On Iraq-Before the Elections

The National Interest comes out ahead of the Baker Commission, offering a symposium on Iraq by distinguished authors that confront the key questions that many others are circling around: What is victory in Iraq?

If one defines victory in Iraq as Saddam Hussein's removal, American forces achieved success long ago. If one defines victory as a smooth, quick transition to constitutional democracy, the U.S. military has already failed.

The question, then, is what goals to set from here. The president's Baker Commission is set to release some ideas early next year, but several foreign policy scholars sound off here ahead of time in the new issue of The National Interest.

Here are some of their thoughts:

Victory is U.S. security

General Tommy Franks, who led Operation Iraqi Freedom as commander-in-chief of the United States Central Command, says the issue is "not whether Afghanistan and Iraq are flourishing democracies, but, since 9/11, how are we doing vis-à-vis the protection of the people of the United States?" He concludes that the war, by this yardstick, is going well.

Franks says the war's secondary objectives - establishing democracy and keeping the American people safe - are also seen in a misleading light; commentators often compare Iraq to an ideal state rather than to its own past. "Both Afghanistan and Iraq now have what they have not had in quite some time - that is, they have a chance to make it," he says.

He makes no prediction as to whether they will.

Victory is the end of insurgency

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, looks at a common metric for victory, with a flourishing democracy - an example to the world - on one side and a civil war on the other. He argues Iraq is already in a civil war, so now the conflict's termination is the most important goal.

The fact that ethnic self-interest, not political ideology, separates the warring factions complicates the problem. When the insurgency's aim is good governance, political reform can win hearts and minds. But if ethnic strife is the problem and the United States plans to leave, Iraqis will not see America as neutral. One group or another will dominate the subsequent "national" forces.

Biddle proposes that America, possibly with help from Iraq's neighbors, broker a power-sharing deal and enforce it long-term with neutral peace-keepers.

Victory is a working political process

The Center for Strategic and International Studies's Peter Charles Choharis, and the University of Virginia's John M. Owen IV, argue separately that success in Iraq depends on a stable political process.

Choharis outlines a five-part plan of enhancing federalism, reforming the constitution so that minorities are protected, working out a system for distributing government oil revenues, setting up a regional forum and disarming militias.

Owen takes the idea of federalism one step further, arguing that an outright partition into Shi‘a, Sunni-Arab and Kurdish states could work best. By his own admission the implementation would be messy; a mix of ethnic groups occupies some territory, and oil fields often "straddle the current ethnic boundaries." Still, "a three-state solution might better maintain a balance of power in the region between Iran and Sunni actors."

Robert VerBruggen ([email protected]) is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.