The fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War was marked by a deluge of retrospective commentary, much of it focused on the past: how we got into this conflict and how it has been conducted. Fine, it is always appropriate to assess lessons learned. But why and how we got into Iraq and what choices could have been made differently are not central to when and how we get out.
When asked to define what “success” in Iraq would mean, Senator John McCain, speaking at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles in March 2008, offered this yardstick. Success in Iraq would be the achievement of a “peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic” state that will “pose no threat to neighbors and contribute to the defeat of terrorists.” Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama’s position has remained largely consistent since his July 2006 call for the U.S. to “exit Iraq”—but only if it did not leave “behind a security vacuum filled with terrorism, chaos, ethnic cleansing and genocide that could engulf large swaths of the Middle East and endanger America. We have both moral and national security reasons to manage our exit in a responsible way.”
Washington loves to exaggerate differences in nuance into appearing as major and substantive differences—“My opponent sees six eggs, but I say there are half a dozen”—but the difference between the McCain and Obama positions is largely one of emphasis rather than degree. Language in one may appeal to neoconservatives, in the other appear to concede to liberal sentiments, but when one puts campaign rhetoric aside, the fundamentals are largely the same. Hence the inconvenient truth former Obama foreign-policy advisor Samantha Power let slip out on British television a few weeks ago. Indeed, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that we seem to be “on the cusp of a consensus, a ‘reduction strategy,’ one that lies in between the surge … and complete and sudden withdrawal. … This consensus may calm the debate in Washington, but is unlikely to change the fundamentals in Baghdad and across much of central and southern Iraq …” Indeed, both McCain and Obama, in essence, have ceded the initiative in their Iraq proposals and in their timetable for U.S. disengagement to what Iraqis do or fail to do (in terms of meeting benchmarks, etc.). Moqtada al-Sadr or Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province now have effective veto power over U.S. actions.
It is also important to recognize some of the limitations—self-imposed, largely—on our freedom of maneuver in crafting Iraq policy. No one in the “political mainstream”—self-described neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, moderates, and so on—is prepared to countenance raising troop levels to meet Gen. Eric Shinseki’s estimate in February 2003 that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to secure and pacify Iraq. Secondly, no one is willing to settle for anything less than “victory” (however defined), or conversely, anything that could be interpreted as “defeat.”
There is plenty of sniping—much of it headline-driven. Unfortunately for President Bush and Senator McCain, recent stories that they cited in speeches this past Wednesday—about a decline in violence, modest improvements in economic indicators, and so on—were trumped in the news cycle by fighting in Basra and Baghdad and the destruction of a key oil pipeline—grist for the mills of those anxious to paint the president’s policies in Iraq as a “failure.” The Iraq “debate” now largely recycles the same ground—witness a recent National Review cover that showed U.S. troops and the slogan, “Re-Liberators.”
So, given these parameters, it is not surprising that there is not much creative thinking among Washington politicians about what to do next in Iraq. Sure, there are plenty of bumper sticker slogans—“Reintegrate militias into the Iraqi army/Support democracy/Require Iraqis to live up to the benchmarks”—ad nauseum. It is also possible to play “bait and switch” with terms. For example, one can promise to withdraw “combat forces” from Iraq but define “non-combat roles” for the United States to include matters such as “counter-insurgency actions” and “logistical support” for Iraqi forces that would still require U.S. forces to be in the thick of battle. The description of Iraq as a 360-degree battlefield means that the clear bright line between combat and supporting roles is quite blurry. So, I fear, we will continue to meander in Iraq—and continue to bleed in terms of lives and treasure—until we have a serious debate, not about the Iraq we would like to see, but the Iraq we are prepared to live with.
Any successful policy requires the articulation of clear, cogent goals. Ironically, the Bush team, in casting around for various rationale to justify the war, provided a limited, realistic set. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had to be removed and any capabilities Iraq may have possessed to produce weapons of mass destruction as well as to threaten aggressive war against its neighbors liquidated. By the end of 2003, victory, defined on these terms, had been achieved. Hussein was captured, his sons dead, Iraq had no WMD infrastructure, and no one can seriously believe that Iraq will ever again be in a position to launch a campaign of conquest against any of its Persian Gulf neighbors again.
Mission accomplished, right?
Well, not exactly. The fate of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal made it clear that sometimes the destruction of an opposing regime is not sufficient, if it is replaced by something worse.
But between avoiding a regime worse than that of Saddam Hussein and predicting the rapid, painless establishment of a Jeffersonian democracy on the Tigris, there might have been plenty of discussion in salons and on blogs, but few steps actually taken to determine “acceptable” outcomes—because Washington policymakers never created a hierarchy of priorities with regard to Iraq that would allow a meaningful debate on what was absolutely necessary and what might just be preferable but not essential. Instead, we ended up with a list: Iraq should be stable, peaceful, democratic, united, a supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror and cooperative with our security agenda for the Middle East. So now the United States finds itself putting considerable pressure on elected Kurdish politicians who constituents want, if not outright independence, then as much autonomy from a central government in Baghdad so as to constitute effective self-determination. The U.S. is no closer to addressing the likely results of the June 2008 referendum in Kirkuk, which will transfer the oil rich city and its environs to Kurdish control. Democracy clashing with preserving the unity of Iraq.
Or take the refusal of a number of members of the U.S. Congress to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki in the summer of 2006 when he demurred from offering direct criticism of Hezbollah for its role in provoking the Lebanon war or even to designate it as a terrorist group. Being an Iraqi Arab Shi’ite politician imposed some limits on Maliki’s ability to endorse the U.S. position.
But, so far, none of the major presidential candidates have significantly modified their expectations for Iraq—or have provided their list of trade-offs that would be acceptable to them—that might allow for the U.S. to implement less-than-perfect scenarios that have worked in other parts of the Middle East.
McCain’s comments, for instance, would preclude a “Libyan model” as being an acceptable outcome—getting a regime in place that renounces support for terrorism and eschews all pursuit of weapons of mass destruction but otherwise takes few steps in terms of domestic reform. Obama’s stance rules out a Lebanon-inspired option—containing the consequences of an Iraqi collapse from spilling over but largely withdrawing from direct intervention into Iraq’s affairs. And few U.S. politicians—either Democrats or Republicans—seem willing to deal, at this point in time, with the cry that American blood and treasure was expended to achieve less-than-satisfactory results.
So we end up with variants of Haass’ “reduction strategy”—whether the “phased withdrawals” of the Democrats or the “as Iraqis stand up, we stand down” approach of the administration. But the United States remains deeply enmeshed in Iraqi affairs for the foreseeable future—with some experts, like Stephen Biddle, warning that “this mission will be long—perhaps twenty years long…”
Part of the problem in formulating a different approach to Iraq lies in the relative lack of debate over the proper role of the United States in the larger Persian Gulf area. Success in Iraq is seen as a necessary condition to continue to be able to project U.S. power in the region and to provide stability for the Persian Gulf.
Thus, the Carter Doctrine (“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”) and the Reagan Corollary (“We cannot permit Saudi Arabia to become Iran”—e.g. the U.S. would defend its allies from internal challenges as well) remain in force. But have conditions changed to warrant a re-assessment of U.S. policy?
In 1980, a hostile Soviet Union was bent on choking off the economic lifeline of the West and its access to oil. Today, not only is the USSR vanished but a rising China has become one of the main beneficiaries of the U.S. role as military protector of the Gulf. And while Ayatollah Khomeini saw the overthrow of the Saudi king as one of his primary objectives, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was warmly welcomed on his visit to Riyadh in 2007 and he and King Abdullah pledged to continue the thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations. Ahmadinejad even attended the 2007 summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council—a body created in the 1980s specifically to resist Iranian influence in the region. And with Iran and Saudi Arabia both very dependent on energy revenues to placate anxious populations, neither has any incentive to obstruct the flow of energy to a hungry global market.
So is the U.S. approach to the region of 1980 the same one that should be utilized in 2008? Have conditions changed—and have U.S. interests evolved? Could American objectives be secured by having a reduced, much more “offshore” role? I don’t have specific answers—but what is striking is how rarely such questions are even being raised or debated. Nor, despite the advice of Justine Rosenthal in a recent issue of The National Interest, do many of the foreign-policy advisors to the various presidential candidates seem willing to disavow strategies that give other powers “no incentive to solve pressing problems in their own neighborhoods if they believe the United States will assume the onus for them.”
We don’t even seem to have this discussion when it comes to Iraq and Iran’s role. McCain says “bomb Iran,” and Obama says “talk to Iran”—but bomb/talk to Iran to achieve what ends? Meanwhile, the United States took a major part this past week in fighting in what was essentially a civil war between two different groups of Iranian protégés in Iraq. Americans took casualties and the brunt of the blame, with Iraqis proclaiming, “Tell America enough!” Why not let Iran take more of the burden—and the onus—of referring disputes between the groups it supplies and supports?
Perhaps this is a bad idea in the long run—but shouldn’t we at least consider it?
It is often said that we got into Iraq because of a failure of intelligence. It seems increasingly clear that our inability to leave comes from a failure of vision.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of The National Interest.
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