Does Iraq Matter?

Does Iraq Matter?

Mini Teaser: Realists, neocons, and liberals all agree that American failure in Iraq would be a catastrophe beyond Iraq. Really? How exactly?

by Author(s): Morton Abramowitz

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and once high-flying Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean do not see eye to eye on the virtues of the Iraq War, but they and other leading Democrats and Republicans agree on the same key policy position: Now that we are in Iraq we must "stay the course." If we get out without leaving a reasonably stable and democratic Iraq, it will have catastrophic consequences for American policy in Iraq and the region and generally undermine American credibility around the world.

The Bush Administration and some Democrats have also argued that American success in creating a democratic Iraq will have an enormous payoff, that it will transform the Middle East's political scene, and even contribute significantly to an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. In his recent State of the Union address Bush put it eloquently: "We will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others and help transform a troubled part of the world." On this proposition, however, there are qualms. Can Iraq create a stable, reasonably democratic system in any short-term period that can endure? Can even a lengthy American presence ultimately help produce such an Iraq? Would the creation of a reasonably democratic Iraq have the bountiful benefits the Bush Administration foresees? All these are debatable.

Both of these basic propositions--that leaving is catastrophic and succeeding would transform the region--are usually asserted with vehemence, as if somehow they are intrinsically true, but they are rarely examined. That the dismaying political edifice the Middle East now presents is likely to destruct if the United States leaves an unstable Iraq seems far-fetched. The region, however, can be expected to change significantly in the generational commitment the Administration has asserted is necessary for bringing democracy to the Middle East, but not necessarily because of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam and a continuing American military presence in Iraq.

Certainly, staying and being successful is far better than leaving and failing. Producing a decent Iraq would be a great achievement worth enormous sustained effort, while failure would have serious consequences. But the unfamiliar, difficult situation in Iraq and our declining ability to influence events needs sober assessment, perhaps a premature but certainly unwelcome endeavor. Indeed, it can be argued that staying indefinitely in Iraq in such difficult circumstances can lead both to greater costs and greater embarrassment to the United States. A great nation has the capacity to pursue ambitious objectives but also to reconsider the costs involved in the pursuit of those objectives as well as to handle adversity and take compensating measures to reduce the consequences of adversity. The central issues revolve around, first, the costs and benefits of staying or leaving Iraq early and, second, weighing the uncertainties of the consequences under any option. That is hard to do under any circumstance, particularly domestic political ones, when we are already deeply involved in pursuing tough, desirable objectives.

In dealing with the first assumption, it is not easy to define what "not staying the course" means. For some there is a powerful moral factor involved: We took over the country by force, and it is our responsibility to leave it in decent shape however long it takes. Only one Democratic presidential aspirant--Dennis Kucinich--urges immediate withdrawal and turning Iraq completely over to the UN. Indeed the U.S. military is not leaving imminently and there is so far no serious domestic or Iraqi demand for that, although that could change quickly. At the same time, the United States keeps making changes in policy that shorten the time-frame for American rule. It is closing down the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and turning power over to the Iraqis on June 30, 2004, much sooner than originally planned, while establishing a huge embassy to help manage our affairs and hopefully keep some grip on the rudder.

The ways of producing a new Iraqi provisional government are also in flux and the subject of intense debates in Iraq and Washington. Military and civilian officials have become less effusive about ambitious political goals for the new Iraq. What constitutes progress in Iraq now seems to be a moving target. These changes flow less from success and more to the realization of our lack of control in Iraq and the need for greater flexibility. Some ungenerously call it a barely disguised tactic of cutting and running before the November 2004 presidential election.

So, practically speaking, not staying the course would be the announcement of a decision to remove all U.S. forces within twelve months, leaving Iraq's own military and police forces to cope with any remaining insurgency (U.S. force levels are headed down in any event). A preliminary arrangement is scheduled to be concluded in March 2004 between the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). This will determine the support of coalition forces to the political process. In July 2004, when a provisional Iraqi government assumes sovereignty, coalition forces will cease to be occupiers but will continue to help to provide security as "invited guests." This proposed timetable, of course, tells us little about what might be done in the interim until withdrawal, particularly if the insurgency were to worsen.

Withdrawal in this time period would likely be accompanied by measures to demonstrate continued American involvement and to maintain Iraqi confidence in the generational commitment. These measures include provision of all sorts of assistance and training; the establishment of cooperative organs between the two countries; continuing diplomatic efforts to maintain the confidence of our friends and allies and to secure greater international involvement, including NATO and the UN and its agencies, which might well be forthcoming with a different American involvement in Iraq.

We could also expect statements that we have given the Iraqis every opportunity to create a new Iraq and that establishing a stable state now effectively rests on Iraqi shoulders, hopefully spurring the Iraqi government to perform better. Secretary Rumsfeld--perhaps, unconsciously--signaled just that in a recent televised address to Iraq's people: "The battle in Iraq today is not a fight between Iraqis and foreign forces--it is a battle between free Iraqis and the last remnants of a defeated regime, who still do not realize that their cause is lost." Yet many believe that any early departure from Iraq in uncertain circumstances is unlikely in a Bush Administration, particularly since the domestic political costs of a sizeable military presence do not yet appear great, while those of failure, on the contrary, do.

Does this not-too-wild scenario promise dire developments for the position of the United States in the world? Until Washington changes its mind, we always will hear that any major military effort undertaken by the United States must be successful, or it will shake the foundations of international life, undermine the American position in the relevant region and the world, and lead to uncontrollable negative consequences.

The most recent example of the contrary is, of course, the Vietnam War, where failure to "stay the course" and prevent Hanoi's takeover of South Vietnam was presented by senior officials as rendering the United States a "pitiful, helpless giant", leading to communist sway over Southeast Asia and altering the balance of power in the world. Vietnam generated far greater divisions and animosities at home and abroad than Iraq has done. There is no question that Vietnam was an enormous defeat for American policy and a disaster for millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese, but it was a loss from which the U.S. quickly recovered internationally--partly because of the divisions in the communist world. Hanoi is of course not as strategically important as Baghdad, and times are different with rogue actors and rogue states; caution here too is in order. Other examples of U.S. military abandonment, but ones in which we had developed little stake, were Ronald Reagan's quick flight from Lebanon in 1983 after the U.S. Marine barracks were blown up and Bill Clinton's escape from Somalia in 1994, following the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters.

America's preeminent power position in the world can endure an early withdrawal from Iraq. The world will continue to depend upon us in every important way. Indeed one can make the case that U.S. forces are so overstretched that a withdrawal might enhance our overall power position and our capacity to do more about Osama bin Laden and other terrorist groups. On the other hand, our will to use power could be reduced. Indeed the most likely impact of an early military withdrawal on policy would be to diminish domestic support for other major military efforts, particularly preemptive ones, much as Vietnam did for a number of years. But in a world where military power is hard to mobilize without U.S. involvement and given America's unparalleled political and technical ability actually to employ military power, basic interests could go unattended and terrible things might happen in the world if our political capability to use power is diminished.

The concerns mostly raised by an early American departure from Iraq focus on the psychological encouragement to terrorists, loss of U.S. prestige in the Arab world, instability in Iraq leading to major disorder or even civil war, and a broader reluctance to rely on American commitments. On these areas disagreement will be great and much depends not only on information and analysis but on the way one thinks the world works. Here, certainty is elusive even if few talk that way. Briefly:

Essay Types: Essay