If the dominant themes that have been used to justify the Iraq war recently were sincerely held, the administration and the neocons should be doing backflips of joy this week. Building an independent and sovereign Iraq, preferably with a government responsive to the people? Check. When the Iraqis stand up we will stand down? They’re standing up. You could even make an argument that the "surge" has helped to induce the kind of stability that should strengthen the political structures to the point that Iraq’s leaders feel more secure and self-confident, which should allow them to act on behalf of the whole country rather than for strictly sectarian goals.
Apparently, however, this isn’t quite the kind of Iraqi democracy the Bush administration had in mind. Last Monday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki let it be known that the Iraqi government would be reluctant to sign an agreement formalizing the status of U.S. troops in Iraq, unless it included a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. A new agreement is needed because the UN resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq is due to expire at the end of the year.
Speaking to Arab ambassadors at a meeting last Monday in the United Arab Emirates, Maliki said: "The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal." Making it clear that this was not just an off-the-cuff or unguarded comment, Maliki and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reiterated the position in more forceful terms later in the week.
Despite the fact that the Bush administration has consistently opposed the idea of a timetable for withdrawal when suggested by critics of the war, one might have thought that the administration would have been pleased by such a statement. It indicates that the Iraqi government is feeling strong enough and independent enough that it doesn’t believe it needs the crutch of U.S. troops much longer. That has been the ostensible goal of U.S. policy for a long time.
And truth to tell, the words with which White House spokesman Tony Fratto greeted this news were carefully measured. "The prime minister is reflecting a shared goal that we have," he said, "which is that as the Iraqi forces become a more self-reliant force, we’ll see reductions in U.S. forces." Not exactly dancing with joy, but the statement gives the impression of being modestly supportive, even though it carefully avoids addressing what Maliki actually said. It’s a bit like two ships passing in the night and each recognizing the other’s presence by blowing horns and flashing lights, but not engaging one another on a more detailed basis, as one might expect of close allies.
Then there was the cheerleader for staying 50 or 100 years to be fair, without violence and with only occasional outbursts of mutual resentment, as in Germany. His past statements should have suggested unbounded joy, but Mr. Straight Talk couldn’t seem to get it straight.
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004, Sen. John McCain said that if an elected Iraqi government asked us to leave, "I think it’s obvious that we would have to leave. I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people." When informed that Maliki had suggested a withdrawal should come sooner rather than later, however, McCain at first suggested the statement must have been mistranslated. Informed that the translation was accurate, McCain surrogates suggested that Maliki wasn’t really serious, that he had been forced by political exigencies Iraq has elections scheduled for October to, in effect, pander to public opinion.
But if the Iraqi prime minister feels pressured by public opinion or political expediency to talk about a timetable, it suggests that not only Iraqi public opinion, as measured by polls of the entire population, but nearly all factions in Iraq are eager to see an end to the U.S. occupation and a return to full Iraqi sovereignty. It is possible that some of the dire consequences predicted by advocates of a longer-term U.S. occupation civil strife, rejuvenation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, perhaps even a civil war could happen in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal. In effect, the Iraqis are telling us that they don’t think the consequences will be so dire, but in any event they are prepared to face them.
Then there was a prediction by Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who has been in charge of building Iraqi security forces, that Iraq’s army and police will be fully manned and operational by mid-2009. You would think that this should be a signal for the United States to begin preparing as soon as possible for an orderly withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
To be sure, Dubik’s relatively optimistic estimate was challenged at least in part by Philip Carter, who served in Iraq and now writes the "Intel Dump" blog for the Washington Post. Carter noted that Dubik spoke of the Iraqi army, but not "the local Iraqi police, the Iraqi national police, and all of the Iraqi government institutions responsible for supporting the security forces. Those are still in dreadful condition and it is these forces, and not the Iraqi army, who will patrol the streets of Iraq and keep its people secure."
I would go further and note that almost all the commentators stress the official, top-down kinds of institutions that use force or the threat of force to ensure a semblance of order. The implicit assumption is that government institutions with guns and training are the key to a good society. Almost nobody talks about the kinds of bottom-up kind of order that Westerners mean by the term "civil society." But it is precisely such institutions, which in Iraq would include tribal and clan ties, the links among merchants and suppliers and customers, the voluntary associations among people with shared interests, whether in archeology, chess, or abstractions such as freedom and human rights, that lead to genuinely stable societies that don’t require a whole lot of attention from the coercive institutions of government to operate reasonably peaceably and productively.
Of course it is difficult to see where these kinds of associations and institutions will come from in Iraq. Largely as a result of the U.S. invasion, around 25 percent of the population has left the country or is "displaced" within Iraq, away from the places they lived in before and would probably prefer to inhabit again. And this diaspora largely consists of the educated and relatively successful people who in a "normal" society would constitute a middle class, generally the bringers of stability and orderliness to a society. Some of those people may be coming back, but some probably never will, ending up contributing to and enriching the countries in which they are exiled (voluntarily or not), such as Jordan, Syria, and Finland maybe even the United States, if U.S. officials ever get around to streamlining procedures, which may not be possible, given our sclerotic and overextended imperial bureaucracy.
Some factors that have led skeptics of the surge to argue that the surge has played only a small role in the increasing (if fragile) stability and self-confidence on display in Iraq today could be taken as hopeful signs, however. As Fred Kaplan noted in Slate this week, and as I and others have noted repeatedly along the way, the surge was "combined with Petraeus’ strategy, Moqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire, the paying of many insurgents to stop shooting at us, and, most importantly, the alliance initiated by the Sunnis before the surge began." But the fact that all these factors arose relatively independently of what the U.S. was doing (though it must be admitted that Petraeus has been reasonably skillful at exploiting them) suggests that there are forces and trends in Iraq militating in the direction of stability. Few people enjoy living in conditions of chaos and unpredictable violence, and it may be the case that this kind of war-weariness, more than fundamental resolutions of conflicts within a society (which seldom come about through violence, anyway), leads to periods of relative peace and calmness in any country that has been beset by war or insurgency. If these signs of readiness for an end to war and violence are bubbling up naturally among Iraqis, it could bode well for their ability to move forward without the kind of civil war or renewed sectarian violence that many fear if the United States leaves.
I would argue that the best way to facilitate indigenous Iraqi desires for a relatively stable society in which the preferences of the people are at least taken into account a Jeffersonian democracy imbued with respect for individual rights might develop over time, but it seems unrealistic to expect it overnight in a country that is still a neophyte in the ways of democratic government with limited and predictably applied powers is for the United States to begin withdrawing troops immediately. Whether further withdrawal proceeds on a timetable or is calibrated to conditions on the ground seems less important than beginning the process of turning Iraq over to the Iraqis, who are expressing a strong desire to regain genuine sovereignty.
An orderly withdrawal would not happen overnight; considering the amount of U.S. equipment in Iraq, that would be logistically impossible. It might take as long as the 16 months presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama predicts it will take if he is elected. But it should begin quickly. Tomorrow would not be too soon.