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December 10, 2006

Iraq: Damage Control
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

After five days of ruminations and commentary, the prevailing feeling on the Iraq Study Group seems to be one of disappointment and a renewed sense of despair that the hoped-for silver bullet bipartisan solution failed to materialize.

The dashed expectations are twofold: 1) first off, as I lay out here and many others have also written, some of the report's most important recommendations seem flat-out unrealistic, less because they're wrong in theory than because the moment to try to implement them is long-past; 2) with the Bush Administration having swiftly made clear that much of the advice went straight to the cutting-room floor, the parts of the Report that stand a chance of being acted on do not, in themselves, constitute a solution to the crisis or anything close.

The Commission ended up addressing itself to conditions that prevailed a year or two ago rather than the much worse and more confined set of options that are truly viable today. Frank Rich is articulate on this point.

Moving forward, focus should shift to damage control. This requires honing in on the ways in which the situation in and around Iraq can get worse from the perspective of US interests, and taking action to try to prevent those outcomes from happening. While Republicans in Congress are still talking to one another about "victory," the American people stopped listening and believing long ago and now deserve more honest rhetoric and a more realistic strategy.

I can think of six ways in which the situation in Iraq could worsen dramatically (some of this builds on a talk Mort Halperin gave at the Century Foundation last week). Figuring out what to do about each one is trickier, particularly as various preventive steps may conflict with one another. But here's a shot at the 6 worst things that could happen and how to prevent each:

1. Significant additional loss of American life - We've lost nearly 3,000 American soldiers to date in Iraq. With most of the country having concluded that the core purpose of our supposed mission - the creation of a unitary, peaceful and democratic Iraq - is unattainable, continued loss of life to that end becomes not just regrettable but tragic. That's not to say that if we can identify vital US strategic interests (including potentially some identified below) that can still be advanced in a new phase of this effort, that it won't be worth some risk to achieve them.

The easiest way to prevent further loss of American life and limb is to withdraw US troops from the frontline conflict zones in Baghdad, Anbar and elsewhere, either bringing them home, withdrawing them to safer parts of Iraq or redeploying them to missions elsewhere, like in Afghanistan. The implication, of course, is that the US would back away from its current role of policing the Iraqi insurgency and trying to maintain what shreds of calm exist in Iraq's hot zones.

2. Large-scale Iraqi loss of life - Figuring out how to prevent an Iraqi civilian bloodbath is tougher, particularly in a scenario of American withdrawal from the primary conflict zones. But for both moral and strategic reasons, the US needs to consider how to offer innocent Iraqis maximum possible protection given the continued mayhem that's to be expected whether or now we withdraw.

Proposals to create safe corridors that would allow civilians to voluntarily relocate from unsafe areas to calmer parts of Iraq may be one part of the puzzle. International humanitarian aid and relocation assistance should be provided to those who choose to go. While the US should not try to enforce an ethnic federation in Iraq, to the extent that civilians seek sanctuary in areas dominated by their ethnic groups, this may facilitate the kind of provincial division that Les Gelb and others argue is the most likely scenario for a stable long-term political solution in Iraq. The danger here, of course, is that the US and international groups wind up making it easier for sectarian militias to fulfill their goals of taking control over desirable geographic areas. But the only thing worse than ethnic cleansing in Iraq would be ethnic cleansing with neither the US nor the international aid agencies trying to do anything about it.

3. A massive refugee crisis - According to UNHCR between 1.6-1.8 million Iraqi civilians have fled to Jordan and other neighboring countries to escape the violence. These displacees have not been offered refugee status or protection by the governments that are hosting them. Given the legacy of long-term misery and strife caused by refugee crises in the Middle East, the US should on its own and with the UN work to ensure the welfare of Iraqi displacees and, where possible, to enable their eventual return home. This means a fresh and large infusion of funds to the cash-strapped UNHCR and other humanitarian groups.

The next 3 dangers will be harder to ward off, although a number of the same steps may be helpful for each:

4. An Iraqi state and/or people that are deeply hostile to the United States
- While a great many Iraqis deeply resent the US presence, the Iraqi government remains our partner for the time being. Losing that friendship could make things worse for years to come. An overtly hostile Iraq would be a disaster for a variety of reasons: it could make common cause with Iran to advance a nuclear challenge to the US; it could manipulate and distort global oil markets; and it could move toward the kind of anti-Western insularity that has made the Middle East such a fertile breeding ground for terrorists.

No one seems to know for sure whether more Iraqis might hate us for leaving (and for the even worse conditions that may ensue) than hate us for staying, though it seems unlikely at this point. In order to prevent Iraq from being turned over to our worst enemies, the Study Group's recommendation of maintaining a residual force for some period of time seems to make sense (at least until that residual force is all that remains and it becomes clear its doing more harm than good). The functions of such a force - training, securing reconstruction, safeguarding areas outside the immediate conflict zone - will be circumscribed by the absence of large numbers of combat troops to ensure their safety. But a continued presence for some time maintained with the agreement of the Iraqi government may forestall Iranian influence. This should be coupled by a firm assurance that the US does not intend to maintain a permanent military presence in the country.

Another key step, in my view, is to avoid being perceived to try to pick Iraq's political winners and losers. We don't have the influence to anoint Iraq's political leadership, nor to even solidly back up rulers like al-Maliki who we support. Iraq is engaged in a titanic power struggle, and our efforts to tip the scale have generally failed so far, only provoking more resentment of us and of those we've chosen to back.

5. An Iraqi civil war that engulfs the broader region, including Iran and Turkey - The disaster this would represent is obvious. Some continued US troop presence may make a difference, though given that things are sliding in this direction with 150,000 Americans on the ground, its hard to be sure.

One option worth pursuing is what, if anything, the UN membership would be prepared to do to forestall this possibility. There's no chance they'll stand in for the US as "peacekeepers" (with no peace to keep, of course) at this point. But the UN may be able to play a role in border patrols, checking weapons smuggling as they are in Lebanon, and potentially patrolling outlying areas of Iraq that are not caught up in the conflict now but could be if the violence widens. Its hard to say both whether the UN Security Council would authorize such a mission, and whether the troop contributing countries would be willing to participate. The US could maximize chances of a beefed-up US presence by offering to pay for it single-handedly with funds we would save by drawing our own personnel down.

One piece of promising news this weekend was that Iraqi negotiators are nearing an agreement on sharing oil revenues based on the population of each promise. Given the role of oil as a flashpoint for Iraqi civil strife, we should do anything possible to try to foster this accord and its successful implementation, including technical help, international monitoring, auditing, census-takers or whatever might be needed.

Many observers predict that if we do leave, the fighting in Iraq will escalate and ultimately reach some sort of stalemate. At that point, we should do whatever we can to facilitate a negotiated settlement through international involvement in mediation and ultimately peacekeeping. It is at this point that a Bosnia-style federal solution may become viable as a more organic outcome, rather than something the US would have to try to impose.

6. An 1990s Afghanistan-like terrorist haven in Iraq
- There's been ample debate over whether the US presence is fostering or preventing further entrenchment of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq. In the scenario in which we exit the primary conflict zones, maintaining the capacity to launch the kinds of aggressive special forces and commando missions that have proven effective in disrupting terrorist operations seems key, as does holding onto our intelligence network in Iraq. Other steps outlined above - a beefed up UN presence in whatever capacity is achievable, continued reconstruction efforts, and measures to mitigate anti-American hatred - would help here as well.


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The failure of the ISG is just another example of the futility of the New American Century in all its forms. The American Empire is dead. We don't control anything in Iraq and never have. It's out of our hands. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and we can't put him back together again. We can't "figure out what to do" with a mess like this, except to leave it and so keep it from getting any worse. On the "six worst things:"

1. We are not "policing the Iraqi insurgency" we are the cause and the target of it. It could get much worse--the Iraqi army and police are selling their weapons as soon as they're issued. The US supply line runs 400 miles from Iran-controlled Persian Gulf through Muqtada al-Sadr's land. Think last helicopter from Saigon--April 29, 1975. Time to go.

2. Protecting Iraqis is exactly opposite to our whole experience. There are no "innocent Iraqis" when you're in a combat zone where everyone is a potential danger and any movement must be neutralized because they want us dead. Forget it.

3. Refugees have fled to Jordan and Syria, as well as internally. We don't talk to Syria, and won't. Jordan we're friendly with, but the US has no concern with displaced Palestinians so why should it care about Iraqis? Never have.

4. The Iraqis have already made it clear that they want us out, in fact a majority (Sunnis and Shiites) favor attacks on Americans. One can't blame them. The ISG tried to save Bush's bacon by hanging in there--no other reason. The civil violence in Iraq is a police problem, not a military one, and the Iraqi police are irreversibly corrupted.

5. There already is a civil war and it already involves Iran and Saudi Arabia, and soon Turkey. We have no bonafides to facilitate anything. People in the Middle East aren't stupid (like us), they'll work it out if we just leave.

6. The Iranian-allied Shiites who will run the new Iraq probably won't allow terrorists to exist. We need to have an effective intelligence effort to ensure this happens, which we haven't had for some time.

While a great many Iraqis deeply resent the US presence, the Iraqi government remains our partner for the time being. Losing that friendship could make things worse for years to come. An overtly hostile Iraq would be a disaster for a variety of reasons: it could make common cause with Iran to advance a nuclear challenge to the US; it could manipulate and distort global oil markets...

So I guess we’re all realists now, and democracy be damned. Yes the Iraqis hate us, and 70% of them want us to leave within a year, but gosh darn it, an Iraqi government that represents that hostility is unacceptable. Isolating Iran and the price of oil take precedence over the Iraqis’ wishes.

Well Suzanne, you’re going to have to choose. Any fairly representative Iraqi gov’t is going to be led by either Sadr or Hakim. Hakim is closer to Iran, but Sadr’s a nationalist and wants us out. (Bush’s obsession with staying is presumably why he’s now allying with Hakim.)

So which is it: leave and support Sadr, or stay and support Hakim?

(BTW, did I mention that Hakim’s militia was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and that he wants to intensify the civil war?)

While a great many Iraqis deeply resent the US presence, the Iraqi government remains our partner for the time being.

Logic 101:
1. Iraqis hate the US.
2. The Iraqi government is the US partner.
3. Therefore, the Iraqi people hate their government.

But it isn't really a government so it's okay, and it's time for musical chairs in Baghdad again to show progress.

Actually, the only way I can think of to achieve all those goals is to launch a broader war against Iran and Syria... which, hopefully, they'll have the foresight to start.

Not as far-fetched as you might think.

American Politics 101: Once you've identified the Devil to the American people you'd better be prepared to do what's required to defeat him. Talk about "realism" all you like, you might want to re-read The Crucible.

Ya I'm glad we have increased the poverty of the Iraqis. What a great idea! NOT!

It's horrible and sad and now we need to fix it. We need to address the Millennium Development Goals and achieve them so that we can create a more stable and peaceful world.

According to the Borgen Project, over 3 billion people live on less than $2 USD per day! This is inexcusable.

Suzanne: "4. ...In order to prevent Iraq from being turned over to our worst enemies, the Study Group's recommendation of maintaining a residual force for some period of time seems to make sense (at least until that residual force is all that remains and it becomes clear its doing more harm than good)."

Read Major Bill Edmonds' account of his experience as an advisor to an Iraqi intelligence officer ( to understand why this is a fantasy and the US presence is already doing more harm than good.

Three comments about the survey quoted above (World public opinion).

1. Validity? Here is the Methodological note: In September 2006, WPO’s survey included 159 Shias in Baghdad and 342 Shias in the rest of Iraq, plus 75 Sunnis in Baghdad and 324 Sunnis in the rest of Iraq. In January 2006, the sample included 144 Shias in Baghdad and 342 Shias in the rest of Iraq, plus 85 Sunnis in Baghdad and 336 Sunnis in the rest of Iraq.

Not exactly a huge sample size. I would very curious to get more information such as what neighborhoods the Iraqis lived in, how the interviews were conducted (face to face doesn't say much), etc before I will accept the validity of the survey. I am sure the surveyors are very good at their job, but I would like to be assured that they didn't get their small sample from Sadr City and Abu Gurayb. (I think they did a good job of balanced demographics, but I am curious about the "geographics") I am not being delusional, I am being skeptical because the numbers are not representative of what I saw in different parts of Baghdad.

Of course, the argument can be made that Iraqis are just telling a US Soldier what they think I wanted to hear, but that same argument can be said of the survey interviewers depending how the study was done.

I also found it odd that for each question, only 1% ever stated that they did not know or refused to answer. My experience was that many Iraqis refused to answer any questions about politics because "it is not my business, I am a (fill in profession here)" and that they would just give an answer to move the conversation forward.

2. Lots of conflicting data. Assuming it is mostly accurate, it is an interesting conflict between Iraqis who want US to leave right away, but at the same time feel the violence will surely escalate if they leave. Why is that? I believe that is because the Iraqis who are being asked are the ones who support the violence. Some Shia support the sectarian violence because they view it as needed to push the Sunni out of their neighborhoods. The most political push back we ever got in Baghdad from the Maliki government was when we did something that was effective in curbing the sectarian violence.

3. Perhaps a good question for the next survey, do Iraqis support the sectarian attacks? I am willing to bet that when you do the analysis, there will be a high correlation with those who think US should leave, those who support attacks on US, those who believe the sectarian violence to be necessary, and of course, the neighborhood (not just in the city) that they live in. What percentage are those people?

I've just known too many Iraqis who will change their opinion with each question. From my opinion, many of the Iraqis see each question as an not being interrelated with the question previous question because their answer is not based on what they really think, but what they've been told is the correct answer (a byproduct of 30 years of Saddam and an oppressive religion)

Suzanne, im afraid you are just as clueless as the geriatric posse on the ISG.
I fisked you at eteraz. None of your suggestions are useful or practical. sorry.

and one more thing Suzanne, the UN already left Iraq. If they could be persuaded to return, as venal as they are, it would require bribery on such a massive scale it is unimaginable to me. And they would require protection from the American forces amounting to interposing American mil bodies between UN bodies and harms way. What would be the advantage of involving the UN again?

I really dont see any difference between you and hinderaker. You're both in cloud-cukoo land.

There are certain things in life related to smoking that simply cannot :)
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