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January 22, 2007

Reflections on the Surge and the Future of Iraq (Part 1)
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Some people have asked me how I’ve managed to avoid saying anything about the “surge” up until now. It may be because I have entirely mixed feelings about the matter. The surge is, first and foremost, a pretty good example of “too little, too late.” So I would say that I’m technically against it. However, I fully realize that being against the surge does not constitute a policy, nor does it necessarily answer the question being asked. Jonah Goldberg (and many others) want “us” to take sides and declare our intentions. Easier said than done. The problem is that I’m personally invested in a cause which continues to die a slow, dispiriting death. As I’ve said before, I was beginning, in the early months of 2005, to revise my original opposition to the war, because for me it was no longer a question of whether the war was legal, just, or necessary. The war happened and to be against something that had already happened no longer seemed a logically consistent position, or even if it was, it failed to take into account what to me was always the larger issue – the welfare of millions of Iraqis, whose lives, hopes, and futures hung in the balance.

To state the obvious, I am an "idealist," meaning that while I do fully realize that the awful reality of the Iraq situation, I am hesitant to defer to that reality, for that is exactly what we have done for the last five decades in the Middle East, and at great consequence. I am particularly worried that if we leave Iraq, then there will be nothing left holding the Maliki-Sadr coalition from engaging in a campaign of massive ethnic cleansing of the Sunni population. While some seem to think that the situation in Iraq can’t get any worse, I suspect it can, and, if we don’t take some kind of decisive action, will. The Arab world has a way of defying expectations. At the end of the day, the American presence – and the intermittent American and international pressure to disband the Sadrist killing squads – provide a much-needed check against the excesses of the Iraqi government. It is not nearly enough. But it is something. It is abundantly clear that many in the ruling coalition have a thirst for revenge. The fiasco that was Saddam’s execution (or, in Hitchens’s estimation “officiated sacrifice”) is a sign of the “new” Iraq that will come to be if we immediately withdraw. 

I am also worried that we have learned precisely the wrong lessons from history. James Baker continues to think that the first Bush administration was right in not taking the fight all the way to Baghdad and deposing Saddam during the first Gulf War. He believes that the events of the last five years have vindicated his position. He is perhaps at a loss to realize that we would have never gone to war in 2003 had the “job” been finished when we had the chance to finish it (and when it would have been much, much easier). But we left prematurely then, because we were afraid of all the things that Western democracies are, understandably, afraid of – dying soldiers and the turning tide of public opinion. It should strike no one as ironic that 15 years later, we have paid a greater cost (upwards of 3000 lives) than we would have paid had we gone in then. The sins of the past, invariably, come to haunt us. It is not a matter of if, but when. So if we refuse to do what is necessary now (whatever that might be), I worry that the costs of that decision will only become apparent many years from now. But for people like Baker, hindsight is not 20/20. As the years have passed, his and others’ judgment has become imperceptibly cloudy. Baker, in his own words:

If Saddam were captured and his regime toppled, American forces would still have been confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify a country and sustain a government in power. The ensuing urban warfare would surely have resulted in more casualties to American GIs than the war itself, thus creating a political firestorm at home. And as much as Saddam's neighbors wanted to see him gone, they feared Iraq would fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brand of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq's Shiites and quickly transform themselves into a dominant regional power. Finally, the Security Council resolution under which we were operating authorized us to use force only to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, nothing more. As events have amply dem-onstrated, these concerns were valid. I am no longer asked why we did not remove Saddam in 1991!

Indeed, a creative and perhaps even respectable attempt at cleaning up a dirty, bloody legacy. Our decision, however, not to depose Saddam in 1991 was not only a strategic miscalculation, but it was a betrayal. It was a betrayal of the responsibility that was our and ours alone. We had encouraged the Shias and Kurds to rise up against Saddam, and rise they did. They had, for a time, the upper hand, taking control of key towns and cities. It was only a matter of time before they would have reached Baghdad and claimed victory. But America was not there when it counted. And what became a time of promise, became a time of slaughter.

For those inclined to reconsider the virtues of realism, it would be worthwhile to remember where realism brought us, and where it will yet bring us if we are not careful. It was realism’s emphasis on stability over all else that created the kind of angry, frustrated Middle East that has been a most reliable incubator of violence, fundamentalism, and terror. It is this Middle East, the ones the realists praised and celebrated, that brought us September 11th and turned our (and their) world upside down. For this “miscalculation” they should be held to account, but it appears our memories are short. But Baker will more likely be remembered as a statesman of the highest caliber, a sober mind in a time of war and uncertainty. I will stop there and continue in my next posting. And, yes, I know that I have not yet provided any prescriptions or conclusions. Stay tuned.


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Speaking of learning the wrong lessons!

Shadi, what makes you so confident that the job in 1991 would have been any easier than in 2003? The Iraqi regime was stronger and had a broader base of national support in 1991, and it actually did possess some very dangerous WMD then. I suspect that the prosecution of the war to Baghdad and final victory would have cost more than the 3000 lives we have lost in this war.

And assuming we had been able to destroy what was left of Iraq's army and remove Saddam's regime from power - just as in 2003 - why do you think we wouldn't have faced the very same problem in the aftermath: an endless fourth generation insurgency by a Sunni Arab population that was in no mood to be ruled by an occupying American army?

We had encouraged the Shias and Kurds to rise up against Saddam, and rise they did. They had, for a time, the upper hand, taking control of key towns and cities. It was only a matter of time before they would have reached Baghdad and claimed victory.

You offer absolutely no evidence for this extravagantly speculative claim. Neither the Shia nor the Kurds were as strong in 1991, nor were the Shia as united in opposition to the regime. But again, assuming some Kurdish peshmergas and ragtag Shia guerilla forces had "taken Baghdad", I assume that when they had gotten there they would have found a Baghdad that was then as it was in 2003 - a majority Sunni city filled with Sunni neighborhoods, each packed with people in no mood at all to be ruled by a new majority Shia and Kurdish government. How would these invaders have siezed control of Baghdad without the ethnic cleansing you claim to be so concerned about? Even more to the point, any such attempt at ethnic cleansing would have been met with overwhelming resistence. The whole operation of subduing Sunni Baghdad and the other Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq would have entailed the same kind of civil war that we are seeing now - possibly an even more vicious one given that there would probably have been much more heavy weaponry involved.

The only way I can see things having been easier would be if postwar dissatisfaction within the ranks of the Iraqi military coupled with advancing US military pressure had produced a successful coup against Saddam. But what we would have had then is Saddam II and continued Baathist rule, not some glorious liberation of the Shia and Kurds or the satisfaction of "idealist" dreams.

You are right that our initial encouragement to Shia and Kurds to rise up, followed by our failure to help them, was irresponsible and a betrayal. But one conclusion we might draw from this is that we should not have encouraged the Shia and Kurds to revolt.

By the way, I find it puzzling that so many people are now overwrought with concern about massive Shiite ethnic cleansing - as though all of Sunni Iraq is about to be overrun by Shiite death squads. Yet the ethnic cleansing is occuring in certain mixed urban settings where both antagonists have a significant presence - and both sides are engaging it in. My understanding is that in Baghdad it is already about 75% complete. It has happened on our watch. And Sunni insurgents continues to blow up Shiites with unchecked abandon, which doesn't suggest to me that they are losing the civil war, or are about to be wiped out by Sadrist or government forces.

Once again, you've gotten yourself all tied up in knots with your ideological war on behalf of "idealism" over "realism". And I'm seeing little evidence in this case that the "idealists" have gotten over their pathetic infatuation with and faith in conventional military power, or have overcome their destructive tendencies toward wishful heroic thinking and disdain for empirical reality.

Shadi- I share your concerns but I too, like Dan, think that what is occurring now is very close to the worst-case scenarios you describe. Case in point, in the Weekly Standard Bill Kristol just this week talks about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians that will likely die and the millions of refugees if we don't escalate the war; I had to point out to Mr. neocon that there are already between 1.6-4 million refugees and 100,000-650,000 dead civilians so what he fears has already happened. Could it get worse? Sure, but we need to start realizing that it's very near worst-case scenarios now and that we need to do something radically different, not a little more of the same.


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