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January 22, 2007

So what can we do about Iraq?
Posted by Rosa Brooks

Suzanne's right. Sniping at the Bush Administration is a lot of fun, but progressives need to go beyond critique and offer alternatives-- and resist the temptation to make "let's just wash our hands of the whole thing" be what passes for an "alternative." I don't want to pick on Senator Barack Obama, but I was dismayed by his crack (in response to the President's "surge" speech last week), that "We're not going to baby-sit a civil war."  However intended-- and, in fairness, Obama's views on Iraq are much more complex than that-- it plays to the "let's wash our hands" crowd.

We do have a responsibility to Iraq, and we do have broader responsibilities in the region. The question is: what can we now do that doesn't make things worse? Is there a constructive role for our troops in Iraq to play? If so, what exactly is it? And if not-- or if their role will have to be limited-- what are our other options? If we can't do much good directly, can we still use our military, our money, and/or our diplomacy to encourage other actors to do something directly?

A few weeks ago, I outlined some suggestions, arguing that keeping combat troops deployed as they currently are is only making things worse. instead, I suggested:

In the shorter term (the next six months to a year), redeploying some U.S. troops to secure Iraq's borders might diminish the likelihood that Iraq's civil war will morph into a full-scale proxy war among regional powers.

Military and regional experts, does this make sense? If we're worried about the flow of foreign weapons and personnel into Iraq, can't we play a more helpful role along Iraq's borders-- also, perhaps, ensuring safe passage out for refugees?

I also argued:

Similarly, U.S. military advisors should continue to provide training to the Iraqi army and police in the shorter term, but such programs need to be constantly reassessed to make sure that the Iraqis we're working with don't simply become U.S.-trained members of ethnic death squads.

At this point, this strikes me as the most frightening aspect of the Bush "surge" plan. I'm told that the police and security forces are largely controlled by SCIRI, and many fear that stepped-up US cooperation with Iraqi forces in Baghdad may add up to tacit US support for the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. When I say that, I don't mean to suggest that all or even most Iraqi police and soldiers in Baghdad will try to push Sunni out-- it may be enough that Sunnis will fear that they'll be pushed out, and they'll decide to leave on their own instead of sticking around to see if things get as bad as they might. In the end, the effect would be the same: fewer and fewer Sunnis in Baghdad, squeezed into ever small and more homogeneous neighborhoods. This could well  lead to a "quieter" or "more secure" Baghdad, but the human price would be horrendous.

I'm also an enthusiastic backer of CAP's call for an international peace conference (a la Dayton), for direct negotiations with Syria and Iran, for a genuine commitment to funding Iraqi reconstruction (Bush's promised $1 billion is peanuts), and for meaningful assistance to Iraqi refugees (which starts with US acknowledgment of the scope of the refugee crisis).

No panaceas here... but some good places to start?


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I agree with your main point about the need for Democrats to show that they have something approximating an overall strategic plan for the US, and also have a clear - and clearly articulable - view of how what is happening in Iraq fits into that plan. Otherwise the impression will remain that they simply don't know what the hell they are doing when it comes to foreign policy and US security, and are only improvising on the spot, responding to what the polls of the moment tell them.

Obama's remark wasn't nearly so egregious as Dick Durbin's sarcastic "911" comment in his official Democratic response to Bush's speech. At least initially, the Democrats seem to have settled on the political strategy of blaming the Iraqis for the destruction of their government and bureaucracy, for the disbanding of their army and security forces, for the consequent and predictable unleashing of anarchic violence in the country, for the attempt to socially re-engineer a whole country of 30 million people, for the introduction of foreign occupiers, and for turning over much of the Iraqi economy to western carpetbaggers. The nessage is, "Those damn Iraqi ingrates! We should get out because those barbarians just aren't worth it!"

The problem is that the Democrats are so boxed in by foreign policy nostrums and conventional wisdom, domestic interest group pressures, and their own rhetorical excesses that they have left themselves little room for doing what needs to be done and for proposing any significant innovations in US policy in the region.

A peace conference is a good idea. But it must begin with, and remain focussed on, the neighboring countries in the region. Reconstruction of the Iraqi infrastructure and economy, relieving refugees and the rest can only work if they are part of a comprehensive and well-administered plan for pacifying and rebuilding the country. And no such plan is likely to work unless all of the major regional players have bought into such a plan, are committed to making it work and have set up dedicated diplomatic structures for cooperative implementation of the plan and for resolving disputes. The countries in the region are the only people who understand the details of the social, political and economic networks in Iraq, and can control and mobilize their friends and allies inside the country to work toward a resolution of the Iraq mess. So pacifying the country must be based on bringing in all the region's governments so they can use their good offices to get their allies and favorites in Iraq to make a deal.

Now the problem is that the Democrats as well as the Republicans have spent the past few years hyping Iran as the Great Satan in the region. So it has become politically untenable for many of them to begin talking about bringing Iran into the regional security process. But wihtout Iran's active involvement, fixing Iraq just won't happen.

The "training Iraqi troops" issue has always semed to me to have a touch of unreality about it. It is portrayed in the media as though the problem is literally the pace of training. But the real problem is that at the present time there are few trustworthy people to train and supply. Ultimately, Iraq can only take care of its own security if some government in Iraq has the force necessary to establish its supremacy over rival groups and militias. But no responsible person could possibly imagine handing over a substantial amount of potent and sophisticated weaponry to the miserable showpiece sometimes comically called "the Iraqi government". This weaponry would quickly disappear down a black hole into black markets and into the provision of weapons to sectarian or ethnic militias to fight a civil war.

You're absolutely right-- I forgot about Durbin's remarks, which were depressing in the same sort of way.

I don't see any constructive role for our troops in iraq.

There's no analogy that really fits, but imagine this one -- imagine the chinese army was running the USA, and that after they spent several years treating us as whites and blacks and framing every question in terms of what do whites want versus blacks, and playing up incidents of white/black violence, that the USA actually descended into a race war. What could the chinese army do at that point to improve the situation? It isn't a really good analogy because while we can suppose that most of the chinese wouldn't speak english, they would be able to tell whites from many blacks at a glance, while we need ID cards to tell sunnis from shias. Also we do still have a white majority. And if the chinese tried to arm a new american army to enforce order it would be mostly obvious at a glance to everybody which units were mixed race and which were all black.

However, the nation is divided and we can't take any sudden action until public opinion has mostly reached a consensus. We hate losing wars. If we pull out before it's completely obvious that we've lost, it will be very much harder to pull out of the next losing war.

So we must keep our army uselessly in iraq until we get such an obvious defeat that we can't pretend we haven't lost. American pride demands this.

Or we can let the iraqi government throw us out. We don't have to do that. We can privately tell each iraqi legislator that if he votes to throw us out his family will be "killed by terrorists". We can arrest the iraqi legislature and stage new elections to get a new pro-US legislature. But telling the iraqi government to throw us out is the easy way. "Please, Brehr Sadr, don't throw me in that there briar patch!"

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