Choices in Iraq

 The attack against the UN compound in Iraq was a deliberate statement by anti-American guerilla forces that the United States does not fully control postwar Iraq.


The attack against the UN compound in Iraq was a deliberate statement by anti-American guerilla forces that the United States does not fully control postwar Iraq.  In essence, the gauntlet was thrown down, and now the United States must be prepared to respond.

The United States has three courses of action it can take.  The first is to adopt an Afghanistan strategy of concentrating on securing the capital city and its environs and creating a government that eventually may be able to exercise its writ over the outer provinces.  In other words, the United States would concentrate its forces in Baghdad (and perhaps several other key centers) and cease to maintain any real presence in most outlying areas of the country.  Given the public pronouncements of the administration, however, this approach seems unlikely.

The second is for the United States to substantially increase the number of its troops and specialists in Iraq, to deploy a robust occupation force (General Shinseki's estimate of a quarter of a million troops is well known).  The problem is that there is little political will to do so.  When foreign policy is intertwined with electoral politics, it can be difficult to pursue policies that make sense from a strictly strategic or military point of view.

Moreover, there is little enthusiasm among Americans for nation-building.  Slapping an American flag decal on an SUV is an effortless way of being patriotic.  But military enlistment has not substantially increased, nor have the graduates of America's top universities shown much inclination to become involved in foreign service.  Niall Ferguson and others have written extensively on how, a century ago, overseas service in Britain's empire attracted the "best of the best."  In contrast, more students at Harvard prefer to study film than Arabic.  The U.S. attitude toward these types of operations increasingly appears to be, "Can't somebody else do it?"

The problem is, others aren't willing to "do it" if they lack incentives.  Speaking for the inaugural issue of In the National Interest, General Charles Boyd reminded our readers that it was critically important to give the other major powers "a stake in what follows, whether it is the removal of the weapons of mass destruction from Iraq or the removal of Saddam Hussein.  If the United States acts unilaterally, those nations will have no stake in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq."  (

Yet time is running out for the United States to "internationalize" Iraq without losing face.  The U.S. could have adopted the East Timor model, where Australia acted as the military great power, secured the region, then worked to create a UN administration from a position of strength and influence.  In contrast, the United States has insisted it could substantially reconstruct Iraq without much assistance.  Thus, other states have little or no stake in preserving the credibility of American leadership; they will insist that the United States adopt the second solution--increase its own presence in Iraq to preserve order.

Certainly, "New Europe" has provided some forces and Poland is set to take control of a sector in Iraq, leading a multinational force.  Yet small contingents from Ukraine and the Baltic States, while welcome, are no substitute for the Arab peacekeepers that could prove invaluable in helping to bridge the gaps between the occupation and the local people.  It is no substitute for large numbers of forces that could be requested from other states.

The United States won a major victory at the UN by having the interim council recognized as the legitimate government.  It is time to build on that success and move to internationalize the occupation in Iraq.  The U.S. still has sufficient leverage and momentum to be able to set the terms of how this can come about.  There is no reason that the United States would not continue to have the preponderance of influence in the development of postwar Iraq.  But it is time to give other states a real stake in what happens in Iraq.  Thus, the stability of Iraq will no longer be simply a matter of U.S. national interest.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.