Korea is not such a bad Model for Iraq…


I thought the Wednesday speech was quite good. Obama reached out to the right by repeatedly speaking of the armed forces’ sacrifice. Simultaneously, he made it clear what his priorities are – Afghanistan and domestic nation-building. At this late date, it is hard to argue with the wisdom of getting out of Iraq. It was such a misadventure, that it is probably best to get it over as soon as possible and move on.

On the other hand, I worry that the progress made at such expense might dissipate if the withdrawal is too hasty. The logic of sunk costs says that we should not ignore what progress there has been in Iraq, no matter how awful the decision-making up to this point. Future decisions need to be based on future projected costs, and I wonder if the costs in Iraq can’t be much lower than they were. I wonder if the end of next year is too rapid. This is why I liked Paul Wolfowitz’ op-ed last week arguing Korea as a model for Iraq. The American commitment to Korea paid off in the (very) long-rung, and lots of folks at the beginning thought it was a waste. Maybe this can be the case in Iraq. If the costs of an American stabilizing commitment in Iraq can be kept down and the footprint light, it might, just might, help create a positive pay-off for this wild ride…

Walt of course immediately went after him, and Walt is right to be skeptical of almost anything Wolfowitz says at this point – it’s as much CYA for the history books as commitment to Iraq for many neocons at this point. But I do think Wolfowitz was intellectually convinced of the benefit of the war, from the beginning. He wasn’t one of those Beck-Palin-types who is simply supported it because of raw, America-right-or-wrong patriotism and now can’t back out.

Korea is intriguing example for Wolfowitz to use because it does seem to have worked so well, which you will note that Walt does not question. Korea was a mess for the first decade of the US commitment and only slowly pulled itself together. Yet it undeniably did, and now it is clearly a boon to the US in a tough region. Simultaneously, the US commitment there has slowly decreased in cost, and as Korea got wealthier, it had been able to carry more of the cost. The problem was that this took 4 decades!

The Korean parallel holds for a little bit of Iraq. It is in an important region where the US lacks a good local ‘spoke.’ And the risks of Iraq backsliding are obvious, and it seems like the Iraqis are now worrying that the finally-occurring US withdrawal increases the likelihood of slippage. Iraq does have development potential, given its oil reserves and educated middle class.

But the risks are so high, that maybe Walt is right. It is a good question when a superpower should just give up. Bacevich bitingly says Iraq is just hopeless for the US, and there must be a time when we recognize the defeat is cheaper than victory. In Korea, it took decades for the return to show-up on the 1950-53 investment. That seems so far away, and the possibility that was unique and irreplicable in Iraq seems so high, that maybe Obama and Biden are right and we should just get out as soon as we can. I just don’t know…

2 thoughts on “Korea is not such a bad Model for Iraq…

    • Yeah. I am leaning that way too. My only point is that the lesson of Korean, Japanese, and German post-war reconstruction is that a VERY LONG US commitment is required. But these models also suggest that the payoff may come eventually and may be very big. In Iraq, this is also possible. And here is the great error of the Bush administration. The US public was not prepared at all for the level of commitment necessary. Iraq 2 was marketed as a rerun of the Iraq 1 blitzkrieg. If the public thought at all about the post-war situation, the assumption was we would leave really fast. And then we got stuck.


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