Monday, June 2, 2008

Iraq War - What Now?

After more than five years of a highly expensive war, with political party conventions meeting in the next several months, and a presidential election coming up in November, it's definitely time to have a vocal public debate about what we should be doing in Iraq going forward. This is so even though public opinion polls indicate that most American voters are more concerned with economic issues than with the war. What now?

I published two postings on the Iraq War last September primarily expressing strong concerns with the cost in national treasure and mounting casualties, the fact that the U. S. was bearing far too high a burden, compared especially to other countries in the region who also had a strong strategic interest in the outcome. I also expressed the view that we needed to move to a better balance between investing in foreign affairs and investing in, and meeting serious needs, domestically. I mentioned particularly the needs for public infrastructure, healthcare, and mending Social Security and Medicare.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, has indicated he will essentially continue President Bush's policies, pursue "victory," and bring most of our 155,000 troops there now home by January 2013, the end of his first term if he wins the election. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama,
has said he wants to end the war much sooner and bring most of our troops home by the end of December 2009, near the end of his first year in office, if he wins the election.

Supporters of each candidate to a large extent think their candidate's views are obviously entirely correct and that the views of the opponent in the election are obviously wrong. It's not that simple. There are positives (benefits) and negatives (risks) for both points of view. Selecting the goals and policies to be pursued and implemented on this subject should be a matter of pragmatically and objectively weighing the positives and negatives and choosing the goals and policies that are in the best interest of America and our citizens. It should not be a partisan Republican or Democratic issue.

I favor Senator Obama's approach, even though it entails some material material risks. One of these is that conditions on the ground in Iraq may not be stable enough for the Iraqi government and military and police forces to satisfactorily cope with insurgents and potential interference from Iran and other countries in the region. A related risk is that international terrorists led by Al Qaeda will use our troop withdrawals as a sign of U. S. weakness and defeat and as a tool to recruit more terrorists. There is also the highly emotional potential issue of American soldiers "having sacrificed and died in vain" if we withdraw troops before a clear "victory" has been achieved.

However, I'm not persuaded that these potential negatives and risks outweigh the benefits of Obama's approach, assuming that it's prudently implemented. First,
there are many reliable signs that there has been material progress in curbing violence over the past year, beating down Al Qaeda's activities in Iraq, and the ability of Iraqi forces to increasingly take over a larger share of combat requirements. Second, with an Obama victory in November, the Iraqi government would have a much stronger picture of what they need to do to further political progress and they will have at least an entire year to do what's needed. The same with the military and police forces. To support them, I would expect that, even with Senator Obama as President, we will still have a small force of military trainers and advisors available in Iraq and the region. Third, our costs of this war, and needs domestically, are too high to ignore.

As a reminder, the direct costs are reportedly running at a minimum of $12 billion each and every month or $144 billion each year, excluding the effect of inflation. Indirect costs, such as health care and disability payments for veterans, rebuilding our military hardware and support facilities, and interest on the national debt for monies borrowed, add many billions more each month. Then there are the immeasurable costs of our military casualties. We can't do anything to erase the fact that so far we've suffered 4,084 deaths and another 29,000 wounded. However, we can greatly limit additional casualties. It doesn't do the families involved any good to hear that the number of our casualties are relatively very low compared with previous wars. In addressing the costs for a war like this one, where Iraq is no threat at all to the U. S., it is not compelling for war supporters to claim that the costs we're incurring are small in relation to our national GDP.

Moving to end the war and planning bring at least most of our troops home by the end of 2009, as opposed to 2012, thereby limiting our costs and casualties, and clearly encouraging the Iraqis to do what's necessary for them on a reasonable timeframe to get prepared, is clearly the preferred option. The prospects for the success of implementing this option can be greatly enhanced by effective dialogue, coordination and requests for non-military support with our allies, other countries in the Middle East, and with influential major countries like Russia, China and India.

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