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.

There is no doubt that an ignoble U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would produce the impression that the United States is "on the run." This is certainly what happened when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, under what everybody perceived to be pressure from Hizballah and a sense of exhaustion. Indeed, most Israeli experts believe that this withdrawal, and the related perception that Israel was beatable through an unconventional guerrilla warfare, has directly led to the second and far deadlier round of the intifada, which is still underway and has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.

This is also why Abramowitz's assertion that "ending the Arab-Israel conflict would have far more influence on transforming the Arab world than creating a new [democratic] Iraqi government" simply ignores the fundamental and broad nature of the Islamist challenge, which is animated by issues that have little, if anything, to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this context, having Washington force Israel to accept terms that do not guarantee its survival as a Jewish state--which, unfortunately, remains the core Palestinian position--far from eliciting Arab affection for the United States, is certain to prompt derision and the feeling that the United States is unable to sustain its position in the Middle East.

Any precipitous U.S. withdrawal would also engender disastrous political results for most leaders in the coalition of the willing, and demonstrate that being an American ally is far more dangerous than being our foe. Moreover, if the United States cuts and runs from this challenge, it is difficult to imagine what other military engagement against a serious adversary, be it in Iran or North Korea, we can successfully prosecute. The stakes are further magnified by the tendency of many of the administration's critics to seek to impose an unrealistic interpretation of the laws of war on the United States that is unprecedented and incompatible with any robust use of force. Abramowitz, and now Odom, having concluded that a successful outcome in Iraq is either unattainable or does not matter enough to spend the necessary resources, rather than looking for a decent interval (to borrow a term from Vietnam-era parlance), evidently contemplate an immediate withdrawal. This would only enhance the perceived magnitude and the acuteness of our defeat.

Furthermore, contrary to this analysis, the costs of staying the course are not that formidable and the odds of a reasonably successful outcome remain quite decent. Given the revelations of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the recent shift in Iraqi public opinion, which suggest that a majority of the Iraqis favor an early U.S. withdrawal, this opinion may strike the reader as unrealistically optimistic. However, the fact that both the Kurds and Shi'a are keenly aware of the decades-long legacy of the brutal Sunni rule in Iraq, and do not wish to be re-subjugated again, still provides the U.S. with considerable strategic leverage.

The huge disparity in the level of battlefield performance of the Fallujah-based, mostly Sunni fighters, who were able to inflict considerable casualties on the American troops, and that of Sadr's Shi'a Mahdi "army" underscores the extent to which the Shi'a, despite their demographic strength, remain vulnerable to the better trained Sunnis. Indeed, one can argue that one of the reasons why Sistani and other senior Shi'a leaders have finally given the United States the green light to move against Sadr's forces in Najaf, Kufa and Karbala is because of their extreme disquiet and even fear at the spectacle of the senior Saddam-era military officers being brought back by the coalition forces. Meanwhile, the Kurds remain perhaps America's only true friend in Iraq. Given these factors, it is still possible for the United States to emerge as the strategic ally of the Iraqi Shi'a and Kurds and, post-June 30, wield considerable power in Iraq and shape a positive outcome. Having an even modestly pro-American Shi'a-run Iraq, with appropriate protections for the Kurds and Sunnis would in itself be a major strategic boon. This would require an extremely adroit American policy, especially since the U.S. would have to deal not only with the Iraqi factions, but with the UN representatives, with little, if any, margin for error--but it can be done.

The deaths and maiming of our troops in Iraq are tragic, and the budgetary costs are high; yet, they do not approach anything comparable to the Vietnam-era level of losses. In the age of the all-volunteer military and at a time when most Americans understand that we are at war with the forces of radical Islam that seek our demise, perseverance in Iraq should be politically sustainable. So long as the American people believe that their government has a credible long-term strategy for winning in Iraq, they will support the war. Clamoring for an exit strategy and obsessing about casualties is much more of an elite's pursuit than a vox populi.

Reading Abramowitz's well-written article induces, at least in this reader, a sense of depression. The author misreads the lessons of Vietnam and miscalculates the post-September 11 threat. The consequences of our perceived defeat in Iraq would be shattering. They would be tantamount to an admission that, while the United States can defeat any conventional military, it can be routed by a sufficiently ruthless and motivated insurgent force. They certainly would also include an inability by the United States to use military force on a large-scale (in the foreseeable future), accompanied by a virtual impossibility of finding countries (friend, foe or neutral), willing to bet their survival on American staying power and credibility. In a world where no other status quo power seems to be willing to use military force to deal with international problems, and the prevailing public sentiment among most of our allies seems to be that nothing is worth fighting for, this result would be nothing short of calamitous.

Essay Types: Essay