Sacrificing Choice in Iraq

I’ve been trying to put the weekend’s string of horrible terrorist attacks out of India, Turkey and Iraq into some sort of context, and Daniel Larison’s insightful post on the question of time-based vs. conditions-based withdrawal from Iraq is a good place to start:

Meanwhile, the horrific attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk offer a reminder why so-called “conditions-based” withdrawals are forever subject to revision and why timetables that can be revised by such contingencies are meaningless. Tying withdrawal to conditions in Iraq places U.S. policy at the mercy of the worst elements in Iraq, which gives these elements every incentive to persist in trying to sow discord and engage in spectacular acts of violence.

Of course, this is the classic problem posed by extremist violence, namely that a tiny minority of the population wields a disproportionate influence on government policy, an influence that in some cases amounts to an effective veto power over broader, popularly supported peace processes. The Israeli-Palestinian example is the most prominent one, but the same dynamic applies to India-Pakistan and Turkey’s Kurdish separatists.

The difference being that all of these countries and peoples are inescapably bound together by geography and history. They can not escape extremist violence and must combat its tendency, by drawing them further into the vicious cycle of conflict, to hijack the decision-making processes of the government it targets.

9/11 demonstrated that America can not remain immune to terrorist violence. But our response to it, most notably in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, has resulted in a tiny element of extremists exercising veto power over American foreign policy. And while there’s an increasingly triumphalist narrative coming out of Iraq, the fact remains that there are any number of flashpoints (all of them easily manipulable by extremist groups but also by states like Iran) that could theoretically be used to justify prolonging our military engagement.

The logic of a continued American military presence is that it can in some way create the conditions whereby these potential flashpoints either disappear or are overwhelmingly outweighed by a cohesive, functioning sovereign Iraqi state. Despite the improved security situation, I remain unconvinced. And as the consensus converges on a conditions-based as opposed to a time-based withdrawal, we are increasingly sacrificing the element of choice (of where, when and how to engage extremist violence) that should be our biggest advantage in that fight.

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