End the Crusade

End the Crusade

Mini Teaser: The debacle in Iraq reaffirms the lesson of a thousand years ago: there is no such thing as a good crusade; divine missions are not conducive to sensible policy.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

 Here they go again. After spending more than three years, the lives of nearly 3,000 American soldiers, and well over $300 billion in Iraq, the coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who brought America into the quagmire now tell us that the problem was not with having the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, but rather with poor implementation for which they unsurprisingly deny responsibility.

And just as the Crusaders a millennium ago blamed their defeats in the Middle East on a lack of faith, we are told today that it is the realists-those heretics with an insufficient faith in the ability of American values and power to rapidly transform the world-who are poised to sabotage the entire project for spreading freedom throughout the region; that the realists and their false gods of stability and national interest will seduce Americans away from their true calling of spreading liberty throughout the world, even at the barrel of a gun.

But the debacle that is Iraq reaffirms the lesson that there is no such thing as a good crusade. This was true a thousand years ago when those European Christian knights tried to impose their faith and way of life on the Holy Land-pillaging the region in the process-and it is equally true today. As Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has observed, "America cannot impose a democracy on any nation-regardless of our noble purpose." He also noted, "You cannot have a foreign policy based on divine mission. We tried that in the Middle Ages, that's what the Crusades were about." Divine missions and sensible foreign policy just don't go together.

And the crusaders of the last millennium and this one as well have had little qualms about using ignoble means to advance their noble purpose. The modern-day domestic requirements in launching a crusade, such as building public support and obtaining funding in a democratic system, force a degree of dishonesty that inherently undermine its nobility.

Consider the invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration told the United Nations, U.S. allies and-most importantly-the Congress and the American people, that we had to remove Saddam Hussein because he had Weapons of Mass Destruction, active links to terrorist groups (often implying a close relationship with Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 plotters) and was aggressively developing a nuclear weapons program. No other explanation would have allowed President George W. Bush to win congressional support or to assemble a coalition of the willing with participation much beyond subsidized allies in "New Europe."

Did the Bush Administration in its entirety intentionally mislead the American public and the world alike? Certainly not! Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell by all accounts believed that there was strong and sufficient evidence that demonstrated Iraq's WMD capabilities. Indeed, his credibility did much to legitimize the administration's case. For many others, Saddam Hussein deserved the presumption of guilt-and his duplicitous and underhanded dealings provided sufficient cause for concluding he was engaged in a clandestine weapons program. Still, it is equally apparent that the administration did not address the serious questions raised by many in the intelligence community about the quality of evidence regarding Iraqi WMD capabilities.

At the same time, quite a few of the most enthusiastic proponents for an invasion of Iraq both within and outside the administration-what we might term the "war faction"-were less interested in deliberately assessing the threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs. Their main rationale in invading Iraq was to depose an Iraqi regime hostile to the United States and Israel-and to demonstrate to Arabs and others in the so-called Greater Middle East who was the real master of the region. From that perspective, the villainous Saddam was a convenient tyrant whose combination of provocation and weakness made him an ideal demonstration target of American power and determination. His forcible removal and the installation of a new regime would not only show American power but also encourage other governments in the area to be more accommodating to U.S. preferences.

Yet, for obvious reasons, the "war faction" never shared this goal with the American public. Only after it could not find WMD in Iraq did the administration shift the description of the intervention from finding WMD to a crusade for democracy in the Middle East. Thus, the administration pursued democracy in the Arab world via a considerable detour from democracy in the United States itself: after all, what can be more undemocratic than taking the nation to war under false premises?

And if the United States went to war to eliminate Iraq's WMD, could not the administration have settled for removing Saddam in favor of a regime that would allow full and unobstructed inspections? After all, it agreed to normalize relations with Muammar Qaddafi in return for Libya surrendering a nuclear program.

But George W. Bush and his advisors did not seem to consider this as an option for Iraq, even with Saddam gone. Groupthink took hold, and shaky propositions left unchallenged-such as, despite Iraq's ethno-sectarian makeup, democracy could easily take root; that Iraq could simultaneously be a democracy and move to recognize Israel and continue to contain Iran; that only a small number of forces would be needed to get the job done. That Iraq's neighbors-who in 2003 were often and quite publicly warned that they were next in line for forcible regime change-were somehow expected to accept American-style stabilization of Iraq defies belief.

Still, the fact that the war in Iraq was an error does not mean that "cut and run" under whatever disguise is an acceptable solution. Abrupt withdrawal would only compound the mistake with unpredictable consequences for the United States in the Middle East and in the world in general. While there are clearly no good solutions in Iraq at this point, a strong case can be made that we should try everything possible to avoid defeat-and that we have not tried everything yet.

On the other hand, the need to avoid defeat should also be measured against burdening the next administration with Iraq as a defining issue in American foreign policy. The war in Iraq comes at a terrible cost to the federal budget, the morale and readiness of our armed forces, America's ability to conduct operations elsewhere, and its broader diplomatic and military maneuvering room in dealing with other current and emerging threats and the international prestige and effectiveness of the United States. This is not an argument in favor of announcing any kind of schedule for withdrawal or starting a withdrawal during the next six or even twelve months. Rather, it is an argument for the president to recognize that since sending significantly more troops to Iraq over an extended period of time is not an option, and the current strategy is not working, he must make a clear choice to seek a political solution to avoid leaving a massive military involvement in Iraq to his successor.

Many-most prominently the Iraq Study Group-have already proposed a range of ideas for redefining the American military and political mission in Iraq-including in the pages of this magazine's preceding issue-such as "Iraqization" of the war focusing on the anti-terrorist effort rather than nation-building and encouraging the Iraqis to move to a loose confederation with considerable autonomy for the Shi‘a, the Sunnis and the Kurds while helping the Iraqi government to cut the militias down to size.

Realistically speaking, however, we cannot adjust our course in Iraq without adjusting the administration's approach to the Middle East and to international affairs in general.

To begin with, stability in Iraq on terms acceptable to the United States is unlikely without at least tacit cooperation from Iran and Syria. Accordingly, to disengage from Iraq without defeat, America needs either to compel Damascus and Tehran to cooperate or to make a deal with them. The United States does have the resources to force Tehran and Damascus to stop interfering in Iraq. In fact, we have the capability to obliterate their capitals or countries with nuclear weapons. However, the U.S. political process would not allow the administration to use these capabilities, and neither the United Nations nor even NATO allies would support that. In the Muslim world, it could trigger a real war between civilizations. Seeing this, neither Iran nor Syria seems to believe that the United States is willing and able to do what it would take to bring them to their knees.

Absent such will in the United States, there is no credible alternative to dialogue with the two regimes, now described as rogue states by the Bush Administration. The Iraq Study Group was right to recommend including Iran and Syria in a search for a political solution "without preconditions." Of course, talking to them is not a panacea. Those who assume that simply by engaging in negotiations the United States will be able to obtain major concessions from Damascus and Tehran do not understand their true objectives. Each has its own concerns, starting with non-interference in its domestic affairs, and neither is likely to offer any favors to America. It would be an exercise in futility to tell them that they should stop meddling in Iraq; allow the United States, France and Israel to play a decisive role in Lebanon; end support for Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions; and in the case of Iran, abandon its nuclear enrichment program, without both offering something important in return and subjecting them to strong international pressure.

Essay Types: The Realist