If President Bush decides to send more troops into Iraq, he will have the support of at least one (but probably only one) Democratic Senator. In a Washington Post op-ed, Joe Lieberman explains why he favors a troop “surge.” Lieberman argues that “as long as insurgents and death squads terrorize Baghdad, Iraq’s nascent democratic institutions cannot be expected to function, much less win the trust of the people.” He also makes the case for not withdrawing from Iraq, namely that doing so would be a victory for Iran, a prelude to “killing fields” for Iraqis who have supported us, and an invitation to al Qaeda and others to create safe havens from which to attack our interests.
Lieberman’s case against withdrawal is persuasive, but his case for a troop surge to prevent Sunni-Shia violence in Baghdad seems less so. The leading proponents of the surge, Jack Keene and Frederick Kagan, tell us that a surge lasting a few months would be futile and that to accomplish the mission we need something like 30,000 troops for 18 months. That’s a huge commitment that would result in many extra American deaths. But what is the basis for believing that an 18 month surge would produce lasting success where a four month surge would fail? Isn’t it more plausible to believe that Sunni and Shiite radicals, who have no particular place to go, can out-wait us regardless of the number of months we’re prepared to engage them?
Lieberman may well be correct when he says that Iraq’s nascent democratic institutions can’t be expected to function while death sqauds terrorize Baghdad. But he doesn’t show that our national security depends on the performance of Iraq’s current government. Death squads operate, and governments function poorly, all over the world. This becomes a national security concern only if the government has the desire and means to harm our interests, supports those who have the desire and means to do so, or fails to prevent its territory from being used to harm our interests. We can prevent these things from happening in Iraq, and prevent Iraq from spinning into a true civil war, without policing the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Iraq, of course, isn’t just any country. We have staked much on “succeeding” there, and we have defined “success” as creating and sustaining a well-functioning Iraqi government. But when we stipulated to that definition I don’t think we truly understood the ease with which sectarian forces could undermine the government. Accordingly, unless there is very good reason to believe that a sustainable troop surge can bring permanent security to Baghdad, it may be time to redefine what constitutes success.
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