Moving on from Iraq too soon

Moving on from Iraq too soon

I attended the same academic conference that fellow bloggers Dan Drezner  and Steve Walt mentioned in their blogs. As I tell my students, several thousand International Relations professors in the same hotel for several days is not as much fun as it sounds, but with hundreds of panels on every conceivable topic, it can be exceptionally stimulating.

My biggest takeaway this year was the extraordinarily low profile given to Iraq, at least current-day Iraq. There were many panels and papers dealing with the invasion of Iraq, almost as many dealing with the mistakes made in the conduct of the war, a small handful of papers dealing with the tough calls that turned out better than expected (eg., the surge), but very few indeed dealing with the current situation and none that I saw with concrete, practical guidance on what to do going forward. Ironically, in this respect the academy was simply following the foreign policy pundit world, which has likewise let Iraq drop from the agenda. To be sure, Tom Ricks faithfully flags adverse developments in his "Iraq: the Unraveling" series but the only time the war emerged recently as a matter of much discussion among the commentariat  was when Vice President Biden awkwardly tried to claim Iraq as one of the great foreign policy successes of the Obama Administration.

Most commentators zinged Biden for claiming credit for the surge policy he and President Obama tried to thwart as senators back in 2007, but what struck me about Biden’s boasting was how premature it was — almost as if he were claiming "mission accomplished" while there was plenty of hard work still to do. However, as Jackson Diehl argues, Biden may be the only political leader in Washington who is paying much attention to the Iraq situation.

Senior figures in the Defense Department and U.S. military leaders on the ground in Iraq have signaled that they are watching closely to determine whether conditions on the ground will permit sticking with the withdrawal timetable negotiated by President Bush in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. Apparently, they still estimate that conditions will allow a responsible withdrawal, but the mere fact that they are signaling concern should be, well, concerning for our political leaders. 

The desire of the political community to put Iraq in the rear-view mirror is understandable, but misguided. The national security challenges that are receiving front-burner attention — especially Afghanistan and Iran — are integrally linked to the policy trajectory in Iraq. Since the fateful surge decision, the Iraq policy trajectory has been far more positive than anyone, academics or practitioners, thought likely. But the progress remains reversible and if Iraq unravels, then all of the other national security problems will get that much more difficult to address. 

The theme of the academic conference was bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. In taking the collective eye off the ball on Iraq, it seems academics and practitioners may be unfortunately all-too-much in synch.