The Iraq War after Twenty Years: There was a Neocon Theory of the War, but It was Packed with Tricky Assumptions and Demanded Excellent Execution. So yeah, Let’s Never Do that Again

Saddam was terrible but we had security': the Iraq war 20 years onI do think there was a theory for the war, but the neocons did not elaborate it well and it did not convince the public. Hence the emphasis on WMD instead. As Wolfowitz noted, a lot of people in the Bush 2 White House wanted to depose Saddam, and post-9/11 WMD was a rationale they could all agree on. But neocons like Krauthammer, Wolfowitz, Kristol, and the rest did have an intellectual framework for the war, even if it turned out all wrong.

Here are my thoughts on the tenth anniversary of the war (one, two, three). And here is a response from back then by my friend Tom Nichols.

I think these comments hold up pretty well ten years on – particularly my effort to sketch a neocon logic for the war (post two). I think that is valuable, even now, because it became fashionable to describe the war as foolish American hubris after it all went bad. Then it seemed ‘complementary’ to suggest that neocons had some kind of framework rather than just being ‘cowboy unilateralists.’

I also remain genuinely embarrassed that I supported the war for so long, which I say in post one. I defended it until 2009 or so. I had students tell me, both in the US and in Korea, that I was the only professor they had who defended the war. Yikes. This was probably my worst professional judgment in my 25 years in political science.

Two things more I would add looking back:

1. Iraq has become an all-purpose excuse for every dictator in the world to declaim American imperialism. This is an important reason to never do anything like this again. American power in the world is not just its material weight, but its soft power too. Others don’t balance US power, in part because they trust us to be more liberal and responsible than China or Russia. But the neocons never thought the ‘unipolar moment’ would recede, never had a lengthy shadow of the future in their planning, never thought the war would catch up with us.

2. Restrainers need to move on from Iraq. I support restraint too. I think we should slowly disengage from the Gulf. I don’t mind if South Korea or Japan build nuclear weapons, because they should be managing their own defense more. And I think the European pillar of NATO needs to get its act together. But too much of the restraint school sees every conflict since Iraq as a re-run of Bush-era hegemony-seeking. Iraq sent a lot of otherwise interesting analysts off the rails – Chalmers Johnson, Glenn Greenwald, the Quincy Institute.. Restrainers need to have more foreign policy wisdom than just saying the US should do less, that intervention is a perpetual slide toward another Iraq. You really see this in a lot of the terrible ‘restraint’ commentary on Ukraine, which would essentially sacrifice the country to Putin as some of kind latter-day US penance for Iraq. What restrainers really need is a theory of when they would tolerate US intervention and how much

No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional

Watching Fox News has always been a weird attraction. The hysteria, the persecution-complex, the frightening belligerence, the Obama conspiracy theories – what’s not to love? While I was home over Christmas, I saw more than my usual share, and the non-stop adulation coverage of American Sniper was really noticeable.

At last, the Iraq war movie neocons had been waiting for! Faith, family, nationalism, shooting foreigners (lots of foreigners actually) without much remorse, no tough questions about why the war was fought. It was a ‘Jacksonian’s’ dream, and predictably Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the rest swooned for it. And I say that not as some carping lefty, but as someone who supported the war far too long after it was clear that it was a messy failure.

That the right lionized the movie hardly disqualifies it of course. And it is a good film. But the meme emerged that this was somehow the greatest US war movie ever. That’s not even close to true. American Sniper is actually quite conventional. So now that the hype is fading, here is a run-through of the all-too-familiar aspects of the movie.

The review follows the jump and was first published at the Lowy Institute (here).

PS: The best American war movie ever made is almost certainly Apocalypse Now, and the worst is The Green Berets.

Final Iraq Post – from the Archives: My 2007 Essay in Support of the Iraq Surge


Back when I was at Ohio State University in graduate school, I was solicited by a friend to write for a start-up journal in political science, the OSU Journal of Politics and International Affairs. My essay is no longer findable through their website – their archive doesn’t go back to the first issue – but my essay at the time was on the surge debate. Given that I’ve been talking about Iraq for the last month here, I thought I’d put this up; it’s not available elsewhere anymore. This is the unaltered text from the spring 2007. I feel like I did pretty well actually. I still agree with most of what I wrote 6 years ago in the midst of the war’s worst days:

One Last Chance in Iraq for a Sustainable War on Terror

The sense that the United States is losing the war (or more precisely, the peace) in Iraq is palpable. The cable news networks are filled with images of burning cars and markets. The Bush administration seems almost paralyzed – reciting only bromides about freedom and democracy as the long-predicted post-sovereignty civil war seems already to have begun. New York Times pundits like Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman increasing see a negotiated, half-and-half, ‘at-least-its-better-than-Saddam’ outcome as the most likely scenario. Centrist/liberal supporters of the war, like the Economist and the New Republic are publishing a flurry of criticism that we are ‘losing the peace’ despite having won the war. Even conservatives like the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, stalwart defenders of the war, have backed away from higher hopes of a democratic, liberal Iraq which the President outlined.

But the growing Iraqi withdrawal debate is wrong-headed. The pullout mooted by such diverse figures as Senator Charles Hagel, Jon Stewart, and Cindy Sheehan would be catastrophic, and our growing national fantasy with its imminence is hazardous. It creates an unreal expectation that ignores the probable post-withdrawal bloodbath, emboldens the insurgents to hang tough, gives false comfort to military families especially, and tempts the Democrats to abdicate responsible policy input for cheap political shots.

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Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War”

imagesCAI6BD5TI am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK

I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the 10th anniversary of Iraq. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.

Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident.

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Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


Here are part one and two of this post.

The arguments below expand on my second recent JoongAng Daily op-ed on the Iraq war.

My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

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Iraq 10 Years Later (2): What was the Neocon Theory behind the War?


This post is in three parts; here are one and three. I published a laymen version of the following arguments (part two) in my recent JoongAng Daily op-ed.

My first thoughts on the war’s ten year anniversary are here. There I asked if there was any defensible theory behind the war, anything that might explain what why we launched the war, because weapons of mass destruction were not really the reason. Paul Wolfowitz notoriously admitted they were just a pretext to rally the country behind the invasion. And it wasn’t really about pre-emption either; Iraq was hardly a looming military threat in 2003. So here’s my guess of the real neoconservative logic. I should say up front, I do not endorse this rationale. I’m just trying to lay it out what I think neocons were saying to each other in 2002:

The Iraq invasion was to serve two purposes. 1) It was to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs. Gulf anti-western pathologies lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the US like that again. As Cheney put it in the film W, ‘don’t ever f— with us again.’ 2) It was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, horribly dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This thinking was summarized in the widely used expression at the time, ‘drain the swamp.’

A lot of people will (and did) accuse the neocons of orientalism, racism, and US hegemonic arrogance. Nevertheless I’ve always thought this neocon argument was somewhat convincing to most Americans, especially the GOP. I’ve always thought it was the horribly botched execution of the war (‘fiasco’), not the idea itself of ‘draining the swamp,’ that cost the invasion American public opinion support. I also don’t think the neocon argument was ever properly made to the US public, probably because it sounds both orientalist and hubristic. This is not the sort of argument the Bush administration could make out loud; WMD was much easier to sell and far more direct, as Wolfowitz noted. But I think if you read neocons like Kristol, Krauthammer, Gerecht, or Podhoretz, as well as high profile area experts like Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, or Bernard Lewis, or the right-wing thinks-tanks that supported the war (AEI, Heritage, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), this is what you heard. (For example: this, this, this, this, or this). I once participated in the FDDs’ terrorism fellowship program, and this was pretty much the line we got.

So you may not like the argument, but at least there is one. The war cannot just be dismissed as US imperialism, an oil grab, or a PNAC/neocon cabal, which I think was too often the default position on the left, especially in Europe, during the war. Opponents should rebut this and not just stick to deriding W the swaggering cowboy, fun as that may be.

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Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


This post is in three parts. Here are two and three.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

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The Iraqis don’t Want Us in Country & We have to Accept that


So it’s official now – or at least it really, really looks official this time. We are leaving Iraq at the end of the year. I mentioned this in class, to which I received nearly universal student skepticism. We are covering the Vietnam war now in my US foreign policy class, and we are discussing how America’s involvement there was far longer than the standard images we have from the Vietnam war movies we have all seen. From around the mid-40s to the mid-70s, the US was in Vietnam in one way or another, and most of my students simply assume that the US will be in Iraq even when we aren’t in Iraq. (Hah! Foreigners just expect US semi-imperialism and don’t believe us anyway when we say we are leaving. That in itself says something.)

And indeed it does look like we will leave behind a small army of contractors (armed in some way or other) and a large embassy staff. On top of that are the recently announced plans to beef up the US presence elsewhere in the Gulf – again creating the foggy, ‘we aren’t in Iraq but we still sorta are’ vibe that everyone is wondering about.

But removing easily identifiable, very public combat forces (i.e., warfighters on the ground) from Iraq is obviously a pretty big break. And the Obama administration very publicly wanted to stay beyond the scheduled departure date (end of 2011). But the US wanted immunity for US forces in Iraq under a new Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqis didn’t want that, so Obama had to give, and the 2011 deadline will be held. It is worth noting that the 2011 deadline was originally set by the Bush administration in 2008 in the wake of the surge, which should dim, IMO, the criticism from the right on this one. But still, there is now the (inevitable I suppose) backlash from neocons. (Here too.)

I supported the Iraq War until around 2008, at which point it became just too clear that we were in over our heads and had drawn too much blood to justify the modest improvements in governance that resulted. (An important part of my change in thinking was this.) Like the neocons, I feel the impulse to ‘solidify’ gains in Iraq by staying. It was such a titanic effort, that if Iraq collapses again (primarily because the surge didn’t resolve the issues of Iraqi division so much as freeze them), the whole thing will look like an even more colossal failure than before. An obvious model for the neocons would be Korea, where the presence of US forces helped keep Korea on track to the point where it is basically a modern liberal democracy today capable of taking care of itself without much help.

But there are some obvious problems that I would like to hear answered about why we should stay. Read this also on why we should leave.

1. The Iraqis want us to leave. Exum’s post on this is spot-on. We may want to stay, but they clearly don’t. In fact, it is increasingly obvious that the really don’t want us there anymore.  This must weigh very heavily in any decision; indeed, it should be a deal-breaker if Iraqi sovereignty is to have any meaning. If we stay when they don’t want us to, then we really are an empire. That really is an occupation. I do wish some kind of bargain could be found. Like everyone else, I worry that Iraq will collapse in civil war, and a minor US presence could be an important brake. But honestly, we turned that place upside down. estimates that our intervention resulted in over 100,000 deaths, not to mention the millions wounded, internally and externally displaced, disrupted, etc, etc. We don’t really need to start debating the Green Zone or Fiasco again to know that do we? Honestly, we shouldn’t be very surprised they want us to go.

2. Can we afford this? I guess I sound like a nag on this. Like Ron Paul, I keep bringing this up again and again, and no one wants to hear it, and everyone thinks I am a scold or a bore. But it still worth nothing that we spend over a trillion dollars on national security per annum, have a budget deficit around $1.5T and $10T in debt, are cruising toward a 100% debt-GDP ration by 2020, and have an aging population that would really like Medicare and Social Security instead of aircraft carriers and occupations. At some point, we have to make some hard budget choices. Given how badly the Iraq War flew off the rails, and how much the world and Iraqis themselves want us to leave, honestly this is probably one commitment we can afford to cut in the interest of better balancing our obligations with our constraints.

3. Do we really want to stay in Iraq for 50 years, if indeed Korea, Japan, or Germany are the model? It is worth recalling that back in the 50s, Americans worried similarly about a huge, never-ending, super-expensive commitment to a small, far-away, not too important place (Korea). Now, the neocons are right to say that in the end, Korea turned out well, but it took 50 years, it is not clear how to measure if the US commitment and money spent in Korea was ‘worth it’ or not, and whether the US public would support any such long commitment to Iraq. In short, if the US had a reasonable, Korean-style shot at normalizing Iraq, but it would require 50 years of commitment, would the US public support it? Well, given that US support for the Iraq War faded after just a few years, I don’t think that question would survive a referendum. Remember that the war was not sold in 2002 as a 50 year nation-building exercise that would cost trillions of dollars. There is just no way the US voter would have supported that. Wolfowitz even admitted that WMD was the only way to ‘sell’ the war to the public, because the Bush administration knew the public wouldn’t buy a larger, ‘freedom agenda’ mission. And of course, candidate Obama explicitly ran on this plank.

So yes, we should stay involved with Iraq, through diplomacy, aid, and training. We owe them that, but we must in the end, respect both the wishes of the Iraqi and American publics. After so many years of debate on this issue in both countries, it should clear that this is not a fly-by-night poll result. Everyone knows the risks of withdrawal, and they have decided for it nonetheless.

The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc

Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…

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…