A back-seat in Baghdad?

Since just after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, the estimable Daniel Pipes has been advocating that we maintain a military presence in Iraq, but withdraw our troops to the desert. That way, they are available for “essential tasks” like “protecting borders, keeping the oil and gas flowing, [and] ensuring that no Saddam-like monstrosity takes power,” yet are more or less out of harm’s way.
I’m glad that the Bush adminstration didn’t take Pipes’ advice. Much has been accomplished by virtue of its more ambitious vision. Iraq has a held several elections, adopted a constitution, and elected a government. Large parts of the country are basically safe and secure. We have killed thousands of terrorists and trained more than two hundred thousand Iraqi security force members.
Nor do I believe that we should take Pipes’ advice now. In my view, our troops should remain actively engaged in training Iraqi forces and killing terrorists. However, Pipes makes a valid point when he argues that much of the violence in Iraq today is an Iraqi problem. We not only have a dog in the fight against al Qaeda terrorists and their ilk, we are a dog in that fight. But we have no dog in the struggle between the Shia and the Sunnis. We nonetheless have made a determined and commendable effort to limit that strife, but we do not appear to be having much success, and this may be something that just has to play itself out. As Pipes puts it:

The now-constant violence verging on civil war is a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one, an Iraqi problem, not a coalition one.

President Bush began his recent interview with Michael Barone and seven other sympathetic journalists (see Scott’s post above) by looking ahead to what the Middle East will be like in 25 years. He argued that it will be in better shape because of what we are doing now, and I think he’s probably right. But it will be a bumpy ride, not steady, straight-line progress, and the U.S. cannot be in the car for every bump. We shouldn’t get out of the car in Iraq, but perhaps we should consider taking the back-seat when it comes to protecting Sunnis and Shia from one another.

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