Iraq: What’s Next

May 25th, 2007

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The United States needs to get out of the war in Iraq. We should have never, never been in it in the first place. This war was a stupid idea, not just a badly executed idea.

That is my position. It is – and always has been – the position of Third Way. Well, actually Third Way did not exist when we got into this war. But I certainly know it was my position, and that of all four founders of this group. One of them, Matt Bennett, moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to work for Wes Clark’s campaign because he thought Clark was the best anti-war candidate. So let there be no doubt that Third Way’s team has opposed this war from the very beginning.

I’m a realist with ideals and a background in Middle Eastern Studies – I hope that the people of the Middle East will have an opportunity to benefit from open economies and representative governments, the sooner the better. If you read the Arab Human Development Report, you will see that’s what the people of the region want for themselves.

But I do not believe that invading other nations to force them into democracies can possibly work, and I really don’t believe it can work in the Middle East. And I really, really don’t believe it can be done with an all-volunteer military force of a democratic republic.

With all due respect to Bob Kerrey, his opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal was totally off the mark. This nation does not have an honorable history of imposing democracy on other nations by military force; we have an honorable history of defeating our enemies by using military force (with the exception of the war the former Senator fought in). The creation of representative democracy was NOT OUR GOAL when we went to war with Germany or Japan. The goal was to protect our own democracy.

That should be our goal today, too – and Third Way just put out a study by Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University that says just that. Security First: A Strategy for Defending America, offers comprehensive post-Iraq recovery plan for the next President of the United States.

Security First charts the damage of the Iraq war and calls for a return to protecting American security first – rather than chasing fanciful illusions, as Bush has done. In the Galston-Kamarck formulation, that is not a call for cold-eyed realism; it is a call for a policy that protects our interests today and in the long-term. That means a concentric approach to defense:

  • In the first circle, we need to deal first with the most urgent threat to the American people, radical political Islam and the terrorists who act in its name.
  • The second circle is the gravest threat – the threat of nuclear weapons, and in particular, the possibility that a terrorist will obtain nuclear weapons.
  • The third circle is energy security – not typically seen as a security challenge, but if we do not deal with our dependence on foreign oil, we will be fundamentally vulnerable.
  • And the fourth circle is the global commons, or what Galston and Kamarck call “a global decency agenda.” Making sure that more of the world benefits from globalization – from the availability of medicine and clean water, for example, to the combined ability of the international community to stop genocide – is the right thing to do, but it is also essential to our own long-term security.

The report then offers ten policy ideas for achieving a security-first strategy – some are conceptual and some are structural. All provide a menu of possibility for improving American security in the post-Iraq, post-Bush era.

Of course, we’re not yet in the post-Iraq era, except in the sense that the invasion and occupation has changed the strategic landscape America lives in. So, the burning question is: how do we get to the post-Iraq era?

And this is where I think much of the criticism that many in the netroots have aimed at some progressive political leaders and, yes, at Third Way, really comes from. As Senator Jim Webb puts it, we got into this war recklessly – we must move forward responsibly. The situation in Iraq is moving fast, and I wouldn’t agree with my own proposals a year ago – they wouldn’t make sense today. But the baseline stays the same: progressives have to be principled but also responsible.

So yes, we need to end the war—but we need a strategy that does that in a way that protects America’s interests. To quote Galston and Kamarck: “At the very least, the United States urgently needs a Plan B—a strategy for dealing with the possibility of large refugee flows, an increase in terrorism, the radicalization of neighboring populations, the rise of communal violence, massive economic dislocations, the threat of intervention by several of Iraq’s neighbors and the possibility of oil supply disruptions or price spikes. This strategy must include plans to provide safe haven for the many thousands of Iraqis who have risked their lives to cooperate with us. Leaving our Iraqi friends behind would compound military and political failure with moral failure. Yet despite all that is at stake, President Bush has publicly declared he has no contingency plan at all.”

The debate over the supplemental was an important one, and the looming showdown over next year’s appropriations will be even more vital. The pressure should continue. But the absolutely crucial next step is a contingency plan – one that, to the extent humanly possible, protects the interests of the United States and the millions of innocent Iraqis as we disengage from the battle there.

Senators Salazar and Casey just signed on as co-sponsors to a bipartisan bill that calls for the findings of the Iraq Study Group to be made a matter of US law. That is an important step toward a viable contingency plan, and one we hope more senators will sign on to in the coming days and weeks.