Baghdad or Bust

November 10, 2006 Topic: Security

Baghdad or Bust

Getting Baghdad right may well require, then, a partial retreat from the Sunni Triangle, where tens of thousands of our soldiers are tied down in an anti-insurgency campaign that, according to recent reports, has yielded few lasting gains.

Editor's note: President Bush will unveil his new surge strategy for Iraq tonight. Writing in the November/December issue of The National Interest, Gary Rosen argued that America should focus its military efforts on Baghdad and try to bring stability to Iraq's capital.

The declared aim of American policy is an Iraq that can "govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself." That is a fine definition of long-term success, but in our present fix, it is too abstract and comprehensive, to say nothing of its embarrassing distance from any fair assessment of conditions on the ground. We need a more achievable, concrete goal, one that would point unmistakably to progress and, ultimately, to a way out. My suggestion? A concerted effort to turn the Iraqi capital into a model city-or at least into a livable, functioning one. Call it "Baghdad or Bust."

In saying this, I do not mean to be flip or simple-minded. Our aims in Iraq cannot be reduced to a slogan. But with the end of the Bush Administration in sight and the 2008 presidential race approaching, our Iraq policy is in desperate need of tangible results, especially if one hopes, as I do, that the United States will maintain a substantial presence there for several more years. The war is "straining the psyche of our country", as President Bush himself recently conceded, and that strain has proved impervious to the dogged optimism of the administration. Securing and pacifying Baghdad would go some way toward dispelling the sense of despair that now hovers over the whole question of Iraq.

My proposal is not exactly a new idea. During the summer, in the face of mounting sectarian strife and of an insurgency far indeed from its "last throes", the Iraqi government and U.S. military rolled out a new security plan for Baghdad. Additional forces (overwhelmingly Iraqi) were brought in to man checkpoints, conduct searches and take up positions in key neighborhoods; a security perimeter of trenches and other barriers will soon encircle the sprawling city.

Such tactics may bring a temporary lull in the blood-letting, but they are unlikely to transform the brutal reality of Baghdad. With more than six million residents and some 250 square miles, the Iraqi capital is not going to be subdued by half-measures, and certainly not with an overall commitment of just 13,000 U.S. troops (up from 9,000 earlier in the summer). As with our last big idea for Iraq-reclaiming the country block-by-block through a policy of "clear, hold and build"-American boots and dollars are simply spread too thin; we lack the resources to make good on our full slate of objectives.

Critics of how President Bush has waged the war should finally resign themselves to the fact that Iraq is not going to receive a substantial new infusion of U.S. troops, in part because there is so little give left in our already overstretched military. Getting Baghdad right may well require, then, a partial retreat from the Sunni Triangle, where tens of thousands of our soldiers are tied down in an anti-insurgency campaign that, according to recent reports, has yielded few lasting gains. A focus on Baghdad would have definite costs-Al-Qaeda would have freer rein in western Iraq, the capital's Shi‘a militias would resist our presence, American soldiers would be more exposed-but the prospects for visible progress would improve dramatically. Better to fight well on one key front than to engage in damage control across several.

Making serious headway in Baghdad would not be just a symbolic victory, a way to generate less dismal news coverage and bolster support at home. An orderly, well-governed Baghdad would give Iraqis a glimpse of what their national future might look like and would provide some breathing room to those genuinely devoted to pluralism and political reconciliation. Brokering some kind of workable constitutional arrangement among Shi‘a, Sunnis and Kurds was never going to be easy, but it is almost guaranteed to fail against a backdrop of relentless Hobbesian mayhem. Iraq cannot survive if Iraqi politicians feel safe only in the fortified confines of the Green Zone and if the Baghdad morgue fills up each day with the victims of political murder.

Nor can the United States contemplate an exit under such circumstances. A premature withdrawal might not result in every disaster that has been foretold-a wider regional war seems unlikely-but it would be ugly. Sectarian attacks and reprisals would no doubt intensify, and Anbar province might come to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban. The odds would tip decisively toward outright civil war. Iraq might stay together, but not on terms the United States would like, and its devolution into a failed state-one deeply entangled with our own vital economic and security interests-might well bring us back in short order.

Leaving Iraq "before the job is done", as President Bush puts it, would also confirm the region's worst suspicions of American motives. It would add yet another grievance to the Arab litany. It would enhance the prestige and appeal of the Islamists. And it would provide a ready excuse to Arab autocrats, whose resistance to liberalization needs no encouragement. Whatever the failings of the American war effort, Iraq remains the critical arena for ushering the Middle East into modernity.

Moreover, our achievements there are real. It is impressive and important that Saddam Hussein no longer menaces the region or oppresses the Shi‘a and Kurds, that Iraq has held a series of elections without precedent in the Arab world, that rival political parties and a competitive press now thrive there, and that the size and combat-readiness of the country's army increase by the day. What we have failed to provide-and what we still owe Iraq-is enough stability and security to make our talk of democratic revolution sound like something more than rhetoric. In Baghdad, if not in the country as a whole, we may yet be able to bring about those conditions.

If we do, we will have fulfilled our basic obligation to the Iraqis, who in the end must decide for themselves whether to remain a nation, and if so of what sort. The United States cannot create a new Iraq, but we can determine whether there is a decent chance to establish one.

Gary Rosen is the managing editor of Commentary and the editor of The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq (Cambridge).