Saturday :: Nov 10, 2007

"Combat" Troops and Troops Outside Iraq: Can We Stop Doing Foreign Policy by Sound Bite?

by eriposte

Both Matthew Yglesias and Chris Bowers at Open Left have some nice words for Sen. Edwards based on this article:

Edwards has been criticizing Clinton for her plan to continue combat missions against al-Qaida in Iraq. His campaign says that would be a continuation of what it calls the "U.S. occupation" that he will end if elected president.

Edwards says that doesn't mean he'll stop fighting against terrorists in Iraq. The difference, he told The Boston Globe in an article published Thursday, is that his counterterrorism missions would be based in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East and conduct quick "expeditions" into Iraq.

Clinton's campaign says either way, sending troops to fight would be a combat mission in Iraq.(…)

Edwards' campaign said whether the combat troops are in the country or not is an important distinction. Troops on bases in Iraq would become targets for insurgents, symbolize continuing U.S. occupation, inevitably get drawn into other missions and prevent Iraqis from moving toward sovereignty, the campaign said.(…)

Advisers to Barack Obama, another Democratic presidential candidate, said he would also have quick reaction forces to fight terrorism in Iraq, but he hasn't determined whether they would be based inside or outside the country. Obama has said outside might be preferable, but it's a decision he would make with military commanders.

First, let me comment on Chris' observation:

I also appreciate that Edwards is starting to take a higher profile role attacking on these grounds, and I think he is correct to assert that there is a big difference as to where the troops are based. Personally, I think it is a bad idea to continue to conduct these missions in Iraq at all, since they serve as a key terrorist recruiting tool. It doesn't seem to me that it will be fighting terrorism at all--it seems as though it might end up fueling it. Of course, it will fuel it less to be based outside the country than to be based inside. And it is kind of irritating that Obama remains so enigmatic on this subject.

I agree with Sen. Clinton that sending troops to fight within Iraq represents a combat mission and just because troops are stationed outside Iraq doesn't mean they are not combat troops. I also agree with Sen. Edwards that it makes a world of difference whether American troops are stationed inside or outside Iraq - we really should not be stationing troops within Iraq. However, just because American troops are outside Iraq does not mean that, in his approach, they wouldn't be entering Iraqi territory frequently. We also have to deal with the optics and practicalities of the troops of a foreign country (especially the U.S.) repeatedly entering another sovereign nation inside the Middle East to act like supercops. So, rather than simply feel content with what appears to be a reasonable position when looked at superficially, let's go beyond the sound bite and discuss the implications of Sen. Edwards' position.

  • If the extent of terrorism in Iraq "post-US-withdrawal" is low, then there may not be a need for U.S. troops inside or outside Iraq to combat terrorists in Iraq.
  • If the extent of terrorism in Iraq "post-US-withdrawal" is high, we have to decide whether we want to use U.S. forces for anti-terrorism missions within Iraq. Personally, like Chris, I question the premise that we should continue fighting terrorists within Iraq "post-US-withdrawal" because I don't think terrorism within Iraq will ever end in our lifetime if Iraq stays in its current state - and we can't possibly justify a U.S. presence in Iraq through the rest of our lifetimes given the very negative consequences of that presence. However, if a President Edwards does decide to fight terrorism in Iraq because the level of terrorism is high, it makes no difference on a practical basis whether the troops are inside or outside Iraq. If the level of terrorism is high, the troops will de facto be inside Iraq most of the time. It makes no sense for troops to fly in for a day, fly out the next day, fly back in the day after to fight the next attack, fly back out and so on. Not to mention, you generally can't complete an anti-terrorism mission in a day or a few days - and if there are multiple terrorist attacks a month, there will be a lot of work involved locally in tracking down and acting against the perpetrators - thereby leaving American troops within Iraq de facto most of the time.

So, if we dig a little deeper into Sen. Edwards' proposal, a President Edwards who faces significant terrorist activity within Iraq, will have to probably do one of two things:

(a) Either dramatically limit or eliminate the use of U.S. forces for anti-terrorism activity within Iraq because of the cost and optics (and futility?) of flying U.S. forces into and outside Iraq on a frequent basis - acting like supercops

(b) Or accept a scenario where U.S. forces would de facto be inside Iraq a lot of the time - which makes the whole discussion of where they are nominally stationed a largely academic one

When you look at these scenarios, I guess I am disppointed that Chris is irritated that Sen. Obama is being "enigmatic" on this subject. I don't think there is anything enigmatic about Sen. Obama's stance. Sen. Obama probably understands that when you start looking at the actual optics and logistics of committing to combating terrorism inside Iraq using U.S. troops stationed outside Iraq, it's not easy to just say what progressives may want to hear. In fact, I would question whether Sen. Edwards has thought through his position here, not Sen. Obama. For Sen. Edwards' position to be workable - namely, combating terrorism inside Iraq with U.S. troops nominally stationed outside Iraq - it would require, among other things, the level of terrorism in Iraq "post-US-withdrawal" to be at the low end of the spectrum. Yet, he's saying that regardless of the level (or nature) of terrorism in Iraq he would combat it using forces stationed outside Iraq. Maybe this is well-intentioned, but it is unlikely to be workable in practice.

Matthew Yglesias says:

This is starting to get some traction in the campaign as John Edwards lays out a strategy I agree with and points to the fact that Clinton's policies will keep us stuck in an occupation dymaic. The Obama campaign hasn't been clear on several of the points of contention which frustrates Chris Bowers (and me) but it's worth saying that my reporting indicates this is likely more the result of genuine indecision than calculated ambiguity -- Obama is hearing arguments from both sides and isn't sure who he agrees with.

I get the sense that Matthew's reference to "calculated ambiguity" is a dig at Sen. Clinton. Maybe I'm wrong, but I find it strange that he is willing to acknowledge that someone (i.e., Sen. Obama) could genuinely be undecided on this given the pros and cons and yet not give others (Sen. Clinton?) the benefit of the doubt that they could also be facing similar dilemmas. Does this mean, if Sen. Clinton does it, it is "triangulation" or "calculation" but if Sen. Obama does it, it's "genuine indecision"? I sure hope that's not what Matthew is saying. More importantly, Matthew commends Sen. Edwards even though Sen. Edwards' position, in my view, is not exactly well thought out.

Let me use this example to make a point here. We have a complete disaster in Iraq and another disaster in Afghanistan because the last 7 years have been about foreign policy by sound bite. I am a bit alarmed that we are tacitly or actively encouraging leading Democrats to make foreign policy by sound bite just so that we can hear them say the things we want to hear. This is dangerous because this may win elections but not result in progressive foreign policy when the rubber starts to hit the road (the 2006 elections and their aftermath are a good example of this). We should be looking for Democrats who can not only say the right things but show how what they say can and will be translated into the right actions when they are in power.

eriposte :: 10:09 AM :: Comments (14) :: Digg It!