Like many people, I've been wrestling with the question of what to do about the troops in Iraq. Should they stay how and where they are now? Should we increase the number? Just leave?
There is no satisfactory answer at this point, mainly because our objectives themselves were faulty and fleeting. As Atrios aptly if crassly put it, there's no way to "unshit this bed." I could go on forever about WMDs and how the objective changed to "bringing democracy to the Middle East" and how the president would never have won approval from Congress or the people with the democratizing objective and the misinformation etc. etc. etc. That diatribe, however, provides little insight into what path we should walk now.
We should start with a couple of questions.
1. What exactly constitutes "victory"?
2. What are the reasons for staying?
3. What is the effect of the presence of troops in Iraq?
1. Victory, in its latest articulation, appears to be the creation of a stable Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq. I would argue that such a "victory" is not only impossible, but it never was possible to begin with. One of the little geography lessons we learned after the overthrow of Saddam (but that we should have guessed before) is that Iraq is composed of 3 major groups, all of whom insist on sovereignty and all of whom insist that everyone else's preferred type of government is wrong, not only politically or ideologically but religiously. It took a heavy-handed dictator to keep the country from tearing itself apart.
The one thing they do all seem to agree on, however, is that they don't want a secular Jeffersonian democracy.
2. Why stay, then? Arguably, to protect and train the Iraqi security forces; to keep the country from civil war; to keep from "emboldening the terrorists" by our withdrawal; to salvage something that, in some watered-down sense, we can call a "victory" so that the troops will not have died in vain. The first begs the question: how is keeping our troops there gonna help that, when 3 years down the road, they have nothing to show for their efforts? The civil war question is also, I think, misinformed: there will almost certainly be a civil war in Iraq, and the longer we stay, the closer we come to get sucked up into it. Besides, what do you call it when a group's violent attacks on the government are supported by half of the people? We call it an insurgency, but is it really that far away from civil war? For the next one, the terrorists are emboldened not by our withdrawal but by our presence there. Also, just having the goal of not "emboldening the terrorists" implies that we're gonna stay there into the foreseeable future, which is unacceptable. The final rationale, for some diluted "victory," is unpersuasive. Is such a victory going to be worth the casualties occurring from now until the realization of that victory? The answer must almost certainly be no.
3. It appears that the troops are not containing insurgents as much as they are generating and training insurgents. Surveys have shown that more than 8 in 10 Iraqis want US forces the hell out, and some 45% believe that attacks on coalition forces are justified. People are angered by our presence, and then are recruited by terrorist groups.
Furthermore, the presence of troops in Iraq has not just made Iraq a terrorist haven, but a terrorist training ground. They get practice bombing and observing and planning against our troops in Iraq, and then they can take their new skills abroad.
It seems, then, that keeping/increasing the troops there is a bad idea. The American people have already figured that out, too: according to the latest poll, 63% of Americans want the troops out within 12 months. There are other arguments for bringing the troops home. For one, our Armed Forces are overextended at this point, and the Iraq War is causing people to stop enlisting. By bringing troops home, our National Guard will be better prepared to assist in natural disasters etc, while our military will be able to redirect its forces to hunting Al Qaeda and putting the pressure on potential enemies, like North Korea. Also, we save money at a time of enormous deficit spending. Finally, it may convince the Iraqis that their country is theirs to lose, and when it's all on them, they might step up and take care of their own matters.
Yet this option is reviled in Washington, and politicians and pundits are lambasting it as the "cut and run" strategy. The reason for this is that Republicans don't want to admit that Bush was wrong and Democrats are terrified of being labelled as "soft" or "weak." This applies especially to those with presidential hopes; notice how so many of them (Hilary, Biden, McCain) advocate increasing the troops, despite the lack of approval within their own party?
Perhaps they're all convinced that the Bush "strong and wrong" approach was vindicated in the last election.