Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Getting it Right in Iraq"

My good friend and highly respected colleague Curt Jones has argued for more than a decade that our strong-arm approach to Iraq and Saddam Hussein was fatally flawed. Now it appears that even President George Bush has come to the same conclusion, although he hasn't given up hope entirely that one more "surge" of American troops might salvage his policy. Curt Jones, who spent a good part of his professional life in and around Iraq as a U.S. foreign service officer, believes Bush's eleventh hour attempt to impose peace and democracy on Iraq through military force is doomed to fail. He summarizes his reasons as follows:

American policy for the Middle East (northeast Africa and southwest Asia) has long suffered from pathological aversion to compromise, and mistaken reliance on unilateral coercion. Some of the more egregious examples:
  • Overthrow of an elected Iranian Prime Minister in 1953.
  • Failed attempt to buy a coup in Syria in 1957.
  • Logistic and intelligence support for Iraq against Iran in the 1980’s.
  • Engagement on the Israeli side of the Lebanese conflict in 1983.
  • Black Hawk Down in Somalia in 1993.
  • Invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Political and logistic support for the Israeli campaign against Lebanon in 2006
  • Current support for the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia.
American interventionism has been facilitated by construction of a hypertrophic base structure across the area, anchored by Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, Centcom’s air base in Qatar, an expansive staging area in Kuwait, and unpublicized bases in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iraq.

So far, at least, the culmination of American militance was the invasion of Iraq. In November 2006 the American electorate gave evidence of general recognition that that enterprise has failed and should be terminated. The Bush administration seems determined to press on, and its dedication to an American solution is still winning endorsement in some academic circles.

Foreign Affairs of January/February 2007 carries Thomas L. McNaugher’s review of War Made New by Max Boot and Finding the Target by Frederick W. Kagan. McNaugher joins those two authors in a discussion that seems to focus on military solutions to problems that can be remedied only by political means. Aside from Kagan’s observations that “planners should start with a vision of the political outcome they want to achieve,” and that if they had done so for Iraq, “the very operation itself might have been called into question,” the argument ascribed to Boot and Kagan, as encapsulated by McNaugher, ignores the all-important political aspect of the equation. We are invited to infer that the secret to winding up our business in Iraq and winning the “war on terrorism” lies in reforming American military structure and strategy.

This approach falls short in at least three respects:

First, it conflates two unrelated problems (pacification of Iraq, suppression of Islamist subversion) that require separate policies.

Second, although the future of Iraq will probably be determined by military conflict, the only relevant forces will be indigenous – presumably Iraqi. There is no valid role for any partisan foreign force, except for the obligation on America – having made the mistake of intervening -- to withdraw in a manner best calculated to minimize the risk to its troops and to Iraqis identified with them. Washington will have to abandon the conventional view that its forces have some ethical or national-security responsibility to try to calibrate the outcome.

Third, Islamist subversion is not susceptible to a military solution. “Fighting the enemy over there so we don’t have to over here” makes no sense. Elimination of bin Ladins and Islamist bases is a palliative. The solution to anti-American subversion is remediation of the intrusive and/or exploitive policies that generate it.

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft joins the discussion in an article in The New York Times of January 4. His assessment that “we can’t walk away from chaos in Iraq” sounds like a timid paraphrase of “stay the course.” The nonpartisan Iraqi troops postulated by Scowcroft do not exist. American withdrawal may precipitate full-scale civil war, and possible intervention by neighboring states, but these contingencies are the inevitable hazards imposed by the longstanding regional power vacuum, as distorted by past British and American interference in Middle Eastern affairs.

We can hope that the Iraqis will hit on a miraculous formula for national stabilization. The responsibility is theirs, not ours. American troops will not be in Iraq forever.

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