Iraq: 'We now smell bad to the Iraqi nose'

Flowers are displayed on top of an Iraqi flag in Baghdad June 30 during a celebration of US troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities (Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty)

Flowers are displayed on top of an Iraqi flag in Baghdad June 30 during a celebration of US troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities (Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty)

From Michael Gordon at the NYT comes a leaked memo from a senior military official saying we should “declare victory and go home.”

For all of these problems, however, Colonel [Timothy] Reese argues that Iraqi forces are competent enough to hold off Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias and other internal threats to the Iraqi government. Extending the American military presence in Iraq beyond 2010, he argues, will do little to improve the Iraqis’ military performance while fueling a growing resentment.

“As the old saying goes, ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,’ ” Colonel Reese wrote. “Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose.”

The memo gets at one of the major tensions within the U.S. military over Iraq: the desire to leave versus the fear of leaving. It’s not a new tension. We sort of have been trying to leave the country since the day we set foot there in March 2003. As early as April 2003, U.S. military officials were talking about bringing the troops home by the end of the year. Former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld had, in fact, been advocating a declaration of victory/get the hell out strategy. George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech indicated that the president, too, would have preferred that.

The entire American strategy–if one is kind enough to call it that–up until early 2007 had been one of giving the Iraqis control so we could exit. (A strategy of “transition,” it was called, or, as “the Iraqis stand up, we stand down.”) The strategy changed after Petraeus took charge. With the flair of Zeno’s Paradox, Petraeus argued thusly: in order to leave, we have to stay.

And so we have stayed.

Now that paradox is boggling our minds again, in light of our move outside of urban areas, and the planned complete withdrawal in 2011. But, as I’ve noted here, nobody really knows what a complete withdrawal is going to look like. And Colonel Reese suggests that it ain’t going to get much better in Iraq than it is now, so why not hit the road while the country is at least somewhat stable. Because, on the otherside of the coin, the longer we stay, the greater the risk of violence flaring up again under our watch. Which could force us to stay even longer.


About michaelhastings

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2 Responses to Iraq: 'We now smell bad to the Iraqi nose'

  1. Michael Peck says:

    I know I’m always making analogies between Iraq and Vietnam, but the similarities are scary. We made a peace deal with Hanoi in 1973 that gave us political cover, even though we knew they’d break it and attack the South – which they did two years later.

    Not the same situation as Iraq, of course, but there’s still the tension between “do we get out now and lose face?” or “do we stay longer even though we know it’s futile?” You know the ground situation in Iraq better than I do, Michael, but my sense is that the Iraqi government will be no stronger two years from now or ten. So we might just as well swallow our pride, accept the humiliation and cries of “treason” from the neo-cons, and accelerate the withdrawal. It’s depressing to remember that the majority of U.S. casualties in Vietnam came after 1969, when Nixon was determined not to withdraw until we had achieved “peace with honor”.

  2. Michael Hastings says:

    Michael, I think Vietnam is the most fitting historical analogy, for many reasons. You can’t escape it. I swear you could go through chunks of Neil Sheehan’s Bright and Shining Lie, and switch out the words “Saigon” for “Baghdad” and the book would still make complete sense. I
    ve said this before as well, but it’s not that Iraq and Vietnam are alike as countries–they are totally different. What’s similar is the way American civilian and military officials think about Iraq. It’s how they used to think about Vietnam. It’s the American offialdom mode of thought that connects the two wars.

    I’m unsure of how things are in Iraq on the ground right now, or how strong the government is going to be. (I’m schedule to go back over the next few months to see for myself.) My sense is that the GOI will be able to stay afloat without all of us there, but I think/wonder a) violence will continue, perhaps at a low level for years b) is the GoI going to be a government that serves U.S. interests when we don’t have the supposed leverage of 130,00 troops. As the memo points out, the upper echelons of military seems to have convinced themselves that we’ve already won.

    I’m interested in this question of “saving face.” It would seems that at this stage of the game, most of the international community thinks we have lost a lot of face in Iraq. Our allies(and enemies) aren’t going to give us much credit, I don’t think, for leaving behind a semi-stable country. So I guess I ask: who are we really saving our face from? Are we just saving face in our own minds? To protect our wounded national ego? In other words, what hard to quantify face saving benefits do we get by sticking around?

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