A Bright, Shining Truth on Iraq

October 24, 2006 Topic: Great Powers Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: SuperpowerIraq War

A Bright, Shining Truth on Iraq

It is time to move forward in Iraq by moving out.

The Iraq equivalent of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam has now occurred. And it is ongoing. American military casualties are skyrocketing, as are casualties in the Iraqi military and among Iraqi civilians. The U.S. Army clearly cannot pacify Baghdad, Anbar Province is now largely under the control of Iraqi insurgents and fundamentalists, and Shi‘a militias grow ever more powerful and independent of Iraqi government control. If Pascal was correct that clarity of thought is the sine qua non for effective human action, it is surely past time for some lucid thinking to begin to be applied to Iraq.

Iraq has now become, in the words of the partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate, a "cause celebre" for terrorists and a graduate school for a new and proliferating generation of international jihadists. Nevertheless, far too many members of the American policy community still seem to believe that the situation in Iraq can and indeed somehow must be saved by American military action.

Recently, there has been substantial media commentary on Senator Joseph R. Biden's advocacy of something he calls "federalism plus" in Iraq, a concept he amplified in the September/October issue of The National Interest. But federalism is a Western political concept that has little or no contemporary resonance in Iraq or in most of the wider Islamic world. Quite unlike centuries past, decentralization today is understood by Muslims as one more Western technique to fragment an Islamic world that already feels itself divided and supine at the feet of a crusading or imperial United States. Nationalism in the Arab East remains powerful, despite the fact that it now carries an Islamic rather than a secular banner. Any American attempt to foster federalism in Iraq, whether "plus" or "minus," would probably be understood by Muslims as simply a new refrain on a very old tune. There is now little probability that any American initiative can pull a viable federalist rabbit out of the Iraqi political hat.

The good news is that an increasing number of Americans seems to understand that the urgent need of the hour is the restabilization of the Middle East. That is precisely the objective that should be sought. Rooted in the precepts of realism, and cognizant of the larger realities of the Arab and Islamic worlds, restabilization remains a viable alternative to current policy in Iraq and elsewhere. But for how much longer?  The clock ticks toward midnight with every passing day.

Despite supposedly being weakened, the revolutionary utopianism of neoconservativism remains the lubricant for much of contemporary American foreign policy. This is so despite the fact that the results of that utopian thinking, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, are now clear for all to see. How long does one have to beat a donkey until it learns?

The time is now to make very clear that one major reason for the tragedy in Iraq was the desire of such neoconservatives as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith to remove Iraq from the geostrategic chessboard of Arab states which perhaps might develop some future ability to militarily checkmate Israel. And this is true despite Mr. Wolfowitz's occasional mild expressions of concern for the welfare of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation. Like so much else, neoconservative policies have only empowered Hizballah and Iran, which are or may shortly become far greater threats to Israel than Iraq ever was. Truly, neoconservatives succeeded in summoning evil spirits from the vasty deep. When the neoconservatives called, these malign spirits indeed did come to them. But, in Iraq and elsewhere, they also came to each and every one of us. Such spirits are likely to haunt us all down long years of the future.

The way forward requires the swallowing of some bitter medicine. The first and most unpleasant of those medicines is to recognize that the United States can no longer square the political and military circle in Iraq, if it ever could. It is time to move forward in Iraq by moving out.

The American war in Iraq is lost. And it is lost beyond recall. Unlike what Senator Biden has written and many still believe, the Iraqi army today is not "much more capable than it was just a year ago, thanks to an increasingly effective U.S.-led training effort." In fact, the Iraqi military, as well as the Iraqi police force, are riddled with insurgent and Islamist spies, provocateurs and double agents. The Shi‘a Mahdi Army has today perhaps become as powerful as the "national" army. Morale in the Iraqi army is low, desertions are rampant and operational proficiency remains dubious at best. Now, the Iraqi army appears unlikely ever to become a truly effective and independent military force.

The U.S. military is aware of this sad reality, as are Osama bin Laden, Sunni and Shi‘a Iraqis and most of the rest of the world. The authors of the most recent NIE are also cognizant of this, but for policy reasons seem unable to say so. Clearly, the NIE's call to "stay the course" in Iraq is quite at variance with the hard evidence it presents. Unfortunately, the media commentariat in the United States, as well as most American politicians, are unwilling to state that the emperor has no clothes. This is a grave disservice to the national interests of the United States.

For their part, the 145,000 U.S. soldiers now in Iraq will not likely be doing better next year, or in any of the years after that, than they are right now. Given both military and political realities, there is no chance that the current American force can be increased by the orders of magnitude that might make any significant difference in Iraq. Good American soldiers are now dying at an average rate of more than 45 a month, a higher rate than in either 2004 or 2005. The Iraqi insurgency continues to grow, and the jihadist minority in the insurgency may be increasing significantly from its reported level of only five percent. Clearly, whatever the United States has been doing in Iraq over the last three years has not been working. The time for palliatives is past.

Al Qaeda was increasingly rejected by Muslims in late 2001 and 2002. Its ideology was condemned publicly by Muslims, and its 9/11 attack on the United States denounced. Even Muslim radicals criticized Al Qaeda for violating the fundamental Islamic principle of never attacking an enemy without first inviting him to convert. But American involvement in Iraq turned everything around, effectively silencing such criticism.

One hard reality that must be recognized is that no war on terrorism can ever be won without indigenous support in the Islamic world. The United States forfeited any possibility of attracting such support by its adventure in Iraq.

The issue is not one of "cut and run." Rather, what is needed is a global repositioning of U.S. forces, based on a fundamental reassessment of how the war on terrorism can most effectively continue to be prosecuted. Deterrence is indeed applicable to the Islamic world, and a revival of an "over the horizon" strategy has much to recommend it. Constant repetition of the "cut and run" phrase forecloses intelligent debate.

Withdrawal from Iraq is not likely to place the U.S. mainland in any greater danger from terrorism than it is now. On the contrary, it is likely to reduce that danger. At the very least, redeployment of American forces will greatly reduce the number of U.S. instructors in the art of what works and what doesn't for their Iraqi students in the insurgency. And it will render more difficult recruitment efforts by the insurgents by removing their trump card of resistance to occupation. Were a repositioning of U.S. forces combined with a new and serious push to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, jihadists in Iraq might seriously begin to fear for their future. And they would have good reason for that concern.

Iraq is now a failed state. In some sense, it has been ever since its foundation. There is now nothing that the United States can do to rectify that. Of course, announcement of an imminent but phased U.S. military disengagement from Iraq might just focus Iraqi minds, in a way they have not been focused to date, on how best to move seriously to solve their own problems.

The end in Iraq will be bloody. In all likelihood, the Shi‘a will emerge victorious, but the situation is long likely to remain chaotic. Probably, Kurdistan will retain functional independence, unless Turkey decides otherwise. Iranian influence may increase significantly in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, after a U.S. withdrawal. But the staying power of U.S. Sunni client states in the region has frequently been underestimated. Such states are likely to survive an American withdrawal without catastrophic consequences.

What is most important to recognize is that a U.S. withdrawal will keep the United States from being consumed by the flames in Iraq, deprive Bin Laden of a prime recruiting tool and perhaps halt the slide of American approval ratings in the region to near zero.

Most American client states do want the United States to stay in Iraq. But these undemocratic states are almost totally unrepresentative of the views of their own people. However much terrorism may be abetted by Iran or Syria, it is fundamentally a phenomenon that originates from below, not at the state level. Whatever U.S. client states may say, the United States should recognize this reality. The United States must also recognize the reality that Arabs see the occupation of Iraq for what it is, rather than as a means for bringing "democracy" to the area.

Arabs do indeed want some form of democracy. But, as Michael Vlahos has eloquently argued, they want some other things even more: independence, authenticity, and redemption. Most importantly, Arabs and Muslims will never accept the real or perceived imposition of democracy on the point of American bayonets. Today, the most effective U.S. tactic for the promotion of democracy may well be to cease talking about it.

Major General John Batiste is correct that the United States faces a "protracted challenge" from jihadists. But the question is how that challenge may most effectively be met. Significant numbers of additional, combat-ready troops are simply not available for deployment to Iraq. And the patience of the American public with the entire Iraqi debacle has run out.

Debate, by Democrats and Republicans alike, should now turn to alternative means to confront terrorism, and to discussion of countermeasures that do not always or necessarily involve the deployment of large numbers of American forces abroad.

Antony T. Sullivan is president of Near East Support Services, a consulting firm. He has written widely on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.