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May 15, 2004

Masterstroke: "We'll leave if you ask us to"

Don't Panic. -- Cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

One always hopes that the guys in charge know something, have some great big-picture plan, that you are just currently not privy to. That everything will turn around tomorrow. But then you get an e-mail like this, from one of the clearest thinkers you know, and, man, don't it sound like what's going down: " I promised myself that I would not agitate until October, but I am very worried that GWB is in deep trouble, and deservedly. The announcements today by Bremmer and Powell that we would leave Iraq if asked to do so by a non-democratically-elected cabal of UN-iks chosen by a doctrinaire anti-Semite are among the most profoundly stupid statements of government policy I can remember in my lifetime. ... That we would turn over to it an enterprise for which over 750 American servicemen have given their lives is shocking enough; that we are now saying we would leave at their request before the job is done is a betrayal I cannot even wrap my brain around. I'm sorry to rail, but what are we thinking about here?"

-- a post by KJK on NRO

What the hell is going on with my conservative brethren? Some pictures of abuse from Abu Ghraib and suddenly everyone's hitting the panic-button with the mechanical repetitive fury of a monkey pulling the lever that delivers fifty mikes of adrenaline straight into its genitals.

Calm. The hell. Down.


In South Korea and Germany, left-leaning politicians and voters railed for dozens of years about the American bases in their countries. Now, were we to really abandon those bases, it would cause great hardship. Economic shocks to the local economy; diminished security for the whole nation.

But the politicians and public were free to rail for us to get out, because it was a cost-free posture to assume. They got all the political benefits of demanding the hated Americans leave; but they never paid the actual price for our leaving, because, of course, we never actually left. And they knew we never would leave, ever.

They were free to engage in irresponsible politics because they knew that they had no actual control over the situation. They were not responsible for the outcome they claimed to want. They did not take ownership of the problem.

Ownership. Now there's a word beloved by conservatives. If people are just allowed to live at subsidized rents in public housing, they treat the buildings shabbily, because they have no ownership over those buildings.

They feel no responsibility for the buildings. And they're not crazy or corrupt to feel no responsibility for the buildings: The reality is they don't have responsiblity for the buildings. They don't have to worry about the upkeep; it's not their problem.

Not their problem. They don't own the problem. They have no responsiblity over it. Hence, they act irresponsibly.

That is conservative doctrine. That is core conservative doctrine. Hell, that may be the core conservative doctrine, the one idea from which most others flow.

Back to South Korea and Germany, who, when last we saw them, were acting very irresponsibly and childish, demanding our troops leave their nations.

Donald Rumsfeld, bless 'im, finally had enough and he called their bluffs. "Okay," he announced one fine day, "We're leaving. Just as you asked us to."

We don't know what's going on in South Korea, but we know Germany is very upset that we're leaving. Suddenly those uncouth, ill-bred, uncultured American soldiers are quite a bit more appreciated than they were before.

"Brilliant!" shouted conservatives all over America.

"Genius!" we all cried. "If that's what they really want, let them have it. Let them have it, so that they either suddenly appreciate the consequences of their actions, and therefore beg us to stay, while treating us with some proper respect and gratitude; or else we bugger out of an ungrateful nation which claims to no longer want or need us. It's win-win!"

Irresponsible politics. People railing about a hated, intrusive foreign power having the gall to spend billions of dollars protecting those very same ingrates.

People who think they don't have the power to actually obtain what they actually claim to want, and so can just carp and complain and rail and rant, because they are never forced into the tough position of actually having to decide their own fates, and then live with the consequences of those decisions.

Sound familiar?

In Iraq, politicians and everyday citizens are currently free to engage in cost-free irresponsible politics. They can rant about the Americans in their country, because they know -- or they think they know -- that the Americans will not actually leave. It's the best of both worlds: complain and carp endlessly about the American presence, but continue enjoying all the myriad benefits of that presence.

What if we called their bluff?

What if we said, as we said to South Korea and Germany, "Very well. If you really don't want us here, we shall go. Posthaste. Chop-chop. You seem to think we get some sort of sexual kick from spending billions of our our dollars, and hundreds of our boys' lives, on your welfare; let us disabuse you of this bizarre notion. We are here because we imagined we were welcome here. We imagined you wanted our protection, and we imagined you were grateful for it. But if we were wrong, then fine. We will leave. We just hope you've... thought this thing through completely."

There are several results which would flow from such an announcement.

First, the Iraqis would understand that their words and demands have consequences, and that they really ought to be quite careful about choosing them. They would be forced to transition from the irresponsible politics of powerlessness -- ranting, raving, always blaming one's troubles on some outside force -- to the more responsible politics of actual power.

Second, it would convince them that we really are quite serious about handing their country back to them, and so they needn't be so conspiratorially-minded and cynical about that. They could stop endlessly agitating for us to leave, because they'd be reassured that on the day they really want us to leave, we will.

Third, it would focus their mind on realistic decisionmaking. They can blame everything on America right now, because they don't feel ownership over the policies America executes. It's someone else's problem; like John Kerry, they can just sit back and carp about whatever we do, without offering a real alternative plan for action.

Right now Iraqis seem to want us to both provide good security while simultaneously not fighting the terrorists destroying that security. Were they to take ownership of the problem, and to understand that they are responsible for proposing a plan of action, they might begin to realize they can't have both at once, and must, yes, actually choose or at least prioritize. Whichever way they choose, they can't keep blaming America for the choice.

Ultimately, the Iraqis will argue amongst themselves and decide whether they want us to stay or to go. If they want us to stay -- which is very likely -- they can no longer blame America for its presence in their country. They would have asked us to stay, and they would be responsible for that decision.

And if they want us to go -- well, this is less likely, but if the majority of Iraqis really do desire us to leave, and tell us so, then we leave.

Remember, we always said we would, at some point, yield to the wishes of the majority of Iraqis. It is their country, after all, and we have always promised that at some point they would have full sovereign control over it. We made that promise; we made it repeatedly and strenuously, and there is no going back on it now, even if some conservatives seem to be beginning to think we shouldn't have made it in the first place.

From the start of this whole war, we knew that someday we would have to leave Iraq. We knew that as soon as we left, the Iraqis would be in control. And there was always a danger there. The danger always has been that, as soon as we left, they would suddenly decide to do something we didn't like at all. They might decide to become an Iranian-style theocracy, for example.

But that danger has always existed, and always will exist. It is unavoidable. It cannot be finessed. You can either supervise your employees closely and make sure they never make mistakes, or you can grant them greater authority and allow them to operate independently. If you do the latter, you always run the risk that they will make mistakes that you wouldn't have let them make had you been over their shoulders, or that their judgments will simply turn out different than the ones you might have made.

We can't both yield full sovereignty to Iraq and yet retain the power of veto over their decisions. It's one or the other. And we promised them the first one.

At some point, we are leaving Iraq to make its own mistakes. We always planned this. At some point, whether it was one year post-war, or two, or five, or ten: We always knew that leaving would entail a leap of faith. We would have to trust them to get their own country running decently, and we would have to hope that it would not turn out to be a hostile, terrorist-loving state worse than the one that existed under Saddam.

And there was never any way to avoid this leap. There were never any guarantees. We only had the faith that a people, even an Arab people with little experience with self government, would, if given a choice between murder and peace, choose peace; between prosperity and backwardness, would choose prosperity; between freedom and tyranny, would choose freedom.

The moment of that leap of faith is coming, perhaps sooner than many of us expected. But it was a moment we anticipated for a long, long time.

And yet suddenly a lot of conservatives seem to want to stay in Iraq indefinitely, to put off that moment for as long as possible.

It's a liberal thing to want to stay in Iraq for as long as possible, protecting them from their own mistakes, making sure they never commit a single error by refusing to allow them the capacity to make any decisions whatsoever.

It's a conservative thing to trust people to their own devices, and to trust that ownership will beget responsibility, and that responsibility will beget sound choices. At least most of the time, and for most of the big things.

Are they ready to make their own decisions?

We don't know. But we suspect we aren't actually increasing their capacity to make responsible decisions by denying them decision-making responsibility in the first place. That's just extending the current political infantilization of the Iraqis for additional months or even years.

Somewhere along the line the conservative cause in Iraq has been tainted by mission creep. Our original goal was to give them their nation, with Iraqis running the works, to insure their own security and their own futures.

Lately it seems that people are arguing that if we do not eliminate any and all possible future threats to the stability of Iraq, and guarantee, forever, its peace and prosperity, we're shirking our responsibilities, and "cutting and running."

When did we ever agree on that as a goal?

We guaranteed them only an opportunity, not a outcome. We're giving them that opportunity; we should not, and cannot, attempt to insure a specific outcome against the wishes of the Iraqis as a whole.

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posted by Ace at 04:39 AM

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