I don't really agree with Kerry on every point, but I think this is a very difficult issue and his position is rational and sincerely held. His concerns about the aftermath of withdrawal -- civil war and the creation of a new failed state host of terror -- are real and deserve serious attention.
If the US were to withdraw from Iraq, there's a pretty good chance the country could disintegrate into civil war. If we're lucky, the result would be separate (and stable) Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions.
More likely, the parties would divide roughly into mini-state regions and those mini-states would be constantly contested. That is, fighting would be continuous and nasty. If nothing else, the parties would bicker over the oil reserves, which are not evenly dispersed throughout Iraq. The Sunni regions of Iraq have very little oil.
There's also a high risk that the Shiite majority would either align openly with Iran or form its own version of theocracy.
None of this is desirable from the US perspective and I think it explains why Kerry thinks the US has to remain in Iraq to finish Bush's botched job.
Say what you want about Saddam Hussein, but he was not in bed with Islamic terrorists and he was not aligned with Iran.
In some ways, the potential outcomes are far worse than they were in Vietnam. There, if the US withdrew, the worst-case consequences were clear: The North would win, the entire country would fall under the Soviet orbit, and neighboring states might be threatened. The US would likely have to bolster neighboring states like Thailand.
Given that the "cold war" was, after all, cold, this was an unpleasant prospect, but the US ultimately could live with it. The conflict was far away from the US (and Europe, for that matter), so it would be a reasonable loss. Major regional friends like South Korea and Japan would not be directly or immediately threatened.
In the Iraq scenarios, however, the consequences for the US are much worse. First, a failed state might be hospitable to al Qaeda, which has proven it can and will strike the US. Think Afghanistan, with better infrastructure and technicians.
Second, Iraq has the second largest supply of proven oil reserves. As was demonstrated during the Iranian revolution, oil prices and western economies can be vulnerable to regional unrest. This is actually something I didn't mention when blogging about Carter's foreign policy. The US suffered both high unemployment and high inflation during this time. It wasn't really Carter's fault, but the numbers don't lie: inflation was over 11% in 1979 and 13.5% in 1980. During each year of the Carter administration, unemployment dropped from 6.9 to 6.0 to 5.8 -- until 1980 when it zoomed up to 7.0%. This was widely blamed on crude oil prices:
The Iranian revolution resulted in the loss of 2 to 2.5 million barrels of oil per day between November of 1978 and June of 1979. In 1980 Iraq's crude oil production fell 2.7MMBPD and Iran's production by 600,000 barrels per day during the Iran/Iraq War. The combination of these two events resulted in crude oil prices more than doubling from $14 in 1978 to $35 per barrel in 1981.The image of Carter's "impotent" and "disastrous" foreign policy result from these events.
It is very important to keep in mind that Kerry is primarily worried about security issues in Iraq -- not pie in the sky dreams of democratizing the Middle East. Presumably, he'll remove American forces as soon as he thinks it is possible to do so.
That might come after Iraqi elections, or after US troops are provided some relief by NATO forces, or troops from other states. It might come after significant numbers of Iraqi security forces have been trained to do their job.
Frankly, it might come if another "strongman" leader consolidates the country. Iraq in some ways is like Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. Can any individual keep it together?
Nonetheless, because Kerry offered so many caveats to his October 2002 war vote, he is relatively free to declare the entire project a failure of the Bush administration and to try radical new approaches.
Perhaps the US could try some bold initiative that works with regional states to address the problem. Invite Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Syria and the Saudis and have a real conversation with Iraqi Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite leaders about Iraq's future.
Bush's reelection means neocon cowboys will still be running American foreign policy. Kerry's election means the freedom to innovate about the policy.
This neither makes Kerry Bush-lite nor a liberal imperialist.
It makes him a serious leader for a serious time.
I suspect we'll hear much more about some of this tonight.
At minimum, Kerry will talk about the need for allies and diplomacy, the existence of non-military tools in the toolbox, and the fact that the US shouldn't go to war under dubious circumstances.