Responsibility and Instability

In a post about the Iraq Study Group Report earlier this week, Josh Marshall notes, “The rub of the issue I don’t see being discussed — at least not directly — is this category question: are US troops more a cause of instability in Iraq or a solution/buffer against instability?”

It is a crucial question. Yet, I think, there is a more critical category question, one that has to do with the essential role of adult responsibility in fostering change. In any human enterprise faced with profound change (a nation, a company, a set of friends, a family, a church and so forth), only the adults involved in that situation can take responsibility for bringing about whatever changes are to come — whether those changes are good, bad or in between. To illustrate: if you smoke, only you can take responsibility for stopping (or continuing). No one else can do it for you. (In this, by the way, I’m not using ‘responsibility’ in the sense of credit or blame; but, rather, in the sense of ownership, duty and care required to act and be accountable to one’s self for those actions — the kind of responsibility that, by the way, George W. Bush has not been fitted out by nature or nurture to exercise.)

In the case of Iraq, this means that Iraqis must take responsibility for whatever changes are to come — neither US soldiers nor US contractors nor anyone else can take that responsibility for Iraqis unless we and/or other non-Iraqis are intent on carrying out that responsibility over a long haul. Thus, should we choose, we could take responsibility for implementing changes in Iraq over an open ended, long period of time (10 to 20 years). So, could Iran.

But absent our or Iran’s or anyone else’s choosing to participate as open ended, long term players in Iraq, we revert to this reality: only Iraqis can take responsibility for their own changes and situation.

Now, if stability is one desirable change to be sought, then only Iraqis can take responsibility for that stability. We cannot do it for them.

The inevitable route to stability in Iraq (absent a miracle) is through the instability currently characterizing what’s happening there — and, probably, worse instability to come. There must be instability on the path to stability. But, and this is key, there will not be stability unless and until Iraqis take responsibility for whatever instability comes first. And, as long as we are present, this will not happen. In this sense, the question about whether we are a cause, or buffer against, instability is unresponsive to the question of what must happen to create conditions where Iraqis take responsibility for their own change. If we are the cause of instability, Iraqis do not take responsibility. If we are the buffer against instability, Iraqis do not take responsibility.

In this sense, all the chat about embedding our forces and doing other things to train Iraqi security forces misses a huge point: however important such training and education might be, they never substitute for the act of an adult taking responsibility for his or her own change. I can educate you until the cows come home about the negative effects of smoking cigarettes. But, until you decide to go buy a patch or otherwise cut down on cigarettes, all that education is just so much wind. Yes, education might be a rational approach to inducing you to take such responsibility — to persuading and convincing you. But, it is demonstrable that education works best when it is directed at adults who have already chosen to take responsibility for whatever changes are to be aided by such learning. This is not the situation in Iraq.

Among the tragic consequences of this reality is that The United States of America initiated a unilateral war of choice that, in turn, led to a horrendous situation where only an inevitable period of instability in which Iraqis take responsibility for killing one another will lead to a return to stability. The United States of America has this blood – and the blood to come — on our hands. This is the other sense of the word responsible, as in credit and blame.

But, at this point, our only option to exercise responsibility in the sense of owning the way forward demands an open ended, long term occupation of Iraq — a 10 or 20 year commitment to, first, enforce stability and then, gradually, gradually, gradually manage the situation toward Iraqi responsibility for the direction and evolution of that stability into something better than stability alone.

If we are not going to make such a commitment – a commitment where we take responsibility for bringing about stability — then our only responsible option is to leave so that Iraqis have no option but to take that responsibility themselves. And anyone suggesting or claiming otherwise, including the Iraq Study Group, Josh Marshall, Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi or anyone else is more interested in responsibility as blame/credit than responsibility as a duty of care toward Iraqis and Iraqi stability.

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