Andrew Sullivan has a long post on what American strategy should be in Iraq. In brief, he thinks America should withdraw and leave the mess to Iran and in that way, turn defeat into a victory of sorts. He begins his argument by laying out his premises. The first is that a America has been defeated in its attempts to create a democratic Iraq; the second that a civil war is already under way; that America can't stop it and neither can it take sides. First, he paints the face of defeat.
Many will call this a defeat. In many ways, it is. The attempt to remake the Middle East on our terms and on our own schedule has been revealed in retrospect as pure folly. The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead. It seems clear to me that the deep trauma of the Saddam years - an unimaginable hell to those of us who have experienced nothing like it - needs time to resolve itself. It may even need a civil war to resolve itself. ...
And that civil war is not only under way, it is unstoppable; plus, though he doesn't say it, it is not in America's interest to stop it. Therefore any plans to send a surge force to provide security for Baghdadis would not only be doomed to failure, but pointless. America would do well to get out of the crossfire and let Iran get sucked into the vortex.
The second and graver problem is that any such surge would, at any moment, require the U.S. to side with one of the factions in Iraq and so embroil us in the Shia-Sunni civil war that is spreading throughout the region. That strikes me as a terrible risk. We are already targeted by terrorists simply for our freedom. To be targeted for being pro-Shi'a or pro-Sunni would add another layer of risk to the American public. ...
My own view is that withdrawal might even have some beneficial consequences. It will force Iran and the Sunni powers to intervene either to foment war or to stymie it. It could well unleash turmoil in Iran, and give Tehran a huge headache that will give it an incentive to deal with the world at large. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad will regard al-Sadr as a stable partner. Crucially, withdrawal could change the narrative of this war. So far, the narrative has been the one scripted by bin Laden: Islam versus the West. Thanks to Zarqawi, the narrative could soon become: Islam against itself. That is the real struggle here, masked by Western enmeshment. By getting out of Iraq now - decisively, swiftly, and candidly - we could actually gain in the long war. At some point, the chaos could force Iran to the negotiating table for fear of the massive instability on its doorstep. So Iraq could become the key to Iran after all.
His solution: withdraw to Kurdistan and deal with the last man in Iraq standing. "But my view right now is that we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities." With such a solution on offer, and victory actually lurking in the wings, Sullivan's obligatory hit-out at President Bush sits uneasily within the rest of his post.
The truth is: we have lost this battle, if not the war. I am still inclined to believe such a loss was avoidable. The amazing restraint of the Shia for so long, and the enthusiasm for elections, revealed the potential in Iraq for a breakthrough. But this president threw it away. There is no getting around this, I'm afraid. It is reality. And if we do not get out by June, I fear an even worse one.
To be fair, Sullivan's view of Iraq as the potential Middle Eastern democracy that the Administration's mistakes threw away has been echoed by a number of people, such as Richard Perle for example, in an interview with Vanity Fair. Perle casts the net of blame for Iraq wider than Sullivan, yet still leaves it squarely at the Presidents's doorstep.
According to Perle, who left the Defense Policy Board in 2004, this unfolding catastrophe has a central cause: devastating dysfunction within the administration of President George W. Bush. Perle says, "The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly.… At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible.… I don't think he realized the extent of the opposition within his own administration, and the disloyalty."
Perle goes so far as to say that, if he had his time over, he would not have advocated an invasion of Iraq: "I think if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, 'Should we go into Iraq?,' I think now I probably would have said, 'No, let's consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.' … I don't say that because I no longer believe that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that he was not in contact with terrorists. I believe those two premises were both correct. Could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have."
But fewer are as optimistic as Sullivan is about the benefits of standing back from the vantage of Kurdistan and watching the Sunni and Shia -- both within Iraq and from neighboring countries -- duke it out. The several obvious complications are:
- Iran will soon have a nuclear bomb.
- Sunni countries are now openly seeking their own nuclear capability to offset the device the Iranians will have soon.
- Iran may rationally or irrationally pose a nuclear threat to Israel.
Note that these developments would have occurred nearly independently of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But let us continue the list of problems that must be managed if America were to stand back and watch the ongoing conflict.
- Leaving the arena accepts the danger that Saudi Arabia and Iran may intervene in Iraq, with money at least, to support the Sunni and Shi'ite factions respectively, which, added to the face-off now taking place between the Sunni and the Shi'ite backed elements in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories has raised the specter of making the Iraqi sectarian conflict a regional affair.
- Neither the Sunni nor the Shi'ite side is likely to show as much restraint as the American and it is not obvious that whichever power seizes control of Iraq will not be in solid control and be willing to deal with a landlocked American force in Kurdistan, dependent on road supplies from Turkey to maintain itself.
In short, Sullivan's prescription of a withdrawal as the route to a hidden victory is a wish without the obvious prospect of fulfillment. It would be nice if it happened, but in principle it would be the equivalent of what critics of the Administration have accused it of: toppling Saddam and hoping "something wonderful" would happen. Withdrawing from the card table with a losing hand in anticipation of returning to sweep the stakes later in the evening must depend on more than the hope that it will happen. The dilemma of Iraq was expressed in a conversation I recently had with a US officer. He was willing to grant -- even argue forcefully -- that the US had made many mistakes in Iraq but still maintained the consequences were nothing in comparison to a precipitous withdrawal. "We have a choice of evils," was the way he put it.
But some of the evil was rooted in American deficiencies which have not yet been redressed. Part of it was doctrinal. The US military was struggling to re-engineer itself to fight a war far different from the high-intensity battlefield it was designed for. Part of it was systemic. America could not mobilize all the elements of national power: the politics, information warfare, the development infrastructure -- that was needed to fight against a terrorist enemy. When Richard Perle spoke of Bush unable to come to grips with "the extent of the opposition within his own administration, and the disloyalty", I think it was in part a reflection of the ingrained bureaucratic agendas which were transported in untimely and deadly fashion, into the Middle Eastern battlefield.
Yet more to the point, those deficiencies will not be redressed by withdrawing to Kurdistan and watching from the sidelines. Any path to victory along the "choice of evils" must be one in which those structural deficiencies are redressed. Whatever America does from this point forward, it must acquire the language capabilities, information warfare capacity, be able to mobilize all sources of national power and create the structures necessary to win. Otherwise it will always re-enter the fray; have to face the Last Man Standing in Iraq, with exactly the same threadbare set of instruments it possessed in 2003. I would be guessing, but I have a hunch that much of the opposition within the professional military to withdrawing precipitately from Iraq stems from a realization among second and third tour veterans that they are learning -- and that they will throw it all away if they fold up the flags and go back to base. Groundhog Day is the ultimate quagmire.
Another way to recast the same premises that Sullivan advances is this: Accept the victory that is: "The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead." And credit that to Rumsfeld and Bush, but do not elide the defeats that were theirs and the challenges that are to come. The same men who beat Saddam also failed to plan for unintended consequence of unleashing the long-repressed Shi'ite grievances against the Sunnis. But instead of accepting that this problem is unmanageable it may be better to simply accept that America hasn't currently got the tools to face this challenge, and set about getting them.
Because sooner or later America needs better options than standing back . Standing back and letting Khomeini take over Iran, as Carter did; or letting Syria into Lebanon in exchange for support to drive Saddam Hussein out Kuwait, as the elder Bush has been accused of doing; or leaving Saddam in place at the end of Desert Storm while exhorting the Shi'a and Kurds to rise up; or maintaining an expensive naval and air blockade against Saddam as Clinton did. All those instances of standing back and operating from a distance have bought America no love and have led it "tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow" to this dusty place. No one should forget that Osama Bin Laden's stated motivation for attacking America arose from its presence in Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm and the No-Fly Zone patrols afterward. September 11 happened long before Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But more fundamentally, America has no hope of staying out of the civil war between Sunni and Shi'a. That has been raging and gathering momentum, not since Operation Iraqi Freedom, but from the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the founding of the Sunni counter-militance al-Qaeda in response. It was the fear of the Shi'ite crescent that fueled the decision to drive Saddam out of Kuwait but no further. It was that same fear that drove al-Qaeda to send Zarqawi to Iraq; that made him in the end decide to provoke a Shi'ite backlash as policy. Credit where credit is due. The carnage was Zarqawi's achievement and not Bush's. America will go on long after the term of George W. Bush has entered the rolls of history. Posterity will judge him as it will. But it will also judge the men and women who come after. They too will face the problems which George W. Bush tried, with greater or lesser success, to solve. And it will not be enough to say 'we gave up trying because George W. Bush messed it up so badly'. Reality accepts no such excuses. If America lacked the doctrine and the means to bring order and civility to the Middle East then it should set about acquiring them. Because the challenges will not go away. It must get what it needs. The translators, the cultural knowledge; the weapons systems, the training; the information strategems; the confidence. And whether it can obtain these from the vantage of Kurdistan is the essential question the advocates of withdrawal must ask themselves, for it will be asked of them.