Responding to Critics

January 12, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Troop SurgeSuperpower

Responding to Critics

In Iraq, we are faced with a plethora of bad choices and imperfect outcomes. We cannot wait for the deus ex machina to arrive and save the day

Ray Takeyh and I have a habit of writing provocative pieces that are usually vociferously denounced and attacked at the time they are published but often are (although not always) vindicated by developments over time. I feel (and I write in the single person here, as I have not coordinated this response with my co-author) that our latest endeavor which just appeared in the International Herald Tribune, "Mr. President, this war is over", will also stand the test of time.

In an article written in spring 2003 (and published in the summer 2003 issue of Orbis), we laid out the case why spreading democracy in the Middle East would not advance U.S. strategic objectives, since even a casual perusal of opinion polling showed that any government in the region dependent on the ballot box for power would be under greater pressure to distance itself from the American agenda. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on September 7, 2003, we warned: "In a country lacking a strong national identity, a country in which ethnic and regional loyalties are paramount, democracy could well result in another Lebanon-an unstable patchwork of local ethnic fiefdoms perilously perched at the brink of civil war." We went on to say:

This sort of liberal autocracy should be America's model for political reconstruction in Iraq. Instead of quixotic democratic schemes, Washington should create a strong central government in Baghdad, one that is responsive to its citizens but also capable of regulating local rivalries and is insulated from popular pressure.
America's goal should be to transfer power to an indigenous regime as soon as possible, not to use Iraq as some sort of social-science laboratory for nation-building. The United States should select an efficient new leadership capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular discontent with American policies. There is a great deal of talent in the midlevel ranks of the military and civil service that can be tapped for such a purpose.
Empowering pragmatic local administrators (as opposed to exiled politicians) would ensure that the leadership is in touch with the needs of the Iraqi people, and that it would have a good chance of surviving even after the U.S. withdraws.
The continuing unrest in Iraq today demonstrates that its citizens crave services, not abstract notions of pluralism. If a new regime improves the quality of life for Iraqi citizens, it will gain popular support -- even if it was backed initially by the U.S.
The United States is at a crossroads. It can either face the very real risks of democratization or dispense with its Wilsonian pieties and craft a durable new order for the Middle East. It cannot do both.

Criticism of the latest piece takes a number of forms. Dispensing with the ad homimen attacks (America-haters, enemies of freedom, foreign agents and so on), there are three principal responses or comments that have been made.

The first has to do with stylistic concerns about tone. Why are we so pessimistic? Why are we undermining national morale by talking about defeat and loss?

I, for one, want to wake people up and break us out of our habit of always assuming that, when faced with a plethora of bad choices and imperfect outcomes, we wait for the deus ex machina to arrive and save the day. Too many here in Washington continue to assume that we can leisurely set the timetable for events. We can't. We keep hearing that the only outcome we can have in Iraq is "victory"; we need to start thinking long and hard now about what we do and how we preserve our position and our interests if Iraqis don't do the things we expect of them. This isn't defeatism, by the way; it's called common sense. You hope for the best, you prepare for the worst. We aren't doing that.

And solutions that could have worked in 2003 or 2004 may not, and probably will not, work in 2007. You can't suddenly decide that General Petraeus' approach can just be re-started and will produce effective results years later.

The second response is to use what I think are inappropriate comparisons with the Civil War or World War II; what would have happened if Lincoln or FDR were forced by discontent about the sacrifices of war to make peace instead of achieving full victory? For one thing, both those conflicts were conventional wars with clear parameters for defining progress. If nothing else, compare a map of the lines in 1862 with 1864; or 1942 with 1944. In both there were clear and definitive signs of progress. And remember, Lincoln's re-election was ensured when Sherman completed his "march to the sea", which signaled the Confederacy's impending doom as a viable entity.

Do we have a clear record of progress in Iraq? Michael O'Hanlon's "Iraq Index" doesn't support a convincing affirmative answer to that question. Certainly we see no Malaysia-style dynamics where, over time, effective counter-insurgency techniques combined with material progress have begun to reduce the fighting and contain it to limited corners.

I think those who think that "victory is around the corner" are now the ones who have to present the evidence that supports that conclusion.

The final response is some variant of "leaving Iraq means the terrorists have won" or that Ahmed from Anbar province will be in Des Moines the weekend after the Marines leave to wreak havoc at the shopping mall. The attempt here is to say that we are jeopardizing U.S. national security. Well, I have news for you. While we're bogged down in Iraq, North Korea crossed the nuclear finish line and Iran's progress toward its own nuclear device and regional hegemony continues. Other major powers are taking advantage of our distraction in Iraq to strengthen their own positions, and, by the way, Al-Qaeda seems to be reconstituting itself just fine outside of Iraq.

Good strategists know that you have to pick and choose battles. FDR came under tremendous pressure to alter his strategy during World War II of concentrating on defeating Nazi Germany instead of focusing most of America's attention on Imperial Japan-even though Japan had struck Pearl Harbor and even successfully occupied a few pieces of U.S. territory in North America. Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted a cease-fire that left North Korea intact and did not use the revolts against Soviet power in East Germany and Hungary as opportunities to launch a war against the USSR. If Iraq was the only problem on the U.S. agenda, then making it the central front in the war on terror might be justifiable. But it is not.

Senator Chuck Hagel had it right when he said, in reaction to the president's speech:

"This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost. We cannot escape the reality that there will be no military solution in Iraq."

Ending a campaign to save the republic is no defeat.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest