The Region: Toward a new strategy in Iraq

The way the war is debated actually makes it difficult to understand what to do.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The Iraq war is one of modern history's most controversial issues. There is no ideal solution but, as is so typical of our era, the passions aroused make it difficult to discuss the problem rationally. In the West there are two main viewpoints on the war. Defenders of continuing the leading US role argue that the battle is going better than the media reports and that an American withdrawal would have dire consequences. US credibility would plummet; radical Islamists and terrorists would claim it as a victory. They warn that a US withdrawal might precipitate a bloodbath, an Iranian takeover of Iraq, or an al-Qaida victory there. Critics state that the war is unwinnable and that continuing it strains US resources better used elsewhere, inflicting needless casualties, and undermining both US credibility and deterrence power. There is a division among the critics between liberals who fear the war damages US national interests and radicals who would like to see America defeated. Some say the war encourages heightened terrorism; others that it is battering terrorist forces. There are those who argue that continued American presence can bring democracy to Iraq, and those who believe this is an impossible challenge. It can be said that the US role protects innocent Iraqis, or that it exposes them to death and destruction. Clearly, this debate is not going to be settled by either clever arguments or clear facts. Rather, this dispute is enveloped by bitter partisan hatreds that I think exceed those of the Vietnam War era. THERE ARE many examples showing that way the war is debated blocks an understanding of the problem. A lot of the specific debating points cut both ways. For example, it can be argued that the insurgents want the US to withdraw so they can claim victory; but by the same token they need the American enemy there to justify their own terrorism against Iraqis.Or it can be claimed that a US withdrawal would reduce American credibility, but it can be equally pointed out that a continuing presence so ties down the US that Iran, Syria, and other enemies don't have to take its threats seriously. It is true that the US forces are killing terrorists, but it is also true that the idea that the fighting is a jihad against foreign invaders is recruiting terrorists. The strategy of a surge in troop levels can win battles but by the same token it cannot win the war. The advocates of the war are wrong in saying the US can achieve victory in the existing framework, but the critics are wrong in saying the US can lose. The US's role in the fighting preserves the current government, but it also prevents it from standing on its own feet, for only when the Baghdad regime has to fight and win the war itself will it truly mobilize its forces for doing so. This kind of paradox can be presented for 20 different points regarding the war. And if the US political scene and public opinion was willing to continue the war for five years as it is being conducted today, at the end of that period the situation would be roughly the same as it is now. WHAT IS needed is a US shift in strategy that includes withdrawing most of the troops, minimizing a combat role, turning over the fighting to Iraqi forces and using the remaining soldiers for training and logistics. Such a strategy would involve neither surrender nor status quo; neither a humiliating withdrawal nor a useless continuation of the status quo. A regime which has strong support from 80 percent of a population - the Shi'ites and Kurds - that is well-armed and ready to fight is not going to be overturned by bands of insurgents. Yet only when the Iraqi government has to defend itself or perish will it be forced to fight successfully for itself. What is the potential downside of this strategy? Let's deal with it frankly. If most US forces withdraw, does this mean America lost? No. The US has already won two wars: by defeating Saddam, and by establishing and sustaining a democratically elected government. This is a sufficient achievement. This third, tougher and longer war must be fought by the Iraqis themselves. Only by trying to accomplish too much has the US been setting itself up for defeat. Will turning over conduct of the war to Iraq's regime bring inter-communal bloodshed? Yes. But it is already happening. Whether we like it or not, the only way to end it is if Iraq's government uses methods far nastier than anyone in the West would do. Would a US turnover of the war bring an insurgent victory? No. Any insurgents who survived the majority's revenge would be very lucky. Couldn't the Sunnis and Shi'ites agree to end the conflict with US diplomatic help? No. Even if Sunni leaders wanted to, the radicals would murder them. The only hope for peace is if the Iraqi majority crushes the insurgency. Could the Iraqi regime break apart in a Shi'ite civil war and a state run largely by militias? Yes. But the Shi'ites are likely to stick together at least until they win the civil war. Would Iraq become an Iranian satellite? No. Iraqi nationalism, even in Shi'ite guise, is the greatest protection against Iranian control. The US cannot make over Iraq or "save" the country. America can help Iraq's regime to survive and aid it to ensure that Osama bin Ladin or Iran doesn't take over. But continuing current policy - pretending the US can win a victory, or that American soldiers have to fight more years until the Iraqis are "ready" - is a huge mistake. And ironically, insisting on maintaining the current strategy only makes it more likely that a new American leadership will come along and order a quick and complete withdrawal, which will be equally costly.