The Troop Withdraw Debate

The post I wrote earlier today regarding Howard Dean’s accurate pre-war warnings about Iraq was followed by an interesting debate in the comments section about whether we ought to withdraw our troops immediately. Some argued that there is something corrupt about Howard Dean’s position because, having opposed the war in the first place, he is opposed to immediate withdraw now. The argument was made that anyone who opposed invading Iraq in the first place must now favor immediate troop withdraw. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple and the moral issues aren’t nearly that clear.

Regardless of whether one favored the invasion, the reality is that we invaded that country, removed its government, and smashed the (corrupt and murderous) regime which ruled the country with an iron fist, maintaining relative social stability. There is chaos in Iraq because we created the chaos. It is incredibly irresponsible to just casually demand that, having done all of that, we simply leave because we changed our mind about the war and just don’t want to stay any more.

We have an ethical responsibility to do what we can -- if there is anything -- to help Iraq regain some semblance of stability and peace. We have no right to simply leave the country engulfed by a civil war and drowning in anarchy because we grew tired of our little project or changed our minds about its morality. If we are achieving any good at all with our military occupation – or if we can achieve any good – we have the obligation to do so. The sovereign elected government of that country does not want us to leave because they fear that our troop withdraw will severely worsen the instability and increase the violence in their country...read on

The troop withdraw debate

The post I wrote earlier today regarding Howard Dean’s accurate pre-war warnings about Iraq was followed by an interesting debate in the comments section about whether we ought to withdraw our troops immediately. Some argued that there is something corrupt about Howard Dean’s position because, having opposed the war in the first place, he is opposed to immediate withdraw now. The argument was made that anyone who opposed invading Iraq in the first place must now favor immediate troop withdraw. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple and the moral issues aren’t nearly that clear.


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Regardless of whether one favored the invasion, the reality is that we invaded that country, removed its government, and smashed the (corrupt and murderous) regime which ruled the country with an iron fist, maintaining relative social stability. There is chaos in Iraq because we created the chaos. It is incredibly irresponsible to just casually demand that, having done all of that, we simply leave because we changed our mind about the war and just don’t want to stay any more.

We have an ethical responsibility to do what we can -- if there is anything -- to help Iraq regain some semblance of stability and peace. We have no right to simply leave the country engulfed by a civil war and drowning in anarchy because we grew tired of our little project or changed our minds about its morality. If we are achieving any good at all with our military occupation – or if we can achieve any good – we have the obligation to do so. The sovereign elected government of that country does not want us to leave because they fear that our troop withdraw will severely worsen the instability and increase the violence in their country.

Being opposed to the war before it began does not necessarily mean that one must be in favor of withdraw now. Even if it would have been preferable not to have invaded, the reality is that we have invaded. So the question now becomes - how do we best rectify the disaster we have created? If our withdrawing would worsen the security situation in Iraq, then demanding that we withdraw anyway is a form of easy moralizing which cannot actually be morally justified.

Nonetheless, if our military presence is not helping the situation, then withdraw becomes the optimal course -- but that, ultimately, is a utilitarian calculus, not a moral one. Robert Farley at Lawyer, Guns & Money describes the pragmatic assessment that has to be made:

Any argument that the US must remain in Iraq in order to stave off disintegration must be accompanied by an account of how the US presence, with a finite extension, will actual resolve the problem. If we're just delaying the inevitable, then there's not much point in staying.

That said, such an account can be plausibly given. Military and civil institutions take time to develop, and they could conceivably be stronger a year from now than they are now. Some sort of accord might develop over time between Iraq's various factions with the US operating as a broker. On it's face, the case for continued US commitment is not absurd.

Farley goes on to argue – and I agree – that the burden should be on those who want our military to remain there to demonstrate how exactly our continued military presence would improve the situation in Iraq. Clearly, the elected Shiite government believes that our military presence is helpful to the maintenance of security, which is why they want us to stay.

The point, though, is that it's neither persuasive nor rational to argue: "I opposed the war, the war was immoral, therefore we should pull out now." In fact, one can plausibly argue that this rationale is morally irresponsible because it abdicates the responsibility we have to clean up the mess we made.

There is a good case to be made for troop withdraw. But it can’t be persuasively made by easy anti-war sloganeering. Such a case can only be made by arguing that our ongoing military presence will not help to salvage a country which we have shattered. In my view, a persuasive case for troop withdraw looks like this, from Matt Yglesias:

Twelve months ago the reason US troops couldn't leave Iraq was that Iraqi institutions didn't work and if we left the country would slide toward civil war. Six months ago the reason US troops couldn't leave Iraq was that Iraqi institutions didn't work and if we left the country would slide toward civil war. Today the reason US troops couldn't leave Iraq was that Iraqi institutions didn't work and if we left the country would slide toward civil war. Is this going to be different six months from now? A year from now? Consider me skeptical.

There is a compelling argument to make that we should withdraw our troops. But that argument can only be based on the premise that our troops -- contrary to the views of the elected Iraqi government -- are doing more harm than good, not that the invasion was unjustified in the first place.
--posted by Glenn Greenwald

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