Biden v. McCain On Iraq

Sen. Joe Biden has a response to John McCain on Iraq in The Washington Post. Biden is actually thinking about what it takes to win in Iraq, but the problem is that his preferred solution still won’t work any better than the current one. Any plan that includes an arbitrary withdrawal of US forces will fail — even if the rest of the plan is quite reasonable and valid.

The reality is that no political settlement will work in Iraq until the violence calms down. As long as each side can use force rather than political negotiation to get their demands, it’s futile to discuss how much federalism is appropriate for Iraq. The reality is that Iraq has vast swathes of territory that are ethnically mixed and outside forces have every interest in seeing that ethnic conflict keeps Iraq unstable.

It’s not that Biden’s wrong about making Iraq a federal system — in fact, his plan is by far more reasonable than hoping that the weak and corrupt central government will be able to hold everything together. Biden is quite right that a system that distributes power in the most decentralized way fashionable is better for a developing nation that an excess of centralization. Even if it’s temporary, Iraq would be better under something like the Articles of Confederation than an American-style Constitution.

Even so, Biden can’t get to that point any more than the President can get to his approach because Iraq cannot progress with this level of violence. Unfortunately, that means that we have to do our best to get some kind of monopoly of force in the hands of the government. The prosperous and peaceful Kurdish north prove this can be done — the problem is that Iran, Syria, and al-Qaeda all have designs on ensuring that the rest of Iraq remains a mire of sectarian conflict. So long as these outside forces keep stoking the fires in Iraq, things aren’t going to get appreciably better.

The “surge” is working, but its long-term efficacy will be measures by whether or not the gains made now last into the future. Previously, that has not been the case. We cannot tolerate failure in Iraq, but we’re rapidly running into the point where the only way to fix the problem is to take much more radical action than we ever have. We failed to take control of the situation when we had numerous opportunities to have done so, and now things are much more difficult for us than they needed to be.

What we need is a medium-range plan for stabilizing Iraq and continuing the advances made during the surge. If that means stationining Kurdish peshmerga across Baghdad, so be it. If that means using more “shock and awe” tactics to clear out hostile neighborhoods, that needs to be on the table. The reality of this situation, brutal as it is, is that the only way that things are going to get better for the people of Iraq is if things get much worse for their enemies. The opportunity costs for suicide bombings and other atrocities are still far too low.

General Petraeus wrote the book on counterinsurgency, and he’s the best man for the job he has right now — even though it’s a thankless one. It’s too early to call the surge either a failure or a success at this point, but no matter what the correct answer to what to do in Iraq cannot be “try and run away from the problem.” Recent history has made it clear that such an answer can have unforeseen and deadly consequences.