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Fire Fight

[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first, entitled “Open Fire,” appeared in our last issue and is available at www.amconmag.com/2007_09_24/ feature.html]

The first half of this essay had one central message: the war in Iraq did not go wrong, a spectacular military victory spoiled by a botched occupation, but always was wrong, a delusional attempt to do the impossible. This recognition is still vital for policy because the U.S. seems bent on continuing its efforts to fix the war, thus missing the remaining opportunity to end it and contain the fire we started.

Odd though it seems that this policy persists despite failures, enormous and growing costs, and major shifts in public opinion and politics since 2004, it is easy to explain. The American consensus on the need for change is fairly wide but not profound and includes no consensus on the kind of change needed. Many divergent proposals compete for attention under the rubric of “getting out of Iraq;” none commands general agreement. Beneath this lack of consensus on how to get out lies a deeper reason for the reluctance to leave: one thing military and political experts, politicians, and the public can agree on is that withdrawing will be difficult and delicate and could have grave adverse consequences.

The risks of withdrawing at this juncture are constantly discussed, usually in lurid terms—more ethnic cleansing; all-out civil war and total breakup in Iraq; free rein for al-Qaeda and other jihadists; increased Iranian influence; the spread of conflict and civil war to the rest of the region; more homegrown terrorism in Europe; instability and possible overthrow of important governments; loss of access to Middle Eastern oil and/or use of the oil weapon against the West resulting in economic chaos; and finally (the least important and likely but apparently the most feared by Americans), more direct terrorist attacks on the homeland.

Even if the dangers are often overblown, this fear of unintended consequences is natural, though it regularly leads to wrong conclusions and bad policies. The administration insists that the only answer is to fight on till America prevails—a predictable and contemptible argument. Every threat Bush now cites as a reason to stay the course has either been produced by this war or greatly worsened by it. The arsonist still poses as a firefighter. Other common reactions include a kind of paralysis born of indecision over which is the worse evil, staying or withdrawing, and a Micawberish hope that something will turn up.

A word on the current wave of Micawberism, fed by misleading or mendacious reports that the surge is succeeding; the Iraqi government, police, and security forces could still improve; sectarian violence is declining; and so on. This illustrates how hopes derived from misplaced patriotism and nurtured by clever propaganda can survive unnumbered disappointments, broken promises, and wrong predictions. Gen. David Petraeus, whose views presently command such remarkable credibility, may be an able, honest officer (there are skeptics), but anyone who expects a general handpicked by this president and serving this Defense Department to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the results of the strategy he devised and is responsible for executing is naïve. Petraeus’s own record shows this. In October 2004, just in time to influence the presidential election, he published a highly optimistic portrait of progress in Iraq in the national press. It proved totally wrong. As for the statistics on casualties and violence, it requires little knowledge of military history to know that governments, war departments, and military officers always cook the books. The Pentagon has been doing this blatantly throughout the war. Above all, every one knows that this alleged military progress, even if real, cannot be decisive. It rests on a temporary military escalation that cannot be sustained, while the political reconciliation and national unity in Iraq on which durable stability and security depend grow ever more remote.

Less foolish than this Micawberism, but no less futile, are calls for a bipartisan compromise to signal a change in direction, such as Sen. John Warner’s proposal to announce a small reduction of forces before Christmas. This is pure tokenism, meaningless and deceptive. Still more troubling, and most likely to represent the fallback position the U.S. will take, are proposals to avoid the unintended consequences of withdrawal by not really withdrawing but staying on in a different way. The suggestions vary, some recycling ideas already tried without success: changing the mission from combat to training, concentrating troops in a few bases, evacuating most of Iraq but remaining in certain areas, moving most or all of the troops out of Iraq but basing them close by ready to intervene to stop civil war or foreign intervention, and so on. Such proposals appeal to moderates in both parties as a way to criticize the war and claim to change course while still looking strong on security and terrorism (which helps explain why Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden each espouse one).

The problem is that they are designed not to get the U.S. out of Iraq but to enable it to stay—thus allowing Br’er Rabbit to stop attacking Tar Baby while remaining firmly stuck to it and continuing to present a target for its foes and a stimulus to Islamists and insurgents. If the U.S. cannot put out the fire it ignited or continue to direct the firefighting effort mainly because its very presence in Iraq and the Middle East by now pours oil on the flames, then compromises between all-out occupation and real withdrawal are worse than useless.

It is of course true that a genuine American withdrawal from Iraq will not be easy or risk-free or solve the problems of Iraq and the region by itself. It is equally true and even more crucial that without one, there is no solution. This seems to create an insoluble dilemma. So long as it stays, the U.S. stokes the fire. If it leaves, it runs the risk of having it grow into a holocaust.

There is an answer, theoretically possible under current international conditions. The basic idea is simple and not original: contain the fire by letting it burn itself out within Iraq, at the same time persuading others to limit its spread by their own counter-fires. The inducement for them to do so will be that only this kind of co-operation, even if limited and grudging, will enable the United States to leave, as most other players want it to.

The first presupposition of this strategy, already discussed, is that the U.S. has no real choice. It must face the hard fact that it must leave Iraq and cannot dictate the terms and conditions of doing so. The question is how to put that recognition and the temporary humiliation and loss of prestige involved to some use.

A second assumption is that this necessity gives the U.S. a chance to avoid further losses and achieve some of its ends indirectly by turning withdrawal from a hard necessity into a useful political and diplomatic tool. Though America has important interests in the Middle East, it is not part of the region geographically, culturally, ethnically, or religiously. This is a reason that it can never be the regional hegemon it has tried to be, but it also means that it can leave, abandoning wreckage in its wake, while Iraq’s direct neighbors and other countries in adjacent regions cannot. The U.S. can say to other countries (in diplomatic language), “Sorry—the fire may be partly our fault, but it is now your problem. We know it cannot be handled unless we leave—but unless you give us some minimal co-operation, that cannot happen.” A firm American determination to leave Iraq and reduce its direct presence in the Middle East thus becomes a way of inducing other states to participate in making possible the kind of orderly American strategic retreat that they, unlike the terrorists, also desire.

Before discussing more specifically how this strategy might work now, a little history. The object is not to demonstrate that policies of strategic retreat, abandonment of untenable positions, and diplomatic judo to turn defeat into victory sometimes work. European history and even the American experience are so rich in examples that the demonstration should be unnecessary. We are now grudgingly following this path with North Korea, and will eventually have to try it with Iran. The aim is to illustrate what can happen to a country that fails to adopt this strategy when it should, and the example chosen is Austria in Italy in 1848-59.

The story is far too complicated to relate here, but the bottom line can be briefly summarized. After emerging successfully from revolutions and attacks in Italy and elsewhere in 1848-49, the Habs-burg monarchy’s rulers refused to recognize that Austria’s hegemonic position in Italy had become untenable, a strategic and political liability. They insisted instead on maintaining its territories and legal position intact, even expanding its military presence in Italy, and finally touched off a war in 1859, when Austria had a chance to win a temporary diplomatic victory. The result was a severe military and political defeat, the loss of Italy, and the way being paved for still worse defeat in Germany in 1866.

The obvious objection is that given the enormous differences between 19th-century Austria and contemporary America and their respective situations, no useful comparison is possible. The point of comparison here, however, is their analyses and strategies—how these two countries understood the problem that confronted them and chose to meet it in certain ways rather than others. Here there are notable parallels. Both governments envisioned themselves as locked, against their will and without their fault, in a long-term, all-out, zero-sum, life-and-death struggle against ideologically driven foes and forces—global terrorism for the United States, revolutionary democratic nationalism for Austria. Both saw themselves as the special target of these forces and particularly vulnerable to them—the U.S. as leader of the free world with a rich, open society possessing vital interests throughout the world, Austria as a conservative multinational empire in the heart of Europe surrounded by actual and potential foes and forced to defend its historic position and values. Both insisted that their revolutionary enemies and the governments that collaborated with or tolerated them acted not out of ideals or legitimate grievances but greed, nihilistic hatred, and disregard for law and human life. Both insisted that their campaigns were waged for legitimate self-defense and the defense of civilization, peace, and order. Above all, both rejected normal diplomacy, bargaining, and conciliation as worse than useless in dealing with these foes; every concession or retreat would only encourage new demands and more subversion and attacks.

In other words, both took a position basically as rigid and ideologically driven as the one ascribed to their respective enemies. Without going into details, I have to say as an historian that Austria’s case against its foes and for its policy was far more reasonable and grounded in evidence than America’s today. But that argument has to be left aside. It is irrelevant to the point that Austria committed three crucial strategic errors.

First, it allowed its temporary victories in 1848-49 to blind it to a central, overriding fact clear even before 1848 and glaringly obvious thereafter: control of Italy had ceased to be an asset and become a burden the monarchy could not afford. It could no longer govern its own territories, especially Lombardy, at any sustainable price or by any internationally acceptable means, and it could not even control the other conservative regimes in Italy it was forced to protect. While most Italians active in politics were not revolutionaries or united in their plans and visions for Italy, they were fairly united and passionate in wanting Austria out; even Austria’s conservative friends there and elsewhere in Europe could not openly support it in maintaining the status quo.

Second, Austria’s leaders were, for understandable reasons, so convinced that defeat and retreat in Italy would be fatal—pushing the empire down the slippery slope of more nationalist revolutions and foreign challenges leading to destruction—that they convinced themselves that the only answer was victory. They much preferred political victory and tried for it through firm maintenance of Austria’s rights and the legal status quo, attempts to suppress revolution and terrorism, and diplomacy to gain Austria allies. But when that failed, military victory became essential, and they convinced themselves that with enough resolve and courage and a little help from friends, Austria could gain it. Thus Austrians came finally to rely on military power and victory to solve their Italian problem, despite grave doubts that victory could be achieved and clear evidence that even another military victory like 1848-49 would only make Austria’s position in Italy worse in the long run while weakening it elsewhere.

Third, Austria’s refusal to face the hard strategic realities of its situation derived from something more than fear of the consequences of defeat and inability to conceive alternatives. Behind the final resolve in 1859 to take arms against a sea of troubles lay a sense of outraged honor and deep moral conviction—sentiments understandable but self-deceiving and ruinous. For Austrians, retreat in the face of revolutionary conspirators like Mazzini or treacherous second-class states like Sardinia-Piedmont would indelibly stain the reputation of the dynasty and army and ruin Austria’s standing as a great power. Even more important in promoting the fatal strategic miscalculation of 1859 was the role of moral principle and the belief in Austria’s moral superiority over its foes. Austria’s leaders were convinced that it was defending not just itself but the rights of all of Europe against international outlaws and that every decent government in Europe, understanding this and appreciating their stand, would support them even if it led to war. This moral hubris, the absolute value they assigned to Austria’s just cause, closed their minds not merely to political and strategic realities but also to competing moral values and judgments. Many Europeans understood Austria’s grievances but placed a higher value on peace, recognized other rights besides historic and legal ones, and understood the necessity and inevitability of change.

The same three strategic errors—a refusal to recognize when a position has become untenable, a reliance on military victory and power to achieve unattainable ends, and moral hubris leading to political and strategic miscalculation—have also brought the U.S. into its current mess in Iraq. It is so much stronger and less threatened than Austria was that its defeat will not be disastrous like Austria’s in 1859 or 1866. The main sufferers from the American adventure are Iraq itself and its neighbors. But the long-term consequences will be serious: the further erosion of America’s international position, the wasting of irreplaceable assets at home and abroad, the staining of its honor and good name. No one can prove from history that had Austria chosen a more realistic course of strategic retreat in Italy it would have succeeded in saving important assets and making gains at the negotiating table, though I think this is plausible. Nor can one be sure that similar American efforts would enjoy success today. But one can confidently say for both countries that this represented their only long-range chance and that the one they chose was bound to fail.

Historical comparisons naturally only carry one so far. Why should retreat, indirection, and self-restraint help the U.S. concretely in the Middle East now? First, basic conditions favor it. It is clear that the potential dangers from the spread of war, ethnic-religious conflict, and terrorism beyond Iraq menace its neighbors and adjacent regions more directly and dangerously than they do the United States. While Iran now enjoys more security from and influence in Iraq than before, thanks to the American invasion, it would be seriously endangered by all-out civil war in Iraq, with the Shi’ites appealing to Iran for help and the Sunnis calling on other Sunni states and the U.S. to help stop them. Turkey has a similar problem with regard to the Kurds, shared to a degree by Iran and Syria. The immediate dangers of wider unrest and Islamic radicalism for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.A.E., Lebanon, and Jordan need no discussion. Even Israel and Egypt are menaced, along with the wider Arab and Muslim worlds and Europe. The very dangers that Bush and Co. claim require the U.S. to stay in Iraq could, if used wisely, pave the way for getting out and inducing others to help fight them.

Why should one suppose that they will? Because it is in their interest to do so and because, unlike Americans, they possess both the cultural links, ties, and skills to be effective at it and legitimate standing and authorization for intervening. A major reason that America’s appeals to other states in the region to do more to help fight terrorism and pacify Iraq have been ineffective is that the overwhelmingly unpopular American military presence in Iraq negates them. Any actions taken under U.S. control automatically become illegitimate in the eyes of the Arab street and many governments.

Once the U.S. relinquishes control of Iraq or makes clear that that is its real goal, this changes. No one can guarantee that the region’s states will co-operate in Iraq or do what we think is needed, but no one can deny their legitimate right to intervene in an affair that directly impacts their security and vital interests as Iraq’s neighbors. It is maddening to see the Bush administration defy this obvious truth and stand things on their head, proclaiming America’s right to fight terrorism in Iraq (making Iraq a living hell) in order to concentrate terrorist attacks away from the American homeland, and insisting that its 160,000 occupation troops are only defending the legitimate order while Iranian diplomats or businessmen in Iraq are “interfering” as spies, provocateurs, and enemy agents. While many Americans are still fooled by this bogus claim to legitimacy, the rest of the world has long since seen through it, and this has important consequences in ruining the United States’ image, credibility, and international influence.

Not only will a clear, credible American decision genuinely to leave Iraq and to abandon its effort to control the region eliminate one major obstacle to useful action by others, it will also make it possible for the U.S. and its natural partners in the Western world and elsewhere to employ the classical tactic of using one danger to balance another. Again, basic conditions for doing this are present. No government in the region, Shi’ite or Sunni, desires the breakup of Iraq and the instability this would inevitably bring. All fear a triumph of al-Qaeda and Islamic jihadism. If they now promote these evils or fail to work actively against them, it is because they see these dangers as acceptable in order to prevent an American triumph or because they dare not appear to their own people to be knuckling under to the United States. A credible American commitment to real withdrawal both removes those incentives and restores traditional rivalries to be balanced against each other—Turk versus Kurd, Shi’ite versus Sunni, Iranian versus Saudi, Iranian nationalism versus Iraqi —while still permitting general co-operation against the Islamic radicalism that threatens them all.

While historians are better at explaining how a strategy worked in the past than how to implement one in the present, certain measures seem obvious. The essential step is to disavow all the goals and commitments that are not really necessary and possible—a liberal-democratic, pro-American Iraq, a market economy, privatization of the oil industry (a goal still being pursued via the oil revenues bill the Iraqi parliament is being pressured to pass), military bases, a secular and pluralist political system, an open field for American investments, and so on. These are at worst illegitimate goals and at best superfluous ones, and in international politics, nothing is more expensive than the superfluous. This also means accepting that a unified Iraq may be desirable, but is increasingly improbable, and a loose confederation is probably the best achievable outcome. It entails redefining America’s vital interests in Iraq to include only what is clearly legitimate and necessary: access to the purchase of oil on the same basis as other countries, a non-threatening Iraqi stance toward Israel, retention of the current international borders, and no overt support or toleration for international terrorism.

Next could come concrete initial steps demonstrating the genuineness of the change in policy. Possible examples include an initial reduction and redeployment of troops, cancellation of the grandiose American fortress-embassy in Baghdad, a commitment not to seek military bases in Iraq, and perhaps a proposal for negotiating neutral status for Iraq under international guarantees. One thing these earnest money payments need not include, and probably should not, is a firm date for total evacuation of Iraq or commitment to a particular mode and schedule for doing so. Both eventually would have to be worked out by negotiation, dependent on certain conditions and performances from the Iraqis and other governments, but the key is to make American withdrawal credible and attractive to all except the terrorists.

What their co-payments should be is a further delicate question. The Iraq Study Group and others have suggested that the U.S. convene an international conference of all the regional powers to co-ordinate policies and actions to stabilize Iraq. The only trouble is that this seems to assume that the U.S. still enjoys the historically coveted ability to summon such a conference, preside over the deliberations, and largely determine the results. To put it mildly, America no longer commands that position in the international community. It now needs to do what many other states facing similar challenges have done: agree in principle to participate in an international conference under other auspices, perhaps the UN, and to go along with reasonable measures it mandates without trying, Bush-fashion, to assert an automatic American right of veto, relying instead on normal instruments of diplomacy and soft power to influence the outcome.

Readers at this point might be asking themselves, “Is this it? The serious answer to the mess in Iraq is to pull out in the hope that it will not blow up and that hostile states like Iran will help us get out more or less unscathed?” The reaction is understandable. The proposal, to repeat, comes with no guarantees of success—only of guaranteed failure if we continue the present course. It is also undeniably vague on just how things would work out once it is launched. That is inherent in the nature of international politics and history. What Napoleon said of battles is even more true of diplomacy: “One engages oneself—and then one sees.” Moreover, there are hard political costs it exacts that have to be paid up-front while the payoff, if any, can come only in the longer term and will be less visible. Success depends not only on luck and skill but also on certain assumptions—that the governments with whom we must work can stay in control and act rationally to the extent needed, that even opponents like Iran are capable of seeing their own best interests and acting on them, that the U.S., despite its follies, retains many friends (meaning states that share our basic interests regardless of whether they like us or not and recognize that disaster for us would mean great harm for them), and that international terrorism really is a common enemy that unites all governments, and open war and revolution are plagues all want to avoid. It also assumes something Americans should be embarrassed to admit, but that represents a current asset nevertheless. Though the recent American recklessness and defiance of international law have made the U.S. a problem debtor state in international politics, as it already is in international finance and commerce, in both spheres, it remains too big and important to be allowed to fail completely and go bankrupt—another major reason it may get grudging help even from countries that dislike it. These assumptions are sound enough to act on, but they are obviously not ironclad.

In theory, therefore, a strategy like this could succeed. Yet I concede that the proposal is unrealistic, for the simple reason that one cannot envision the U.S., given its political system, leadership, and public, adopting it and carrying it through. The short-term reasons are obvious. Angels speaking from heaven could not make Bush do it, and by the time he leaves office, the opportunity for implementing the strategy may already be lost. Even if the door remains open, and the Democrats win a sweeping victory in 2008, that will not guarantee real change—not when both leading candidates seeking the nomination must prove first of all that they are strong on national security and tough on terrorism. When Rudolph Giuliani has kind words for Barack Obama’s foreign-policy ideas and William Kristol praises Hillary Clinton’s potential as commander in chief, opponents of the war need to worry.

The problem goes beyond the current and prospective national leadership and politics, however. It extends even beyond the main constitutional barrier to the needed flexibility in American foreign policy, the virtual impossibility of terminating an obviously failed presidency or changing a disastrous policy during a fixed electoral term, or the related political problem posed by endless electoral campaigns during which the most crucial decisions in foreign policy get put on hold. This is no way to run a railroad, much less the foreign policy of a superpower.

The root of the problem goes deeper still, to the American people’s level of political education and maturity and the failure of American institutions, politicians, parties, elites, and the media to elevate it—or even try. If one looks at the list presented earlier of wrong reactions to the current mess and looming danger in Iraq—indecision, Micawberism, wishful thinking, self-deception, and stubborn refusal to face facts and accept consequences—one can find plenty of persons and institutions to blame for actively promoting these follies, but one cannot ignore the general public’s role in actively endorsing, participating in, or passively tolerating them. True, this administration and its supporters have misled the public on a massive scale. But they could not have done this for so long had not far too many Americans, possibly a majority, preferred comforting lies to unpleasant truths and acted as co-conspirators in their own deception.

Now many, disappointed with the results, would like to see this administration over and the war ended—without holding themselves accountable, accepting responsibility, or being willing to pay a price. Instead, they look for someone else (the president, Congress, the politicians and parties, the generals, whomever) to turn things around and achieve the right results—a different form of the public mindset and outlook dominant in America from the outset. Both the overwhelming response to Bush’s initial actions after 9/11 and the original public approval of the war in Iraq reflected the American public’s wish to see its leaders do something bold, decisive, and effective to make Americans safe from their enemies, without the general public’s having to make real sacrifices to that end or worry overmuch about the legal and moral rights or wrongs of what was done. The current disapproval of Bush and his policy reflects the same desire for a relatively easy and costless fix combined with a loss of confidence that he can produce it. For evidence, look at who has always paid, is paying, and will in the future pay for this war. The grave human costs are borne by a small unrepresentative minority of the population, the service people and their families; the huge fiscal costs are loaded onto the shoulders of our children and grandchildren; the almost incalculable costs in terms of suffering in Iraq and damage to the international system are widely ignored or dismissed. No sacrifices or risks have been asked from the vast majority of present voting Americans, and this fact arouses no revulsion, widespread protests, or serious calls for change, even from Democrats, because this is apparently the way the American people want it.

What I am suggesting is nothing new or revolutionary; it ought to be obvious and banal. In searching for a different outlook and policy on the Iraq War that could both get America out and help contain the fire it has started or helped spread, we cannot look alone to new leaders and a new administration, which will certainly come, or new party control and political alignments, which seem likely. We also need a changed American public, one that in regard to world affairs is both smarter and better (the two qualities go so closely together in international politics as to be almost indistinguishable)—a public better informed, more honest and open to the truth, less self-preoccupied and self-centered and therefore able to discern and willing to follow better leadership and make more exertions for better long-range goals.

This is not a hate-America rant by a scholar angered that the American public fails to meet his ivory-tower expectations. Historians are rightly reluctant to explain political developments by such broad categories as “the American character and experience,” preferring to assign more precise and demonstrable causes. Only the conviction in certain cases that these are not sufficient prompts the conclusion that the reigning mindset of particular peoples also makes a crucial difference. I suggest that this applies here—that a serious examination of the sources of our current mess and the possible remedy require a hard look not merely at the policies and actions of the administration and the workings of the American political system but also at the level of political maturity of the American people, especially in regard to foreign policy.

Nor is this a verdict delivered from above by a dispassionate observer confident he has all the answers. It is a painful, disillusioned reflection from someone long convinced that the American public was by and large growing up and changing for the better also in international politics, who now, near the end of his career and life, grows less confident of that progress toward maturity. Worse still, he knows that even if some of his ideas about particular foreign-policy problems are worthwhile, he has no clue what to do about this basic one other than to pen Cassandra cries. >

Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1765-1848.

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