Realism on the War

Two realists lay out their differing strategies for dealing with the conflict in Iraq.

"Realism", as J. Peter Pham stated Friday at an event hosted by The National Interest, "is not monolithic." The debate between Charles Peña, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and Pham, director of the Nelson Institute at James Madison University, underscored this point. Though Peña and Pham agreed that the invasion of Iraq was a serious error, they differed on the best course of action now.

Peña noted that Iraq was a "strategic mistake" but has now become a "tactical question." Since the war in Iraq was never winnable, the United States should withdraw its troops from the beleaguered country sooner rather than later. After all, Iraq will only become the "central front" in the War on Terror if we maintain a troop presence there. Leaving Iraq will allow the United States to concentrate on the destruction of Al-Qaeda and the containment of Islamic radicalism.

Additionally, a U.S. departure from Iraq will save the U.S. armed services from excessive strain. According to Peña, the two policy options confronting the United States are "to leave Iraq now with an army or to leave Iraq later without an army." The former choice will allow the United States not only to preserve its troops but also to better select the terms for its withdrawal.

Though Iraq is currently wracked by violence, it is not the "fertile training ground for terrorists" that the public imagines it to be. Some estimate that there are only a few hundred, rather than several thousand, jihadists within the country. Furthermore, polls indicate that most of the Iraqi population does not support terrorism. Certainly, an effective Shi‘a government would not tolerate Sunni terrorists in its midst. By producing ire within the greater Muslim population, the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq serves only to foster the spread of Islamic extremism.

In any case, radical Islamists have used the invasion of Iraq as evidence of a Western desire to subjugate the Muslim world.  In this context, the Islamist definition of victory becomes "survival." Unless the United States is willing to commit the troops and funds required to completely destroy the insurgency in Iraq, the jihadists-much like Hizballah did this summer-will declare that they have vanquished their Western "oppressor." Given the U.S. public's lack of support for the war, it would be politically infeasible to gain support of the resources-and the kind of brutal tactics-necessary for an effective counterinsurgency operation.

In the end, Peña believes that Iraq is one skirmish in the War on Terror. We may lose the battle, but the United States may still win the broader war if it concentrates less on securing territory and more on winning Muslim hearts and minds.

After the conclusion of Peña's remarks, J. Peter Pham raised three questions that he suggested were critical to an understanding of the Iraq conflict. Pham's own answers to these questions lead him to believe that now is not the time for the United States to extricate itself from Iraq.

First, he asked how Iraq was connected to the overall War on Terror. Like Peña, Pham suggested that the United States chose to undertake the current Iraq War. Although Iraq did not have to be the focus of the War on Terror, U.S. policy has made it so. The number of jihadists in Iraq is less important than how they are perceived in the Muslim world. If the insurgency in Iraq is not utterly defeated, the United States' reputation will be severely damaged. The legacies of U.S. embarrassments in Somalia and Vietnam lend credence to this claim. A U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq would provide an especially enduring stain on our reputation; the defeat of a Western power in the Middle East fits well within the Crusader narrative that jihadists often employ.

Second, Pham enumerated his view of the implications of a U.S. loss in Iraq. As U.S. soldiers provide critical logistical support to the fledging Iraqi government, a complete troop withdrawal would result in the Iraqi state's collapse. If such a departure were to occur, Pham advised Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to "be on the next plane out."  

Of course, the consequences of a U.S. defeat in Iraq would resonate beyond Iraq's borders. Iran would certainly move to increase its influence in Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole. North Korea would perceive a premature U.S. troop withdrawal as a sign of U.S. weakness.  Consequently, Kim Jong-il could return to a more defiant foreign policy stance.

Third, Pham wondered how the United States can prevail in Iraq without a clear victory strategy.  We will definitely not be able to achieve victory if we cannot define precisely what "victory" means. Does victory entail a total defeat of the insurgency? Unfortunately, there has been little talk among politicians about how to obtain victory.

In the aftermath of the Republican defeat in the midterm elections, many commentators have predicted that the Bush Administration will return to the realist policies the president had espoused pre-9/11. Peña expressed skepticism about this possibility. "I'd rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed," he said.

Marisa Morrison is an Apprentice Editor at The National Interest.