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Leaving Iraq

Pointing out that Iraq is at present not very democratic, that Freedom House presently ranks it as unfree or that Transparency International ranked Iraq as the fourth most corrupt country in the world – these things could easily be turned on their head as a reason to stay in the country for an even longer stretch until we’ve brought it up to our standard. ~Greg Scoblete

Ideally, we would all agree on settling for an extremely watered-down definition of success, use this as a pretext for leaving the country fairly quickly, and write off the entire thing as a disaster that should never be repeated. Ideally, we would ignore the resulting cacophony of voices braying about the “betrayal” of the Iraqis and the “abandonment” of people who do not want us in their country. As Greg likes to remind us, however, we do not live in an ideal world, and a few people are already making the argument for keeping sizeable numbers of soldiers in Iraq beyond the negotiated SOFA withdrawal date next year.

Ricks makes a more straightforward argument for stability, which necessitates a prolonged U.S. presence, and Beinart holds out the prospect of remaining longer to keep Iraqi democracy from imploding. One could say that these are very realistic, sober-minded assessments of the situation. They do not partake of any of the triumphalist silliness we have been seeing recently. Unfortunately, they are effectively aiding the triumphalists who treat Iraq’s democracy as the sole rationale for a U.S. presence in Iraq. For his part, Greg thinks that Ricks’ argument will prevail. It will prevail “not because it’s terribly persuasive on the merits, but because it operates within the conventional wisdom about how the U.S. should interface in the Middle East.”

Perversely, the loudest voices declaring victory make it that much harder politically for the administration to abide by the agreement already reached with Iraq’s government. If there is nothing else to show for all of the cost of the war, Iraq’s democracy, such as it is, becomes that much more important as a symbol, and it becomes that much harder to leave to its own fate. If it deeply corrupt, fractious, dysfunctional and shot through with sectarian abuses of power, it will not be worth saving, but it will become all the more politically imperative that we try to keep it from fully collapsing into the sectarian majoritarian tyranny that it is already becoming or the military authoritarian state that it may yet become.

Therefore, all of us who want the U.S. out of Iraq need to emphasize that the Iraqi government is not just “democracy with Iraqi characteristics,” but that it is an abusive, illiberal, corrupt government that is not going to be substantially improved with time. Given the state’s gigantic role in the Iraqi economy and its role as the chief employer, Iraq’s politics will be dominated by divvying up public sector jobs to members of the ruling coalition parties and excluding the members of opposition parties. That will make the incentive for vote-rigging and fraud even greater, and the use of party militias for political violence cannot be far behind. Iraq’s enormous dependence on energy for what revenues it does have will have much the same effect that the “resource curse” has on other developing nations, which will be to enrich the state, crowd out private enterprise and investment and reinforce the public’s dependence on government largesse. This dependence will already be considerable on account of mass unemployment. Whether or not Iraqis go through the process of choosing the people who will preside over all this, the structural political and economic problems Iraq has are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Remaining longer will simply reinforce the dysfunctional habits that are already practiced in Iraqi politics. Departing on schedule might hasten the end of Iraq’s democratic government and usher in a new authoritarian government, but for all of the reasons we havediscussed this would not be much of a change and it would not be much a loss. The most frustrating part of all this is that this was equally true five years ago, which was when we should have withdrawn when conditions were far more favorable.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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