There was a high powered panel this morning at APSA on strategic withdrawal from Iraq. It included James Wirtz of the Naval War College, John Mearsheimer, Juan Cole, and Stephen Biddle, and unlike many high powered panels actual resulted in some good discussion.
Biddle summarized his recent congressional testimony about partial withdrawal, noting explicitly that the only intellectually defensible options regarding Iraq lie at the extremes. Escalation has a low chance of success (Biddle pegs it at 10%), but complete withdrawal is preferable to virtually any scheme for leaving sixty to eighty thousand American troops in Iraq. Such a force will be unable to cap violence, unable to close the borders, unable to target Al Qaeda, and suffer a very precarious logistical situation.
Cole agreed that violence will increase in the wake of a US withdrawal, pointing out the three most important conflicts that we’re likely to see. Shiite groups will continue to fight and probably escalate around Basra, while Sunni-Shiite conflict around Baghdad and Kurdish-Sunni/Turkomen conflict over Kirkuk will increase. On the first, Cole held out some hope of compromise, and he believed that the Kurds would very likely win the last, although the means of that victory might risk Turkish intervention. The Baghdad conflict is the most serious, and Cole suggested it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the Shia would win.
John Mearsheimer was very direct and deeply pessimistic. Ten years ago, I doubt I would have believed that Mearsheimer’s critique of US foreign policy would essentially mirror a standard leftist perspective. There are differences, of course, but on Iraq Mearsheimer is making an argument that would fit very comfortably into the netroots. Mearsheimer argued that Iraq has been and will continue to be a disaster, but that because of domestic politics and institutional dynamics we’ll still be there in five years and beyond. The stab-in-the-back narrative that’s being prepared by the Republican Party will succeed in scaring a Democratic president and Democratic congress from taking any decisive steps to end the war. At the same time, the senior theater leadership in the armed forces are committed to not losing, due to their perception of the institutional disaster that resulted from the Vietnam War.
All told, it was a grim panel.