Mother Jones: Do you think we can take it for granted that at some point U.S. troops will be drawn down significantly?
Barry Posen: I don’t think it was ever that certain that they were going to do it. I think a lot of people were trying to build up momentum, but the problem always hinged on keeping the Democrats together in the Congress and getting a small group of Republicans to be willing to tell the President that they would switch sides. The president would just know it was coming and go ahead and pick a different road, but it was always a faint hope.
MJ: What do you make of these reports that have been floating around indicating, politics aside, that the military may not be able to sustain the surge level numbers past next spring?
BP: I think the reports are true, but some people inside the military have been trying to send this message for quite some time now and that message didn’t prevent the surge. There is a lot of optimism that somehow the chief of staff and the chairman of the Army and the joint chiefs are going to say, “We can’t sustain 20 brigades without dismantling the other exigency and therefore you have to go down.” But Petraeus is going to say for now that 20 is what’s giving him all the success that he says he’s having and if you back off then the success will go backwards and all these lives will have been in vain, using the tyranny of sunk costs yet again.
MJ: If you don’t see the political will to make a strong case in favor of adjusting policy, is there another tactic that could affect the process?
BP: Look, I don’t think there is anything that is going to get these people to stop. They are going to talk about the need to stay in Iraq forever. And they are going to leave the bulk of the region in the Gulf and the domestic political cost of whatever the fallout of this engagement is, whether it’s large or small, they are going to leave it to the Democrats. This is their present. They are leaving the democrats this present.
This is what I smell: I smell a very slow disengagement from this war.
MJ: If I recall correctly, in the piece you wrote for the Boston Review last year you discussed an 18-month timeline in terms of getting forces out and setting up security and diplomatic arrangements with neighboring countries. Do you still think 18 months is about right, or do you think withdrawal should happen sooner?
BP: You have got to remember that in the case of Iraq, there aren’t really enough facts. And there are things that I was hoping to do in that article that I no longer really believe in. I talk about the fact that we need 18 months to give Iraqi security one last chance and to really work hard to get them in shape. It’s been 18 months since I wrote the article, 18 or 20 months. We have been trying to train the Iraqi security forces the whole time. My sense is progress is imperceptibly slow.
I guess at this point if you scratched me and really gave me access to all the data, I would probably say 12 months. Okay, we are down to 12 months. Conceivably, I would look at it and say it’s still 18 months. But anything more than 18 months and you might as well be saying 20 years. At some point you have to put a timeline on it.
MJ: What’s your take on the issue of forces remaining in Iraq not just for months or years, but for decades, as a sort of geo-strategic thing?
BP: It’s very hard to tell. The Pentagon has poured an awful lot of concrete in Iraq. They have built a lot of nice facilities. It doesn’t have the air of impermanence. The U.S. military likes having bases that they control, particularly in places where they think there may be a fight. Democrats and Republicans alike are essentially telegraphing the possibility of a fight with Iran.
If you take seriously this notion that whatever happens in Iraq there are still going to be Al Qaeda types wandering around and we have to be able to operate in the interior of Iraq with speed and effectiveness, we would want to stay there for that. You can imagine other lingering concerns that people have that might make them want land bases. Yeah, I think it is possible. That’s what happens when you get down to the low tens of thousands. You know, how about getting down to zero? That’s when you are going to have, “I don’t know. It’s working with low tens of thousands, so let’s just keep the low tens of thousands.”