot, of course, be undone, no matter what happens henceforth in Iraq.

Like others who have pleaded to stay the course, even after eight years and even after the U.S. and Iraqi governments have settled on a departure date, Boot can't seem to decide whether he wants to portray the overall situation in Iraq as bad (suggesting that the situation will fall apart if U.S. troops leave) or as a country doing “relatively well,” as he puts it at one point (suggesting that U.S. troops will continue to do some good if they stay). Boot tries to resolve the contradiction by saying “we are so close to a successful outcome,” without giving any inkling of how close is close and how much longer he would favor the U.S. involvement in the war to continue, and without giving any reason to believe that fundamental problems such as the inter-communal political impasse are any more likely to be resolved in the coming few months or years than they have been in the past eight years. This is another old fallacious outlook, that of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Boot argues for the effectiveness of a prolonged U.S. military presence with some remarkable historical casuistry. “If there is any lesson in American military history,” he writes, “it is that the longer U.S. troops stay in a post-conflict area, the greater the odds of a successful transition to democracy.” He cites as successful examples Germany, Japan, and South Korea. This continues the same neocon disregard for historical dissimilarities that underlay the hopelessly optimistic prewar visions of how smoothly Iraqi democracy would fall into place. The comparison ignores how greatly different were the historical experiences of Germany and Japan, including experiences with representative institutions, from those of Iraq, as well as ignoring the enormous role played by those first two countries having just been vanquished in foreign wars of their own making. The comparison also disregards that the extended U.S. troop presence in Germany and Japan after restoration of sovereignty was mainly about deterring a foreign military threat, not riding heard on an emerging democracy, and that the U.S. presence in South Korea was from the very beginning about deterring an external threat. Boot mentions as examples of U.S. forces leaving “prematurely” the post-Civil War South (as if a prolonged federal military occupation would have remade the attitudes of Dixie) and post-World War I Germany (as if a prolonged military occupation there would have reduced, rather than exacerbated, the revanchism that helped to lead to World War II). Elsewhere in his piece Boot observes that in Iraq “violence is down more than 90% even as the number of U.S. troops has fallen to 50,000 from 170,000,” which hardly sounds like support for his thesis about keeping troops longer being more likely to aid democracy.

I agree with Boot that the kind of inattention that these days involves Iraq is regrettable. It is another example of the tendency of the public and the press to overshift attention to whatever is the latest prime topic, at the expense of sustained coverage of many other important things that are still going on. But if, in this instance, the inattention has the beneficial side effect of undercutting any move to revoke or revise the troop withdrawal agreement, then it is not all bad.