The Best of Bad Choices
The administration’s Iraq policy is in shambles. Iraq has become a geopolitical humpty-dumpty that America cannot put back together, and the time has come for the United States to withdraw.
We now face a full-blown uprising against the occupation of Iraq. Events plainly belie the administration’s spin that order will soon be restored and that the revolt is just the work of a few Iraqi extremists and a handful of terrorists from other Middle Eastern states. Even top officials in the British government—America’s most loyal ally—understand that the administration’s take on Iraq is divorced from reality. As British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said, “The lid on the pressure cooker has come off. There is no doubt that the current situation is very serious and it is the most serious we have faced. It plainly is the fact today that there are larger numbers of people, and they are people on the ground, Iraqis, not foreign fighters, who are engaged in this insurgency.” Americans should not allow the administration’s “perception management” campaign—a fancy bureaucratic term for lying—to pull the wool over their eyes.
From a policy standpoint, an even greater concern is that the administration believes its own disinformation about events in Iraq. But there are three disturbing facts about the insurrection that cannot be swept under the rug. First, what began as a small-scale insurgency mounted by Sunni “dead-enders” and “former regime elements” now has morphed into a broad-based popular rebellion joined by large numbers of Shi’ites. The Shi’ite revolt is especially troubling because—to the extent that the Bush II administration had any strategy at all for administering postwar Iraq—it was based on the assumption that the United States could co-opt the Shi’ites and gain their support for Washington’s plans to create a “democratic” Iraq. Second, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites —heretofore deeply antagonistic to each other—now are finding common ground in resisting the occupation. Here U.S. policy seems to be having a bitterly ironic and quite unintended consequence. Previously, Iraq, which Britain artificially cobbled together from the Ottoman Empire’s wreckage, lacked a sense of national identity. Now, however, resentment of the American occupation is creating an Iraqi nationalism shared by Sunnis and Shi’ites. Third, outrage at America’s heavy-handed use of military power to suppress the uprising has alienated the very Iraqis Washington has counted upon to form the core of a new government to which “sovereignty” can be transferred. Although they were handpicked by U.S. officials, leading members of the Iraqi Governing Council now are condemning American policy and distancing themselves from Washington.
Where does U.S. policy go from here? There are three options: internationalizing the occupation, increasing U.S. troop strength and cracking down hard on the insurgency, or withdrawal.
Internationalizing the occupation by bringing in the UN and/or NATO is a non-starter—pure political grandstanding. First, Iraq now is so dangerous and chaotic it is doubtful that the UN wants to step in and take responsibility for trying to fix things. Second, for the same reasons, other nations are not going to rush in and send troops to restore order in Iraq. Indeed, it now is apparent that others are concluding that their best option is staying out—or, if they already have troops there, getting out—of Iraq. Third, although some individual NATO members have token contingents in Iraq, the alliance has its hands full in Afghanistan (and the Europeans are stretched to the breaking point by their non-NATO Balkan and West African peacekeeping commitments). NATO just doesn’t have more troops that it can send to help the U.S. in Iraq.
There is another reason internationalization cannot be a real option as long as the Bush II administration remains in office. Even if the UN agreed to step in, it would do so only if Washington agreed to give the international community real decision-making authority in Iraq. The Bush administration will not do this because giving up control over Iraq would be tantamount to abandoning the very goals for which it went to war in the first place: using Iraq as a platform for establishing American military dominance in the Persian Gulf; transforming Iraq into a dependable, oil-supplying client state; and using Iraq as the launching pad for the proposed “democratic transformation” of the entire Middle East. Increasing American troop levels and suppressing the insurgency is not a viable option, either. Although the U.S. has enough firepower to dampen down the insurrection—at least for a while—this would be a self-defeating policy because there no longer is a military solution in Iraq. There is a good reason —to quote the title of Andrew Mack’s important article that appeared some years ago in the journal World Politics—big states lose small wars.
Insurgencies start small but gain widespread political support by driving a wedge between the civilian population and the occupation forces. Here, insurgents count on the occupation forces to be their unwitting accomplices. When the occupying forces resort to violent and coercive measures, they lose politically by alienating the population. As events in Fallujah and elsewhere demonstrate, such tactics fan widespread popular anger and resentment. Regardless of what happens in Iraq in the next several weeks, a watershed has been reached. Iraq’s population is seething and hostile, and if the United States stays on in Iraq, henceforth it will face broad-based political, and armed, resistance to the occupation. In that setting, the U.S. will confront the asymmetry in motivation that causes big states to lose small wars; the Iraqis are fighting for their country, but the United States is fighting for goals that are ephemeral.
Contrary to what Mr. Bush has said, the growing numbers of Iraqis supporting the insurgency do not “hate freedom.” It is just that they define “freedom” as freedom from American rule. Now, in this regard, the administration hopes it can placate Iraqi nationalism by handing over “sovereignty” on June 30. But Iraqis are not fooled by this, and Americans shouldn’t be either. As things now stand, Iraq will be sovereign in name only because the U.S. will still be wielding military, economic, and political control in Baghdad. The administration has dug a hole in Iraq. It is time to stopping digging deeper. The war was a tragic, avoidable mistake, and those who opposed it have been vindicated. The administration should be held accountable, both for leading the nation in war under false pretenses and for its willful failure to think through the consequences of going to war with Iraq. As James Fallows recently pointed out in the Atlantic, the administration was warned about many things. It was warned by the then-Army Chief of Staff that stabilizing postwar Iraq would require the long-term commitment of several hundred thousand U.S. troops. It was warned by the Army War College that if American forces remained in postwar Iraq for any length of time, they would soon cease to be viewed as liberators and be seen instead as a hostile occupation army. And it was warned that Iraq was a singularly poor candidate for a “democracy transplant” because it lacked the essential prerequisites for a successful democratic transition. (And if by some chance the U.S. did transplant democracy to Iraq, we would rue the day. A democratic Iraq would be virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli.) The administration turned a deaf ear to these warnings because it considered them to be “antiwar”—that is, undermining its already decided-upon policy of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. And, of course, the administration was correct: these warnings did cut the legs from underneath its case for going to war because they demonstrated that the administration’s policy would lead the U.S. into an Iraqi quagmire.
Of course, it can be said that all this is true but is just water under the bridge: we are in Iraq now, and it is “defeatist” to suggest that the United States “cut and run.” There are arguments that can be marshaled to support continuing American involvement, but they are not very convincing. And if they are accepted, it will mean that the U.S. has to stay in Iraq for a long, long time no matter what the cost in lives and treasure—and even though there is scant prospect of ultimate success.
First, some will claim that if the U.S. withdraws Iraq will fall into chaos. Of course, the U.S. has been in Iraq for a year and that country is in chaos. Second, it might be claimed that if America withdraws Iraq will become a terrorist haven. But the truth is that the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more that country will become a magnet for Islamic fighters who want to take us on. Staying the course will not make things better, because America’s bloody suppression of the current uprising not only is alienating many Iraqis who were—up to now—acquiescing in the occupation (however reluctantly) but also is stirring up anti-Americanism and creating more terrorism throughout the Middle East. Third, it is said that if America fails to prevail in Iraq, our enemies—not just in the Middle East, but worldwide—will doubt U.S. resolve and will be tempted to challenge the United States in future crises. Well, the same arguments were made against withdrawing from Vietnam. But the United States withdrew from Vietnam, and it survived to triumph in the Cold War: the dominoes did not topple, America’s world position did not crumble, and neither its allies nor its adversaries questioned Washington’s determination to defend vital U.S. interests.
There is a more heart-wrenching argument against U.S. withdrawal: how can we justify the loss of American lives to the parents of those military personnel who have been killed in Iraq? The real question, however, is how many more parents do we wish to send into mourning. The argument about sunk costs—whether in lives, in wounded (some 3,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq, many grievously), or dollars (some $121 billion in 2003 and another estimated $50-75 billion this year)—can always be invoked to stick with a failed policy. But staying the course—continuing to pay these costs in pursuit of policy objectives that cannot be attained—is not the answer. Instead of compounding our losses in Iraq, we should be cutting them.
The United States has no good options in Iraq but the least bad is this: Washington should transfer real sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30. It should tell the Iraqis to work out their own political future among themselves and turn over full responsibility for Iraq’s external and internal security to the new regime in Baghdad. Simultaneously, the United States also should suspend all offensive military operations in Iraq, pull its forces back to defensive enclaves well away from Iraq’s cities, and commence a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq that will be completed on December 31 (or on January 20, 2005).
There is no point in being Pollyannaish. In the long run, the U.S. will be better off leaving Iraq. In the short-term, however, there will be consequences—not all of which are foreseeable—if the U.S. withdraws. But that misses the point. Sooner or later the U.S. is going to end up leaving Iraq without having attained its goals. Washington’s real choice is akin to that posed in an old oil-filter commercial that used to run on television: America can pay now, or it can pay later when the costs will be even higher. Some 45 years ago, France found itself involved in a conflict very much like that in which the U.S. is involved in Iraq. Algeria was a bitter, bloody, and interminable struggle. The French could not prevail but were unwilling to bow to reality. Charles de Gaulle—a statesman of great vision and courage—cut the Gordian knot and extricated France from the unwinnable war in Algeria. Although painful, it was the right decision. George W. Bush is no de Gaulle. He is incapable either of admitting that his administration blundered into Iraq or of cutting America’s losses and disengaging. Whether any other political leader in the U.S. is capable of stepping up to the plate and demonstrating de Gaulle-like wisdom—which might require admitting to having made a misjudgment in initially backing the decision to go to war—remains to be seen. But plainly, the time has come for a statesman to step forward and ask the American people the question that must be asked: if the United States remains in Iraq, how do we tell the U.S. troops there that one of them will be the last one to die for a mistake?
Christopher Layne, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and a Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, writes frequently about American and international politics.