Foreign Affairs Report: The Iraq War
An Iraqi woman walks back to her home in Basara as fires rage, 2003. (Yannis Behrakis / Courtesy Reuters)
Thanks to problems of both conception and execution, the Iraq war ended up becoming the most egregious American foreign policy failure since Vietnam. Historians will long debate what the consequences might have been of different decisions at key turning points. We at Foreign Affairs were participating in these debates in real time; here are some highlights of our coverage of the war over the last decade.
What should the United States do about Iraq? Hawks are wrong to think the problem is desperately urgent or connected to terrorism, but right to see the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein as so worrisome that it requires drastic action. Doves are right about Iraq's not being a good candidate for an Afghan-style war, but wrong to think that inspections and deterrence alone can contain Saddam. The United States has no choice left but to invade Iraq itself and eliminate the current regime.
The driving motivation behind a new U.S. endeavor in Iraq should be modernizing the Arab world. Most Arabs will see such an expedition as an imperial reach into their world. But in this case a reforming foreign power's guidelines offer a better way than the region's age-old prohibitions, defects, and phobias. No apologies ought to be made for America's "unilateralism."
President Bush's case for war on Iraq overlooks a very real danger: if pushed to the wall, Saddam Hussein may resort to using weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Such a strike may not be likely, or may not succeed, but attacking Saddam is the best way to guarantee that it will happen. And Washington has done far too little to prepare for it.
Although the early U.S. blunders in the occupation of Iraq are well known, their consequences are just now becoming clear. The Bush administration was never willing to commit the resources necessary to secure the country and did not make the most of the resources it had. U.S. officials did get a number of things right, but they never understood-or even listened to-the country they were seeking to rebuild. As a result, the democratic future of Iraq now hangs in the balance.
The best strategy for the United States now in Iraq is disengagement. In a reversal of the usual sequence, the U.S. hand will be strengthened by withdrawal, and Washington might actually be able to lay the groundwork for a reasonably stable Iraq. Why? Because geography ensures that all other parties are far more exposed to the dangers of an anarchical Iraq than is the United States itself.
Because they lack a coherent strategy, U.S. forces in Iraq have failed to defeat the insurgency or improve security. Winning will require a new approach to counterinsurgency, one that focuses on providing security to Iraqis rather than hunting down insurgents. And it will take at least a decade.
Most discussions of U.S. policy in Iraq assume that it should be informed by the lessons of Vietnam. But the conflict in Iraq today is a communal civil war, not a Maoist "people's war," and so those lessons are not valid. "Iraqization," in particular, is likely to make matters worse, not better.
See also: "What to Do In Iraq: A Roundtable," a debate including Biddle, Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, and Leslie H. Gelb.
"What to Do In Iraq: Responses and Discussion," a debate including Biddle, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, Marc Lynch, Kevin Drum, and Diamond.
The Bush administration's new strategy in Iraq has helped reduce violence. But the surge is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state and may even have made such an outcome less likely -- by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni tribes and pitting them against the central government. The recent short-term gains have thus come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.
See also: "When to Leave Iraq: Today, Tomorrow, or Yesterday?" a response package including Colin H. Kahl and William E. Odom.
The surge of U.S. troops into Iraq helped decrease violence and set the stage for the eventual U.S. withdrawal. But the country still has a long way to go before it becomes sovereign and self-reliant. To stabilize itself and realize its democratic aspirations, Iraq needs Washington's continued support.
Weeks after the last U.S. soldier finally left the country, Iraq is on the road to becoming a failed state, with a deadlocked political system, an authoritarian leader, and a looming threat of disintegration. Baghdad can still pull itself together, but only if Washington starts applying the right kind of democratic pressure -- and fast.