August 20, 2005

What To Do About Iraq

The public opinion polls on Iraq have shrunk to all-time lows, and the American Public is getting antsy about how, when, and where this whole Iraq adventure will come to some sort of conclusion.

Kevin Drum, over at Washington Monthly, has challenged war supporters to:

So: if you do believe we can win in Iraq, let's hear what you mean by "win" and how you think we can do it, and let's hear it in clear and compelling declarative sentences. "Stay the course" isn't enough. What Bush is doing now obviously isn't working, so what would you do that's significantly different?

I don't consider myself quite a "war supporter", but I'll play this game. I think we need all the good ideas we can push together at this point: failure to "succeed" in Iraq is likely to leave the Middle East worse off, our global security worse off, and increase the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a terrorist organization everywhere in the world. The stakes really couldn't get much higher.

Recognize the assumptions in Kevin's game: "What Bush is doing now obviously isn't working, so what would you do that's significantly different?" As part of the rules here, the unchallengable assumption is that the present plan isn't succeeding (now), and won't bring success in the future. Hence, what would you do differently to achieve success, and how do you define that success.

Other people have rejected these assumptions. There's a fairly long screaming catfight over at Obsidian Wings where Von has argued that Bush's present plan might just work, and Kevin's original game has no winning hands.

I don't agree with Von - it seems like what we are doing now isn't working fast enough to achieve success before the American Public Opinion forces either a complete or partial withdrawl. In other words, while I'm not convinced that Bush's present Iraqi policies are really working, it is at least clear that they are not working fast enough to satisfy the average American. Hence, I think they can be termed failures (since, if we are forced by our own public opinion to withdraw, that would clearly be a failure no matter how one defines success). So, I'll play Kevin's game:

What is Success: Success, at this point, is defined as a stable Iraq that is not hostile to US interests in the region. I am tossing out the window right at the outset any idea of democracy, a US-like bill of rights, and a secular goverment. Those would have been nice, but were historically unlikely. I don't want to argue about whether different US policies in the past twenty-eight months might have produced any of those outcomes; Iraq has no (zero) historical tradition of democracy, western-style freedoms and rights, the rule of law. Saddam pushed a secular agenda (mostly because he didn't want to compete with Islam for the support of his people, and didn't want to allow a flourishing religion as an alternative to his government), so there is still an outside chance at a non-religious/partially secular regime. I wouldn't hold my breath, and I'm not defining it as part of "winning". Winning is, simply, a government that won't take any active measures against US policy in the region (it won't overtly try to overthrow the Saudi Monarchy, prop up Bathist Syria, or help funnel nuclear secrets to Iran, or officially endorse/support Al Qaeda camps/infrastructure in it's territory, for example) or passively allow other organization to work against US interests (i.e., no Al Qaeda recruiters wandering around freely). In short, Iraq should be neutral. They will not help us, but they will not hurt us. They will not help those states who are opposed to our policies, but they will oppose them either. This is a very limited definition of "success", but one that still leaves us better off than Iraq under Saddam (who did work to oppose our regional interests).

How do we achieve this success? Not easily. However, there are steps, policies and options that increase the chances of achieving success.

Increase the troop strength. We presently have about 130,000 soldiers on the ground. This is clearly insufficient. There are still significant areas of the country that are unpatrolled on a regular basis, and these provide locations for insurgent individuals/units to plan, organize, stockpile and prepare to fight us. This cannot continue. The solution is to bring more soldiers into the fight. The US could, while the army is generally streched pretty thin these days, "surge" some extra regular-army (shorten the down time for units that have returned from Iraq, or send some earlier than scheduled) or national guard (call up extra units) units into Iraq. This is a short-term option, as the army cannot sustain that sort of operational tempo for the long term (people burn out, equipment breaks, etc.). However, for some time, we should be able to put more soldiers on the ground, which will help the ongoing fight. Recognize the assumptions of this plan: the US would not have any significant foot soldiers to use if another conflict were to break out elsewhere. We could still bomb the crap out of anyone who wants to start a fight with us, but that's about all we could do. However, assuming we're not expecting a war elsewhere, we could do this. An additional advantage of this plan is that it keeps units and individuals in Iraq for longer than the one-year deployments now being done. As it stands, units and individuals are just becoming comfortable in their operational areas before they are yanked out and brought home, and their intimate knowledge of the area they have worked goes with them. Leaving units and individuals longer in Iraq increases the efficiency of the army on the ground.

Fire Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is politically opposed to a large army. He fought it before 9/11, and has championed the idea of "shock and awe". He believes that a high-tech, wired, educated small force can accomplish more than a massive, ponderous, long-logistical-train regular army can. He proved his point in short war that defeated Saddam's army. Since then, reality has come crashing down. Sure, a small, highly trained, superbly equipped army might be able to destroy another traditional army, but you cannot replace "boots on the ground". His ideas are not so much wrong, as grounded on oncorrect assumptions. We won't be fighting anybody's regular army anytime soon. We need (for Iraq, for Afghanistan, for failed states in Africa, etc.) an army of nation-builders, not a division of super-soldiers. Hence, get rid of him, and find someone to head the army we need, not the army we can't use.

Increase the number of active allies. I realize we are not thought of highly in the world, but an Iraq that collapses into chaos and civil war harms everyone, not just us. We need to go, hat in hand, to allies of ours and make the case for other countries to put troops on the ground. The "surge" that we can accomplish by stretching our army is only temporary - it cannot be sustained indefinately. However, it does give us some breathing room to let diplomacy gain us states willing to actively help our effort. However, to gain the trust of the states who can help us (we don't really need Paraguay's help, since they can't send enough troops to make a difference, for example), we will need to make actual diplomatic concessions to other states' interests. These include:

Sign the ICC treaty. The US has refused to sign onto the International Criminal Courts, for fear of the US being prosecuted for something, somewhere. This is unlikely. In any event, this is important to the rest of the world, and we should do it for that reason.
Reinvoke the ABM treaty, and give up our National Missile Defense. The US removed itself from a long-standing international treaty that bans anti-ballistic missle defenses, and is actively building a missile site in Alaska. There are tremendous technological hurdles to this, but more importantly the US policy position makes Russia, China and most of Europe nervous. Since those are states that could contribute soldiers to combat the insurgency, we should change our policy. There are good arguments that National Missile Defense actually makes us less safe (starts a destabilizing arms race in the rest of the world), but the real reason to give it up is to gain favor with allies that can help our position in Iraq.
Actively promote and lobby for the United Nations to head the political efforts to create an Iraqi government. One of the rest of the world's strongest objections to the US in Iraq is how the US has ignored the feelings, considerations, suggestions and objections of the region and world. I'm not arguing that we didn't have good reason to, only that if we expect the rest of the world to actively assist us in Iraq, we will need to cede control over the political process to a mutually-acceptable neutral body - the United Nations. Very simply, if we expect other states to participate in putting down the insurgency, those other states should have some legitimate and real say in the process (political, economic, etc.) of rebuilding the country.
Become actively engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Things there actually seem to be going well, right now. However, the wheels have come off before (and likely will again). We need to be prepared to force both the Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions to find a permenant settlement that leaves a lasting peace. This will go along way towards reducing the hostility against the US in the region. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a club that almost all the Arab states beat us with. If we solve it (or at least actively participate) then that club is removed, and tensions in the region will fall. That will make it easier for Arab states to work with the US in Iraq, and if we can get Arab governments actively working to fix Iraq, things will go much better, much faster.

Before moving off to other policies, I want to make clear that I recognize that the changes I suggested to US general foreign policy are not ones that are necessarily helpful or beneficial to the US. I clearly see that. However, the focus was on making changes that other states would see as beneficial to them, and thus (in a quid-pro-quo sense) gain us active allies to help us achieve "success" in Iraq. These policy changes are means to an end: ways to gain us additional allies and help in Iraq.

Ally ourselves more closely with the Shiites in Iraq With respect to Iraq itself, we should push the interest of the Shiite majority, even if this comes at the expense of the Kurds and the Sunnis. Remeber, success is stability and neutrality, not democracy and freedom. Empowering the Shiites (while not actively disparaging the other elements) creates relative good-will among the Shiite leaders, who will likely end up ruling the place anyway. If we can make friends with them, even as we see them pushing the government in ways that are not appropriate (role of women, role of religion, friendliness to Iran, oil revenues, etc.), then the future sovereign government of Iraq is significantly more likely to hold to a neutral line and avoid conflict with us. We propped up Marcos, Batista, Pinochet and the Shah during the Cold War; why should propping up the goverment that the majority of the country actually wants bother us?

I'm not convinced this plan will succeed, but I think it will increase the chances of "success" (not winning as Bush has defined it) in Iraq. I also recognize that not all of these policies are optimal for the US. However, this is all about a trade-off: if Iraq falls into a civil war, with chaos and active Al Qaeda train camps, that's much worse for overall US foreign policy than any of the "give-aways" I've detailed above. This is about making the best of a bad situation, and these ideas at least bring success closer than thte present policies.

Posted by baltar at August 20, 2005 01:28 PM | TrackBack | Posted to International Affairs


So we spend hundreds of billions of dollars, suffer 20,000 casualties (by the time we are out of there it will be at least that many), lower the opinion of the US in the world and inspire more terrorists in the process - and the best we can hope for out of the whole deal is a government of Iraq that isn't overtly anti-US. No wonder more people are thinking that what we have gained in this operation isn't enough given what we've spent.

Posted by: Armand at August 21, 2005 01:13 PM | PERMALINK

not that i'm denying the heart of your critique, armand, but at present rates wouldn't you have to anticipate 18 more years of insurgency to reach 20,000 U.S. dead? i think it's entirely possible that casualties would drop if we had enough soldiers on the ground; it's the shell game that our meager presence permits the insurgents to play that makes it as ongoing lethal as it is for our troops. if there's no significant population center that's off the U.S. radar, there's nowhere to hide, nowhere to build bombs and plot.

that said, i don't know if anyone caught sy hersh on the daily show earlier this week, but he's usually got his shit together, and his sources are whispering about a sort of tet offensive, a coordinated effort to engage our troops more directly, including a "battle for baghdad."

i like what you did with this baltar; it's important to have a constructive counterpoint/-proposal. much as i applaud her conviction, and the attention it's drawn to the widespread strain of dissent / dissatisfaction in the country with the war effort generally and especially as presently constituted, it's hopelessly naive to argue for the immediate withdrawal of our troops. we can't unring the bell we've struck, and the sooner the left starts hitting bush with criticisms that are less about 'why did you . . .?' and more along the lines of of, 'why aren't you . . .?' and 'why don't you . . .?' the sooner the left will be less vulnerable to suggestions that it's hopelessly idealistic and disconnected from the reality of the situation.

btw, i think not firing rumsfeld and the relevant underbosses at CIA and NSA, and discharging every senior officer within a mile of abu ghraib will, in hindsight, be the most damning critique of the bush administration's administration of the administration. {smirk.}

a little new blood goes a long way, and bush seems to be the only two-term president not to have figured that out. and it's costing him -- and, God willing his party -- dearly.

Posted by: joshua at August 21, 2005 04:03 PM | PERMALINK
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