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November 20, 2006

Iraq: Facing the Truth, and Now What?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

After a few posts about how progressives can build on their recent successes at the polls, readers have had frustration with my inadequate prescriptions for Iraq policy.  Well, I fess up.  I can't promise to solve this any more than the Administration, the Congress, the military or the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group can.  But for those who demand more, here's what I can say on how I see the situation and what we do next:

1.  The scenarios where maintaining current troop levels and adopting various political strategies pay off by producing greater stability seem wildly far-fetched - In short, its tough to imagine a regional conference, a new political bargain among Sunni and Shiite, the involvement of Syria and Iran, an oil trust, the partitioning of Iraq or any of the other steps talked about producing a sustainable agreement that will quell the Iraqi factions and militias.  Not least of the problems is that with our credibility crisis and the Iraqi military's wholesale failings, there's no one obvious to police a ceasefire assuming one could be reached.  In short, it doesn't look like anything that could be tried at this stage stands a reasonable shot of "working."

2.  Talk of a US pullout to put pressure on the Iraqis to "get their act together" simply wont work - Its become very popular to pledge efforts to force Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and others to take control of their country and wean themselves from over-dependence on US troops.  This is the equivalent of deciding to close down the homeless shelter so that residents will finally just go out and find themselves jobs and apartments.  The reasons are rooted in a tangle of political hurdles, legitimate fears, and probably some personal limitations among the Iraqi leadership, but bottom line is:  the Iraqis can't and won't manage to stem the fighting on their own in the short term.

3.  At least in the near-term, if US troops pull out, conditions on the ground in Iraq will probably get worse in terms of lives lost - There are conflicting figures about how many people are dying daily in Iraq, but whether there are 100 or 300 violent deaths a day, the numbers could go up and with the absence of any force capable of maintaining order, its reasonable to expect that they will.   There are plenty of other risks associated with a pull-out, including the spillover of violence into regions of Iraq that are currently quiet, the encouragement of al-Qaeda to turn the country into a new stomping ground, and the emboldening of a potentially incorrigible Iran.

4.  Putting in more US troops seems untenable at this point, and there's no evidence it would help - Not much more to say on this.  It's untenable both for political reasons and because we don't have the troops available (which ties back to the political reasons, but is also an independent constraint).  When we infused Baghdad with more troops, conditions worsened.  When he testified on before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, General Abizaid offered no hope that more troops was the answer.

5. The US needs to be seen to try everything to end the crisis - From a moral perspective and in terms of our international legitimacy, no matter what we do the fate of Iraq will be on our hands in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the world.  While that doesn't mandate an indefinite commitment to a strategy that's manifestly failing, it does mean that reasonable suggestions - the regional conference, the involvement of Iran and Syria - must be pursued even if the chances of their working are remote.  This does not mean that we need to sustain current troop levels until these avenues have been exhausted. 

6.  The US cannot confidently or credibly pick a winner among the Iraqi political factions - Some analysts suggest that in order to quell Iraq, the US should side with a faction - there are arguments favoring both Sadr, the Baathists, and other individual militant groups - and help them fight to the finish to defeat their opponents are assert stable rule.  Unfortunately, our track record of picking foreign political horses in Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq (remember Chalabi?) and elsewhere is dismal.  This strategy stands to potentially deepen Iraq's crisis and - by attempting to impose a leader hand-picked in Washington - erode whatever remaining credibility we have built up as a result of Iraq's lurch toward democracy. 

7.  Folding Iraq into a broader quest for Middle East peace won't solve the crisis any quicker - There's been talk that because the Iraqi insurgency may be fueled in part by frustrations over the plight of the Palestinians, resolution of the conflict ought to be enveloped in a broader strategy for peace in the region, including principally between Israel and the Palestinians.  But wrapping Iraq's fate around an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is hardly a sure path to swift resolution.  On a political note, suggesting that Iraq's fate is somehow inextricably linked to the broader Middle East peace process could become an excuse for the Administration to throw up their hands, averting blame for a regional standoff that no prior President has been able to resolve.

8.  The effort to train Iraqi troops and police is failing - This is hard to face up to, but after years of effort and continued reports like this, its hard to deny.  That's not to say the training effort is a waste, or couldn't be strengthened, but rather that the idea of withdrawing significant troop numbers and simultaneously beefing up the training effort will not significantly buttress Iraq's ability to fend for itself.

9.  If we don't begin a planned exit, there's a good chance we'll find ourselves in an unplanned one - Its surprising that by now we haven't experienced the Iraqi equivalent of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut or the dragging of a corps of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu a decade later.  But it seems likely that that day will come.

So what do we do next:

In short, develop a withdrawal scenario that includes whatever steps can reasonably be taken to minimize the chaos in our wake.  A regional conference, talks with Syria and Iran, improved training and reconstruction efforts, political mediation and efforts to bolster the security of less violent regions should all be part of the package.  To the extent we can engage Iraq's neighbors as well as any other global powers who are willing to step up to the plate and help us and Iraq, we should.  We should be honest with ourselves and with the Iraqis about what we are doing and why, acknowledging all of the above rather than pretending that we're handing off a country that's in better shape than it is.  But we should commit to getting out of there regardless of how the diplomacy and mediation progress.

Our exit should be as responsible and forthright as our entrance was wanton and misleading.   The best thing we can promise troops who are now being asked to put their lives at risk for an all-but-declared failure is that they are taking risks to enable the US to make the best out of a terrible situation, preserving what can be saved of both Iraqi stability (in geographic pockets) and of American credibility.  Its by no means the mission they signed up for, but its an important one nonetheless.


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The US needs to be seen to try everything to end the crisis...While that doesn't mandate an indefinite commitment to a strategy that's manifestly failing, it does mean that reasonable suggestions - the regional conference, the involvement of Iran and Syria - must be pursued even if the chances of their working are remote.

This continues to be the area where you get vague. What does "doing everything" mean?

Would you agree that Iran has the right to develop the nuclear fuel cycle in exchange for its help in Iraq? (That's probably the minimum required to get its support)? What about the Golan and Syria?

If you're not willing to at least negotiate these issues, then we shouldn't be talking nonsense about how "the US needs to be seen to try everything to end the crisis." Nobody will be fooled by this but us.

Had I written this post I would have put the penultimate paragraph first. The American priority with respect to Iraq must be to remove the burden imposed by our commitment there on our resources, on the structure and capabilities of our military, and on the time and attention of our government.

If that can be done without worsening conditions in Iraq, great. It will have to be done regardless, however, and among ourselves we ought to be clear about that. No illusion Americans have cherished about this subject -- not about WMD, or Iraqi gratitude for their deliverance from Saddam Hussein, or the likelihood that a mostly Arab country was capable of building and sustaining a democracy -- has been more profound or consequential than the illusion that this one, mid-sized Arab country and its future are more important to the United States than any other region or task in the whole field of foreign policy (or indeed than all the others put together). It isn't, and never has been, and American policy needs to start reflecting that fact.

That is the main pount. Secondarily, though, I observe that though the herd of Washington foreign policy analysts is convinced that American withdrawal from Iraq is sure to bring all Iraq's neighbors flying into the country to join in its civil war while a terrorist sanctuary blossoms in Anbar, there are elements in this scenario that seem unlikely. Iran may have some illusions about how much it has to gain from direct involvement in Iraqi sectarian fighting, but Iraq's other neighbors do not seem to be champing at the bit to place themselves in the line of fire. Moreover the potential for terrorist training and development in a country where Sunni Arabs and Shiites are intent on killing one another may be less than some people think. In Afghanistan, after all, terrorists could be trained, indoctrinated and so forth for operations outside the country because the civil war there had essentially been won by the Taliban by the mid-1990s. I wonder if there is not some "fighting of the last war" going on among terrorism experts looking at Iraq after the Americans leave and seeing Afghanistan as it was ten years ago.

I want to note that our military problems have come from a failure to negotiate.

We started out saying we wanted democracy but we forbid Ba'athists from participating and we annulled elections when religious leaders won. Surprise! The people who got disenfranchised had no stake in the democracy we wanted to supply to them.

And all along we have refused to recognise militias. We try to build an iraqi army and we have no way to get people to be loyal to it. Meanwhile we ignore or try to suppress the militias whose members are ready to die for what they believe.

We try to build police forces and army units that are supposed to confront the militias and disarm them. Because we assume that militias are antidemocratic?

It's likely too late now, but imagine that it wasn't. Imagine that we went to each militia we could find and invite them to define the boundaries they're willing to commit to maintain order are. And then we look at the overlaps, and invite the militias with overlapping claims to work something out. They could agree on boundaries, or share authority, or maybe barring anything else they could fight it out.

We could start paying militias to maintain order in their areas. The more violence reported, the less pay.

This might seem like a step backward for democracy promotion. Some of these guys are thugs. But while we're officially giving them no status but things to be disarmed, how much influence do we have over them? And who actually has power now, the thugs with loyal militias or anybody else?

Once the violence dies down and the militias are official government units with pay and responsibility, then the iraqi government can look at reducing their thugginess. One good step would be to announce that the (paid) militia leaderships will become elected positions. Who can really argue with that? And each leader will have lots of loyal militia members who'll vote for him. But within a generation it could settle down to politics as usual.

Would iraq become an islamic state? Maybe more than the USA is a christian one. We could live with that Our problems have centered around telling iraqis what we want them to believe and what we want them to do instead of noticing what they believe and what they want to do. The militias represent a primitive form of democracy. One gun, one vote. Recognise them and get them organised some, and they're likely to evolve into something even more democratic. Oppose them and what do we get?

What kind of democracy would we have if we were forbidden to let people organise into political parties? People could believe whatever they wanted but they couldn't organise? In the absence of security, militias are like political parties. People who agree enough to stake their lives on it. And then we say they must disband. Only the democracy we give them is OK, nothing else. They disagree, they don't disband, they're stronger than the government we gave them and we can't disarm them -- we can only kill them when we're ready to apply overwhelming force.

Find the people who're ready to die for their beliefs, and listen to what they want. What do we have to lose? Well, it might already be too late. But apart from that, what do we have to lose?

First, I would like to point out that we have a few dozen excellent reasons to talk directly with Iran, reasons that are not all related to Iraq. So I hope the question of whether or not to deal directly with Iran doesn't become hostage to the issue of what Iran can and cannot do for us in Iraq.

As you say, Suzanne, none of the options that have been proposed will bring a quick end to the violence. No matter which options are pursued, the results are going to be bad. That doesn't mean all of the results will be equally bad. So the question now is not which option will "work" to bring a speedy end to the violence, but rather which represents the least bad option.

I think the best options now available are those that accept the reality that much of the division of Iraq has already occurred, and that further movement in this direction is inevitable. Much of the ethnic cleansing has already happened; much of the division of Baghdad has already happened; the consolidation of home rule and the provision of security by local militias has already taken place in large parts of the country. Undoing the division of Iraq is likely to be more bloody than allowing the process of dissolution, which is already well underway, to continue.

The point is not whether some outside forces or foreign diplomats should "partition" Iraq by drawing lines on maps and attempting to impose them on Iraqis. The point is instead to recognize that Iraqis have already drawn several of their own lines, and that foreign efforts to assist those who now want to erase those lines, and to establish the primacy or influence of some particular sect or group over the whole country is a recipe for even greater violence.

As I see it there are some factions who are currently endeavoring to forcibly re-unify the country and others who are attempting to shore up local autonomy. It is the re-unifiers who are appear to be responsible for much of the most violence at the present time - particularly the insurgency and the US. The insurgency is fighting to re-establish Sunni power in Baghdad and over much of Iraq, and to reverse the movements toward Kurdish and Shiite autonomy. the US is fighting to shore up the pathetic Iraqi government - a government in name only - and establish its sway over all of Iraq, including Anbar province and other Sunni-dominated areas. The sooner both of these parties recopgnize that their aim is futile and they can't win, the better.

This is where may be some hope for Iranian assistance. It is not that the Iranians can bring stability to Iraq under a unified central government. They don't have that kind of influence - not over the whole country. But they do have influence over the Iran-affiliated militias. They can encourage their allies to shore up their own gains and focus on building a secure autonomous region in the Shiite provinces of the south. Currently, some Shiites who have accepted the inevitability of separation may be driven to press the fight against the insurgency, and crush it entirely, because they worry that they will not be able to defend themselves against the Sunni Arabs once the US leaves. This is where the US and Iran could work together to provide assurances to Shiites - along with money and weaponry. Similar support should be given to the Kurds. The Sunnis must be made to see that while they may be able to succeed in driving US forces out of Iraq, their dreams of a unified Iraqi state in which they hold some semblance of their former power are futile.

The major effort now should not be to shore up a central government in Iraq that is almost certainly doomed to fade away, but to recognize the de facto division of the country that has already occurred, and work to help assist who live in those parts of Iraq that are relatively safe in protecting themselves.

Suzanne, you say:

A regional conference, talks with Syria and Iran, improved training and reconstruction efforts, political mediation and efforts to bolster the security of less violent regions should all be part of the package.

How can we improve training and reconstruction efforts and withdraw at the same time? If we're gettting out, we have to give up on the idea of training the so-called "Iraqi Army," and working to reconstruct the country. The best we can do is give money to local governments. And I don't know how much the US can do in the area of political mediatiation. We're one of the combattants in this war, not some kind of honest broker. If anything, we need someone to step in with an offer to mediate between us and the people we're fighting.

All the DA regulars have done a fine job of laying out the situation we have brought about in Iraq and what we might do about it. It's all right on--can't fault any of it. Suzanne and her first responders are first rate thinkers and writers. Seriously. A lot of it ought to be done.

My own feeling, expressed repeatedly, is that we should leave Iraq yesterday.

But don't you think that the powers that really run things in this country (and thereby the world) are probably chuckling at all this chatter and all these remedies from us and others for something that they don't really see as a problem at all? Bring stability to Iraq--why? The elite's making tons of money, the stock market is high, the US treasury is being depleted thus mandating the cutback of social programs--what's the problem with that? We've built at least four military mega-bases in Iraq complete with bowling alleys, bus routes, theatres and fast food franchises situated over our Iraqi oil--why leave all that? A small city almost the size of the Vatican, including three apartment buildings, called "the US embassy," is being erected in Baghdad--why go?

So after all this fanfare the government will "steer a middle course" somewhere between cut-and-run and stay-the-course. Very sensible and responsible, they'll say. And stir up trouble somewhere else besides--Iran comes to mind.

It's like the Palestine problem, which could have been solved long ago by a snap of US government fingers. But, like Iraq, the US government don't want it solved. Instability serves their needs for military spending, domestic repression and keeping us focused on foreign enemies instead of domestic ones.

"War is the health of the state"--Randolph Bourne

The US and its allies have no option but
to remain in Iraq for the long term.

Do you seriously think you can afford to
allow al Qaeda to establish itself right
next door to Saudi Arabia? This region is
THE major source of oil, - the stuff that
underpins your economic well-being. What
a weapon to place in their hands, never
mind the fact that a US retreat would lead
to massive slaughter and suffering!

A military retreat is necessary but we need to give aid to the country in order help improve their economic situation. We need to help move them out of the poverty we created and let the Iraqis solve their problems. We seem to believe that we know how to solve their problems but we are doing a pretty bad job of it right now. So we should get out of their militarily and give them the resources to rebuild and improve their livelihoods and economy. It will save us a lot of money and a lot of lives.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq? Not a factor.

From the WaPo: Although the Bush administration continues to emphasize the role of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Maples [DIA] described the current situation as "mostly an intra-Arab struggle to determine how power and authority will be distributed," with or without the U.S. presence. Al-Qaeda and foreign terrorist numbers were put at roughly 1,300, while Hayden [CIA], pressed by senators, estimated the number of insurgents in the "low tens of thousands." Maples estimated the number of Iraqi insurgents, including militias, at 20,000 to 30,000, and said there are many more who supply support.

A US retreat would lead to massive slaughter and suffering? Already happening.

The US and its allies have no option but
to remain in Iraq for the long term.

Saddam's iraq had no option but to remain in kuwait for the long term. If they gave up and negotiated kuwait away, or failed to show the resolve to keep kuwait in the face of armed opposition, the result would be the eventual destruction of the whole iraqi nation.

But it turned out they just didn't have what it took to stay in kuwait.

And we don't have what it takes to stay in iraq. We don't have $12 billion a month to spare for the foreseeable future. We don't have the men. We don't have the bombs. We don't have the political will. We don't have a strategy. We don't have a clue. We don't have the will or the blindness to continue indefinitely despite all that.

Don Bacon

Al Qaeda not a factor in Iraq? They are in
alliance with Sunni insurgents. The secularism of the Baath party is fading.
There is no reason to think that they
will not be given a safe haven from which to
mount a serious campaign in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, there is slaughter and suffering in
Iraq, but it's a matter of degree. If you
think that, say 500,000 deaths is bad, then
presumably you think 2 million in the wake of a US withdrawl is worse.

J Thomas

Maybe you're right. Maybe the US is not able
to secure the cheap oil its economy needs.
Maybe the future is a world dominated by
China, with economic and military decline
in the West.

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