Stability First, Democracy Later

A panel of three experts weighs in with recommendations for American policy in Iraq.

As James Baker makes his rounds inside the Beltway, strategic alternatives for Iraq are also circulating throughout Washington.

Before the Iraq Study Group releases its proposed changes for American strategy, The National Interest assembled a panel to expound on policy recommendations expressed in the November/December 2006 symposium, "Is this victory" (available here). Dov Zakheim, Daniel Pipes-both members of The National Interest Advisory Council-and Stephen Biddle evaluated potential steps towards a redefined victory.

All three panelists recognized the dire situation in Iraq and the need to embrace reality. Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasized the initial misdiagnosis of the insurgency as an ideological counter-insurgency, as opposed to a burgeoning civil war. American strategy exacerbated the situation through methods aimed at squelching an ideological resistance-such as building up the national military-which fanned the flames of civil strife.

Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense, admonished America's leadership for not recognizing the ongoing civil war. "There is some kind of determination not to face reality", he said. "To base a policy on something that isn't but actually is already tells you that there's a problem."

Terminating this civil war, or at least mollifying it, requires an emphasis on security and stability, not democracy building. In reference to the coalition's expectations of Iraqi democracy, Pipes, director of The Middle East Forum, said: "[Democratization] was just done too quickly, too ambitiously. The short-term requires stability and security, not democracy."

Instead of anticipating a thriving democracy in 21-22 months, 21-22 years would have been more realistic, Pipes said. He also emphasized the mistaken placement of Iraqi interests at the core of the mission, as opposed to American and coalition interests. The United States has no moral obligation to the Iraqi people and must maintain its focus on its own strategic interests, he said.

For solutions, Zakheim advocated redeploying American troops to the western, southern and northern border areas. This would require 75-80,000 troops-in less danger than they are currently-to ensure that Iraq does not become a source of widespread regional instability. A partition, Zakheim argued, would produce regional instability, with increased tensions between the Kurds and Turks in the north and the opportunity for greater Iranian influence in the south.

Pipes agreed with Zakheim on redeployment, though not on troop reductions, and included Iraq's oil and gas facilities on his list of strategic areas demanding American defense. The long-term models for Iraq, Pipes said, are Egypt and Tunisia, which, though undemocratic, are stable, not morally repugnant and have the potential to democratize.

"What counts for us in Iraq and what would mark success for us in Iraq is not a particular type of governance", Zakheim said. "What's uppermost in [Iraqis'] minds right now is plain and simple security and stability, which no one is providing them."

Biddle repeatedly emphasized the small likelihood of any favorable outcome for Iraq, but the costs of failure outweigh the improbability of success. The major obstacle is the absence of trust.

"Compromise is a difficult task when your enemy has genocidal aspirations", he said.

The empirical evidence suggests that civil wars end with military victory for one side, which bodes poorly for the United States in Iraq. But, Biddle argued, there are opportunities for engagement with the Ba‘athi insurgents and their sponsors. Iraq's neighbors have a vested interest in regional stability and could be crucial to convincing their proxies in Iraq to cease their sectarian fighting. In order to gain their cooperation, U.S. officials may have to make some difficult trade-offs that carry a strategic cost, such as acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear program and turning a blind eye to the return of a broad Syrian presence in Lebanon. Even those painful concessions fare only a small chance of ending an escalating civil war, but U.S. interests in averting such a scenario are so broad that they must be attempted, Biddle said.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.