Thomas Ricks and Andrew Sullivan have gone back-and-forth over the issue of retaining additional troops inside Iraq to keep the peace following the 2011 withdrawal date established by the Status of Forces Agreement. Ricks believes such forces are essential to maintain stability in the country and asks: "What could be more imperialistic than invading a country pre-emptively on false premises and then leaving many years later in a selfish, callous and clumsy manner?"
Sullivan counters: "Staying forever, while your own country goes bankrupt."
I ultimately believe that Ricks' argument is going to win the day, not because it's terribly persuasive on the merits, but because it operates within the conventional wisdom about how the U.S. should interface in the Middle East. As I wrote during the campaign:
To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may. The only way to convincingly argue on behalf of ending the war is to mount an argument in favor of fundamentally redefining America's interests in the region. Short of that, any proposal for withdrawal will be hostage to the persistent specter of regional instability.
And so it goes.
The trouble with Ricks' argument, and the course Washington appears to be on, is that it is predicated on best-case scenarios. It is, fundamentally, a gamble that nothing major will go wrong inside Iraq that 50,000 U.S. troops cannot contain. If we bet wrong, there is absolutely no rationale for not sending in even more American troops. A commitment of 50,000 troops is essentially a commitment of 150,000, to be stationed in the country indefinitely.
This argument is also predicated on what I view to be a fairly hubristic reading of Washington's capacity to micro-manage events inside Iraq to our liking. As I've said before, if we had such skills, why did we not employ them in the years 2003-2007? That the surge succeed in quelling violence is no guarantee that Washington can hit the next curve ball Iraq throws at us.