Averting an Iraq Syndrome

Averting an Iraq Syndrome

Mini Teaser: As "senior" members of the foreign policy establishment, Abramowitz's and General Odom's calls for withdrawal from Iraq deserve consideration. But they they are unconvincing, Rivkin writes.

by Author(s): David B. Rivkin, Jr.

While Iraq-related debates continue to dominate the headlines, Morton Abramowitz, in the Spring 2004 issue of The National Interest, was the first senior member of the foreign policy establishment to attempt to furnish a veneer of intellectual respectability for the proposition that a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would not necessarily be calamitous. (He has been followed more recently by William Odom, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who is a contributor to this symposium as well.) Accordingly, these views merit attention, even if they are, in my opinion, ultimately unpersuasive.

Abramowitz analyzes both the probability and the consequences of our success in Iraq--success being defined as the establishment of "a stable, reasonably democratic system"--as well as the implications of an early departure, both on the country itself and the Greater Middle East. Although there is some analytical overlap between these two issues, they are not identical. Indeed, while the prospects and strategic implications of building a U.S.-prompted Iraqi democracy are probably better than Abramowitz seems to suggest, it is fair to acknowledge that they are inherently speculative and uncertain.

The analysis is further complicated by the fact that there is a range of plausible outcomes in Iraq which feature different degrees of stability and democracy. For example, the United States could succeed in stabilizing Iraq and a reasonably friendly and democratic, albeit weak, government could emerge. Should this government be eventually displaced by an authoritarian regime either as a result of a democratic process or through some less salutary means, the consequences of this regrettable evolution might well be manageable. Likewise, should an interim Iraqi government or its elected successor request a withdrawal of American forces--a possibility inherent in the restoration of Iraq's sovereignty--American credibility should not be adversely affected. While the United States is willing to spend blood and treasure to shore up a friendly Iraqi government, it cannot and should not seek to impose its largesse. Yet what Abramowitz seems to countenance is a prompt, unilateral American withdrawal, literally under fire, which would leave Iraq a failed state. unfortunately, the consequences of our cutting and running in this scenario are far more certain and disastrous than Abramowitz acknowledges.

His overarching thesis is that the United States enjoys such global pre-eminence that it "can endure early withdrawal from Iraq", just as we had survived our defeat in Vietnam and have apparently muddled through various other ignominious withdrawals. unfortunately, this proposition is true only in the truistic sense. The United States did not, indeed, collapse or fall prey to foreign occupation in the aftermath of Vietnam. In all other respects, the view espoused by Abramowtiz and others is profoundly wrong.

To begin with, the defeat in Vietnam cast a long shadow over American foreign and defense policy, greatly emboldened our key strategic adversary at the time--the Soviet union--and led to more than a decade of Moscow's ambitious foreign endeavors in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. To be sure, the Soviet union's eventual collapse--driven by its fundamental internal weaknesses and the decades of relentless American pressure, culminating with bold Reagan-era policies, not to mention the Sino-Soviet Cold War confrontation--provided the United States with important geopolitical leverage, fortuitously mitigating the adverse consequences of our Vietnam defeat. Yet, these developments did not negate its strategic importance. They certainly do not establish any valuable lessons for the future, except to point out that sometimes, even very bad American decisions do not produce disastrous results--because our enemies can suffer even more consequential defeats. While true, this observation is certainly not a prescription for a viable American foreign policy.

In addition to miscasting the lessons of Vietnam, Abramowitz blithely ignores the novel strategic dangers posed by cutting and running from Iraq. In the aftermath of September 11, few reasonable observers can question the magnitude of the threat posed to Western polities in general and the United States in particular by the forces of radical Islam. This threat (whether arising from pan-Islamic organizations like Al-Qaeda or the various rogue states that support them) has a particularly important psychological dimension that Abramowitz and most analysts ignore.

While our Cold War enemies liked to prattle about the inevitability of capitalism's global demise and the certainty of their eventual triumph, they exhibited considerable caution and reason in their policy choices. This is fundamentally not the case with our Islamist foes. In this regard, one would do well to review Osama bin Laden's infamous "Declaration of War Against the Americans", which exalts in the recitation of alleged indicia of American weakness, such as the "disappointment, humiliation and defeat" exhibited in various U.S. retreats under fire, leading the author to conclude that the United States "had been disgraced by Allah" and is a "weak horse." Given the historical importance of martial valor and military prowess in the Islamic tradition, Bin Laden's musings make perfect sense. Thus, there is no doubt that the very same examples of America's precipitous withdrawals, including our disengagements from Lebanon in 1983 and Mogadishu in 1994, which Abramowitz so casually recites, have greatly emboldened our enemies. It is precisely because the secular Arab governments have been repeatedly defeated by the Western powers, including a small Jewish state, that even a semi-successful performance by the Islamists--against Israel in Lebanon, in the course of the ongoing Palestinian intifada, and against the United States in Iraq--is likely to generate such a momentous impact. Ironically, most ordinary Americans appreciate this point far better than foreign policy sophisticates. They believe that our immediate withdrawal from Iraq would only intensify the terrorist threat to the United States. Thus, according to a recent Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Americans continue to believe that we should stay the course in Iraq.

Indeed, the pattern of resistance in Iraq demonstrates that any perceived weakness by coalition forces has been a major factor in prompting additional and intensified attacks. For example, it can be argued that the recent violence in Fallujah, including the murder and mutilation of the four American contractors and the subsequent stubborn resistance to the efforts by the U.S. Marines to reestablish law and order, stems directly from the previous decisions to leave Fallujah largely alone and not to crack down on various anti-coalition elements that made the city a base of operations.

At the strategic level, the extent of the threat is magnified by the fact that, unlike the Cold War struggle, the existential challenge to the United States is posed not, in large measure, by governments in the Arab world, but by Islamism. (To the extent that some Arab regimes support American policy, however begrudgingly, timidly and in private, this cooperation is entirely opportunistic and predicated upon their belief that we are going to prevail in whatever ventures on which we choose to embark.) The Islamist opponents of the authoritarian and secular regimes in the Middle East are not like Soviet-era dissidents who espouse Western-style democracy as the solution. Rather, most Arab critics blame the West for their economic, political and social ills. Not surprisingly, there is a powerful tendency to view some version of fundamentalist Islam, which fuses secular and religious power and seeks to restore a global Islamic caliphate, as the true "reform" alternative.

Significantly, the appalling governance record amassed by the Iranian mullahs and the Taliban's functionaries does not seem to arouse much opposition in the proverbial Arab street--which also views with strange equanimity the horrendous violence visited by Al-Qaeda and other radical movements on their co-religionists, including women and children. Meanwhile, the failure of Islamist parties to come to power, even in those instances where reasonably free elections were held, also does not seem to have diminished their luster. They draw strength by juxtaposing Islam's former glory and its current considerably reduced circumstances, which provides a fertile environment for Islamist rage.

Hence, discrediting the very viability of militant Islam--best accomplished by demonstrating its military weakness--is a prerequisite for effecting fundamental change within the world of Islam, prompting its long-overdue "reformation" and rendering it more compatible with democracy and modernity. Serious theological and political reform is the only viable alternative. Yet its Western champions do not seem to appreciate that decisively defeating the Islamists is the necessary prerequisite. Failing to grapple with these key historical and psychological components of the current Islamist challenge is even more dangerous than the willful ignorance of communist ideology and Soviet writings that unfortunately drove so much Western myopic thinking about the Soviet threat.

Certainly, in a place like Iraq, the strategic environment that we face is peculiarly challenging. The United States enjoys an enormous margin of military, economic and technological superiority, but has not been particularly successful in leveraging these advantages. We also do not seem to do a very good job in the "divide and conquer" dimension. As we are discovering in Iraq, and as Israel has come to learn while fighting the intifada, when it comes to anti-American or anti-Israeli ventures, all radical Islamic groups--whether Sunni or Shi'a, and even nominally secular entities--collaborate in varying degrees. The fact that this alliance is certainly driven by expediency and may well be temporary in nature does not render the problem any less dangerous. It certainly underscores the extent to which anti-American and anti-Western sentiments trump virtually all other policy considerations for the radical Islamists of all stripes and their secular fascist counterparts. This reality, by the way, underscores the intellectual error of the argument that, because Saddam Hussein was a secular Ba'athi thug, he could not make a common cause with a Wahhabi fundamentalist like Bin Laden. unfortunately, in today's Middle East there does not seem to be a strategic equivalent of the Sino-Soviet split that proved so helpful to the West during the Cold War.

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