"We have the wolf by the ears," wrote Thomas Jefferson "and can neither hold him nor safely let him go." He was writing about slavery, but one begins to know how he felt. My position on this differs from most contributors, in that I regard Iraq as an inherited American responsibility, not as one hastily or rashly acquired by the Bush administration. (Most of the constant revisiting of the flaws in the case for intervention appears to me as an attempt to evade this conclusion.) The United States appears to have played a part in Saddam's original accession to power: it certainly sided with him in his catastrophic war on Iran and provided him with the sinews of war that he was later to employ against his "own" people. After his eviction from Kuwait, it was successive administrations which decided to leave (i.e. confirm) him in power, subject his people to demoralizing and impoverishing sanctions and protect the Shiites and Kurds (who together constitute a majority) from a renewal of genocide. This is a weight of responsibility that makes it quite premature to talk about any "exit strategy." We did help break Iraq, and we do partly own it.
I would also want to stipulate that the distinction between "over there" and "over here" has become, since September of 2001, somewhat fungible. It isn't clear to me in what sense one can "withdraw" from anywhere, let alone Iraq. Too many people seem to adopt a quasi-Berkeleyean position, to the effect that if something crashes and we are not there to see it, it is not "really" happening. A crashed Iraq would not at any stage have posed the Bishop's soothing dilemma, any more than did (or would) a crashed and imploded Afghanistan. If there is still a "water's edge" in our politics, I am not sure where it is to be found.
We cannot consider departing from Iraq until we have (a) repaired the damage done to its industry by war and sanctions (b) made sure that the trial of Saddam Hussein and his associates for war crimes and crimes against humanity is completed and (c) inflicted a battlefield defeat on the combined forces of the Baath Party and al Qaeda. The lessons learned from the latter, and the skills acquired in achieving it, are essential things that we shall be requiring elsewhere and in the future.
Unfortunately, the chief aim of the insurgency (directly descended from Saddam Hussein's own practice of divide and rule) has already been partly accomplished. Though there are many Iraqis who do not think in tribal or confessional terms — and we owe something to these people too — the scene is now dominated by sectarians and by sectarianism. Peter Galbraith (whose excellent new book The End of Iraq will I hope be commented upon in our next round) has argued that we should accept the inevitable and help arrange an "amicable divorce" between the country's three factions. This in itself will be no small task. A divorce a la Czech and Slovak is very different from an Indo-Pakistan one. The general history of partition (especially in former British possessions) is not at all an encouraging one. And there is the danger that Iran and Saudi Arabia would be able to colonize any Shiites or Sunni condominium.
If we are, however, to exchange federalism for separatism, there is one further responsibility that we cannot ignore. One unarguable gain of regime change is the development and autonomy that it has brought to the people of Kurdistan. To these people, too, we have made promises and offered guarantees for many years. It must be made very plain that there is no going back on these promises and guarantees, and that self-determination for the Kurds, inside or outside Iraq, is a settled policy of the United States under this or any future administration. A statement along these lines from the current administration would be welcome, as would a response to it from those Democrats who are now attempting to discover what they think about the matter.
There's an old joke about a physicist, an engineer, and an economist stranded on a desert island with a case of canned food. The physicist studies the can to determine how much pressure it might take to open it. The engineer scavenges for materials to make can-opening tools. The economist says, "Assume a can opener." Much of the discussion in this roundtable about what to do in Iraq assumes that we have a can opener — that the United States has the military power, diplomatic leverage, and political sagacity to implement various schemes or to pressure the Iraqis into doing so.
Stephen Biddle's otherwise excellent analysis goes astray when he calls on the U.S. to "manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate." This is far-fetched not just for the reason Larry Diamond cites — that the insurgency is nationalist as well as sectarian — but for three other reasons. First, we aren't clever enough to pull off such fine-tuned manipulations (by "we," I mean not just the Bush administration but almost any conceivable president or perhaps any modern democracy). Second, the situation is so complex that, even if we suddenly got so clever, it's not clear what steps would coerce the three factions in which direction. Third, this sort of Machiavellian side-switching would more likely alienate the factions than win them over.
Leslie Gelb's solution — to decentralize Iraq (a ramshackle nation-state from its creation) into "three strong regions with a limited but effective central government" — begs more questions than it answers. For starters, how will this limited central government be made "effective"? One of its tasks, according to Gelb, would be to divvy up oil and gas revenue, but this issue is a key source of the current conflict. (He proposes giving the Sunnis "a constitutionally guaranteed share of oil revenues," but it's unlikely the Shiite majority will go along.) The central government would also have to "make special security arrangements" for the big cities such as Baghdad and Kirkuk, which have mixed populations, but these are the sites of the most turbulent violence. How is a limited government — which, again, would be controlled by Shiites, whatever its powers — supposed to impose a solution?
Another of Gelb's ideas is to protect minority and women's rights "by linking U.S. aid" to the provision of these rights. Nice thought, but Washington provides so little aid now that its withholding would be unlikely to compel sectarian leaders into abandoning a lifetime of prejudice. As for his proposal of a "regional non-aggression pact," the United States lacks the leverage with the major neighboring countries — Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — to impose such a pact. Nor is it at all clear that these countries would be interested in a pact, hoping instead to profit from Iraq's breakup.
In short, Iraq may eventually go the way that Gelb proposes, but I see such a course less as a solution than as a road to more problems. A case could be made that the U.S., with the cooperation of other countries and international bodies, should lay the groundwork for a smooth transition. But as long as neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites desire this end-state, and as long as the neighbors have predatory interests in the matter, it's hard to see where the groundwork can start.
I'm inclined to side with James Dobbins and Chaim Kaufmann, if just for their minimalist approaches: Dobbins scaling back U.S. goals from spreading democracy throughout the region to averting civil war, and Kaufmann proposing the use of U.S. forces to protect Iraqis wishing to relocate. These notions are hardly visionary, nor do they advance a comprehensive solution to the problems at hand. But at least they recognize the limits of what, at this point, can be done.
In strictly military terms, America's biggest failure in Iraq has been a persistent refusal to give more than lip service to counterinsurgency and peacekeeping. This has been folly of an extraordinary order. Still, Stephen Biddle does us a favor by reminding us that at this point the issue is useful for little more than recriminations and score settling. The conflict in Iraq might once have been a classical insurgency, but no longer. It's now a low-grade sectarian civil war, and the counterinsurgency techniques that would have been effective in 2003 are probably not worth haggling over today.
Biddle also suggests that the current Bush administration plan — "as they stand up, we'll stand down" — won't do anything to stop the fighting. I think this is correct: The Iraqis who are standing up are mostly members of thuggish, sectarian militias that are far more likely to keep the civil war boiling than they are to turn down the heat. Unfortunately, he and his fellow participants in the roundtable don't agree on what to do about it.
Biddle himself proposes that the United States should threaten to pull out as a way of coercing the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to negotiate a political settlement in good faith, but this is little more than desperation talking. Nobody would find such a threat credible, and even if they did, there are far too many parties on all sides who would be perfectly happy to see the Americans leave for such a threat to carry much weight.
The other suggestions are no more comforting. Larry Diamond and James Dobbins put their faith in redoubled diplomatic efforts, differing mostly in the relative importance they place on internal actors vs. external ones. Chaim Kaufmann and Leslie Gelb, by contrast, favor map-drawing exercises. Gelb proposes a sort of Middle Eastern Belgium, with Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regions coexisting more-or-less amicably, while Kaufmann foresees a hellish version of Switzerland, with Iraq effectively divided into dozens or hundreds of militarized cantons. Unfortunately, none of these sound much more convincing than the diplomatic plan John McCain offered to a group of potential donors in New York a few weeks ago: "One of the things I would do if I were president," he told the assembled worthies, "would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit.'"
McCain aside, does anyone really think that the Bush administration has either the desire or the ability to pull off a complex, multiparty diplomatic effort that will find a magic formula for peace? Even the most committed internationalist would have a hard time making this work, and George W. Bush is the farthest thing imaginable from a committed internationalist.
And breaking up Iraq? It might happen of its own accord, but what makes us think we have the leverage to help it along? Gelb suggests that a form of weak federalism "would be in the interest of all parties," but that's wishful thinking. It might be in the best interest of the Kurds, who will probably end up with their own semi-autonomous region regardless of what else happens, but there's little reason to think that any of Iraq's Arabs, whether Shiite or Sunni, will buy into this plan for the rest of the country. They've certainly provided no serious indication of interest in the past.
If these proposals were simply unlikely to work, it might be worth trying them. But the dangers go beyond that. It's true that a full-blown Iraqi civil war now seems increasingly inevitable no matter what course we take, but that's not the worst that could happen. The worst that could happen is a full-blown Iraqi civil war with the U.S. military caught in the middle. At that point, our options would be to either take sides and become a tacit party to a near genocide, or stand by helplessly while Iraqis slaughter each other in our presence. That would be devastating not just for Iraq and the Middle East but for America's prestige and its future freedom of action as well.
Sometimes there's simply no good answer, and at this point, staying in Iraq is doing far more damage to our standing in the world than a careful withdrawal ever would. Withdrawing from Vietnam didn't destroy America's standing in the world, withdrawing from Algeria didn't destroy France's standing in the world, and withdrawing from Lebanon didn't destroy Israel's standing in the world. It was staying too long that did the damage.
It's time to put away our egos and start taking the war on terror seriously. This means figuring out a prudent and sensible way to leave Iraq. It may not be a good answer, but it's nonetheless the best answer we have.
Stephen Biddle does an excellent job of explaining the situation in Iraq today as a communal civil war. His analysis of the dangers of Iraqification under such polarized conditions is spot on, as are his assessments of the logic of communal violence. Larry Diamond is right to point out that Biddle neglects the "resistance to occupation" dimension of the insurgency, but I think that in general Biddle makes a convincing case for the "communalization" of the conflict.
Adopting Biddle's understanding of the problem from the beginning might have helped Washington avoid many of its mistakes. But alas, analysts today don't have the luxury of channeling the farmer who, when asked by a lost traveler for directions back to town, replied, "I wouldn't start from here." Biddle himself doesn't really offer an adequate treatment to the problems he has identified, nor do the other participants in the roundtable.
Biddle's proposal of threatening the creation of a Shiite-Kurdish army while working to bring the Sunnis on board depends on a level of control and micromanagement simply beyond the ability of the United States to muster at this point. We didn't have the troops on the ground to impose order after Saddam's fall, and we don't have them, or the other resources necessary, there now to make Biddle's plan work. As James Dobbins points out, in fact, such resources are likely to decrease rather than increase in coming years — a constraint that any realistic plan must take into account. Iraqis, who are quite capable of scrutinizing the American domestic landscape for signals about the future, know this and are likely to tailor their strategies accordingly.
Even if Washington could somehow muster the necessary resources, moreover, Biddle's plan would still be flawed because of the ease with which local spoilers could torpedo progress. In an insecure environment, it takes only a small number of highly motivated actors willing to use violence to generate ethnic/communal hostilities even if such identities weren't important previously. Biddle assumes that "the underlying interests of all local parties would be far better served by a constitutional compromise than by an all-out war." Perhaps. But it would take only a few violent, recalcitrant spoilers to undo such broader conceptions of community interest — and Iraq today has more than enough of them.
The iron logic of communal violence has repeatedly defeated attempts at management. De-escalation is much, much harder than the initial construction of communal hostility, as the hatreds created by each massacre snowball into revenge, fear, and fury; as the expectation of insecurity pushes people to take matters into their own hands; and as the state itself (as Biddle effectively demonstrates) falls into the hands of communal actors. The biggest flaw in Biddle's analysis is that he underestimates the agency of those same "communal entrepreneurs" who drove the initial escalation. They will not sit back passively and watch Washington help put Humpty-Dumpty back together.
Finally, even if Biddle's plan worked to perfection, coaxing the Sunnis and Shiites into a power-sharing agreement and providing credible security guarantees, the jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda — with or without Zarqawi — have every incentive to keep the conflict going. For al Qaeda, Iraq has been a godsend. This is not because its strategists really expect to create a new caliphate based in Baghdad, or because of any pre-existing commitment to Saddam's regime. It is because the steady stream of images — of brutal Americans, suffering Iraqis, and resisting jihadists — has become the lifeblood of its propaganda videos and rhetoric. Every day that the violence continues — with Americans as the targets — al Qaeda wins. (In this light, Zarqawi's passing might actually be a boon to bin Laden and his colleagues, because he complicated their agenda with his attacks on the Shiites and on Iraqi civilians.) A gradual American withdrawal from Iraq, in contrast, might well be a disaster for al Qaeda rather than a victory, because conflict in Iraq helps its cause only as long as Americans are the villains and the targets.
If Biddle's suggestion about manipulating the communal balance of power is unlikely to succeed, what about the other options? Chaim Kaufmann and Leslie Gelb offer variations on partition as an exit strategy. Kaufmann has long been a proponent of such partitions as the only viable response to entrenched communal conflicts, and there is a powerful logic behind his position. But in this case the logic unfortunately runs aground on the rocks of practicality and morality. The wide-scale movement of peoples which would be required in order to create ethnically homogenous regions in Iraq would itself cause immense human suffering, and compensating the displaced would require resources far beyond anything currently on offer. There is also something vaguely nausea-inducing about accepting the logic of a Milosevic and making a virtue of ethnic cleansing. A partition, moreover, would inevitably raise a plethora of problems — not just the perennial questions about what to do with the cities or how to divide oil revenues, but new ones about the incentives for all the local actors to create brutal "facts on the ground" in advance of a settlement. Gelb's decentralization scheme is less extreme than Kaufmann's call for partition, but like Biddle's proposal it depends on unrealistic assumptions about the motivations of local actors and underestimates the capacity of small groups of spoilers to undermine even a generally popular plan to advance the common good.
What about a timetable for withdrawal, until recently the official policy of the current Iraqi government? Larry Diamond and James Dobbins each foresee a reduced American role, for Dobbins as a matter of simple reality (given declining American commitment of resources) and for Diamond as a way to help reassure the Sunnis about American intentions. While I myself am not an advocate of a withdrawal, I did feel that the roundtable didn't do justice to the arguments in favor of it. Many observers (including not a few Iraqis) have argued that the American presence has inflamed the conflict as much as it dampens it down; that it allows Iraq's leaders to avoid making hard choices and stops them from coming up with a constitutional agreement that reflects the real balance of power inside the country; and that it makes Iraq attractive to the jihadists of al Qaeda. These are strong selling points, even if any timetable for withdrawal would create the same kinds of perverse incentives as a move towards partition, encouraging all actors to orient their strategies toward the timetable, with potentially explosive results.
So what, then, should we do? Hey, look at that . . . 1000 words already? What a pity . . .
I find myself again pleased to be able to agree with a fine panel on the diagnosis of Iraq's problems. We generally concur that the Iraq conflict is already a communal civil war and not primarily a nationalist struggle or a classical insurgency built around competing ideologies for governance. We also generally agree that strategies for responding to nationalist resistance or classical insurgency are ill-suited to today's low-intensity civil war.
But diagnosis, of course, is often easier than prescription. And prescription is certainly a difficult challenge for Iraq. None of the panelists are happy with my recommendation — that the United States use its military leverage to increase pressure for a compromise power-sharing government in Iraq. But neither are they very happy with the prescriptions offered by Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Leslie Gelb, or Chaim Kaufmann. For that matter, they are not too thrilled with each other's prescriptions either. Kevin Drum calls for withdrawal, presumably quickly. Christopher Hitchens would stay as long as necessary to inflict "a battlefield defeat on the combined forces of the Baath Party and al Qaeda," among other aims. Fred Kaplan favors parts of James Dobbins' and Chaim Kaufmann's programs, but mainly because they seem the least ambitious approaches to a conflict that Kaplan appears to be mostly fatalistic about. And in his first post, at least, Marc Lynch chooses discretion as the better part of valor and declines to raise his head above the parapet with a specific proposal.
This dissensus should not be surprising. There are no good options for Iraq. I have yet to hear a proposal that does not have serious flaws and shortcomings — my own included. Certainly I have never claimed to have found a silver bullet; my original article enumerated a long list of difficulties with my proposal that included most of those presented in the current panel (Lynch's concerns on the likely role of spoilers in Iraq were left out but are valid and I share them). I thus mainly agree with the panelists: yes, successful use of military leverage in Iraq might indeed be beyond the skills of our diplomats or the vision of Iraqi leaders; yes, it could require endurance beyond the patience of American voters or the limits of the U.S. military; and yes, it would certainly be much more effective if pursued with larger forces than the United States has at its disposal.
But the other possibilities are even more flawed. Early withdrawal would surely lead to a rapid escalation in the violence and could easily turn an internal conflict into a regional interstate war. The ensuing chaos could engulf states with active weapons of mass destruction programs (and perhaps even real nuclear weapons), provide major recruitment and basing opportunities to al Qaeda, and disrupt global energy markets for years to come. The United States may ultimately be forced to withdraw from Iraq, but at this point it would generate more problems than it would solve.
As for inflicting a "battlefield defeat" on Iraqi guerillas, this is possible only in the narrowest tactical sense. U.S. forces routinely prevail in firefights, but the opposition in Iraq cannot be annihilated by American firepower. Military force may be a helpful lever in securing a political settlement, but not by imposing a battlefield victory on an enemy army.
For my part, I remain persuaded that Washington must try to use its military power in ways that increase the odds of a power sharing deal among Iraq's communal rivals, rather than decreasing those odds as current U.S. strategy does. My position stems from my view that a lack of leverage is the key problem confounding Ambassador Khalilzad's current efforts to midwife a compromise, that current U.S. military policy undermines that leverage, and that some way of increasing it is the only way out short of withdrawal. For this reason I also favor regional diplomacy (like James Dobbins), multilateral initiatives (like Larry Diamond), and any other way anyone can find to increase U.S. bargaining power.
One or all of these means may indeed prove beyond America's abilities, and some, such as the use of military leverage, may even leave things worse off if they ultimately fail. But the time for fastidiousness is rapidly passing. Time is not on America's side in Iraq — public tolerance in the United States for the current course is fading, Iraqi patience in the face of a mounting death toll surely has its limits, and sooner or later the violence really will escalate beyond control. If the pace of intercommunal compromise does not pick up soon, it may be overtaken by events and Iraq will then descend into an all-out version of today's low-grade civil war. Holding out for some perfect, pristine, low-cost, low-risk solution to the problem, or persisting in modest initiatives that are not getting real traction, risks letting the conflict slip beyond anyone's control. Patience and caution in the face of a burning building are not always the safest course.
It is true that the United States could just let the building burn down and hope the surroundings do not go with it. After all, even the worst-case outcome in Iraq would still not end American democracy; the stakes here are not literally existential for Americans. But the consequences of failure in Iraq are grave nonetheless. And failure is a real possibility — at this point, it may even be the likeliest result regardless of the course Washington adopts. But I do not yet think failure is a certainty. And given the stakes, it is worth accepting some risk now to try to prevent the worst case before it becomes a reality.
I have these few quick thoughts on this worthwhile and provocative symposium:
I wish Christopher Hitchens would move beyond justifying the intervention in Iraq (just as others need to move beyond condemning it) to grapple with the issue of what should actually be done now. If U.S. forces have to stay until they have revived Iraq's industrial infrastructure and inflicted a "battlefield defeat" on al Qaeda and the Baathists, they should plan on being there for a couple of decades. As for his being open to the division of Iraq, such a division would not end the violence, just intensify it as all groups struggle over the spoils north, south and center.
I agree with Fred Kaplan that the weakest points in Leslie Gelb's proposal are figuring out how the Sunnis can be guaranteed a fair share of oil revenues in perpetuity and how a weak central government can impose (or frankly even negotiate) a solution on the current conflict. I also agree with Kaplan (and James Dobbins) that Washington should lower its sights at this point, aiming, for example, for stabilization rather than democratization. (We held a conference on that very theme at Stanford a couple of months ago; the report from it can be found here. )
I agree with Chaim Kaufmann to a limited extent on the value of helping to relocate people and defend refugees, and even perhaps quietly, wearily, resigning ourselves to further ethnic separation. But I don't think the United States should promote or morally condone such an outcome—which will not, in any case, stabilize Iraq, just (at best) reduce some of the bloodshed.
I don't think that Iraq is in a "low-grade ... civil war," as Kevin Drum writes. At the current rate of killings, the annual civilian death toll is now 20,000. This is no longer "low intensity." I do agree with Drum that the United States needs to find a "prudent and sensible way" to leave Iraq, but I don't think he actually offers one.
I think Marc Lynch is dead right about the spoiler problem. And I sympathize with his first post's lack of a bold conclusion. For some time now, and with growing urgency and poignancy, I have had a sinking feeling that the situation is headed for disaster no matter what Washington does at this point. If the United States pulls out fast, there will be all-out, horrific, regionally spreading civil war. If it stays indefinitely, it will incur more casualties, run through an additional $8 billion per month, grind down the American military machine, and help al Qaeda's recruitment efforts—all simply to watch Iraq burn slowly rather than quickly. If Washington tries to separate the country amicably into autonomous regions or statelets, those new units will start fighting over the distribution of oil and power, so the incipient civil war will intensify. If it tries to hold the country together, the civil war will also intensify.
Given all this, my guess is that the Bush administration will continue to stare into the approaching abyss like a deer in the headlights, frozen in its current stance. It will try to withdraw some troops before November to show progress, but will not be able to withdraw too many so long as it remains in office because that would likely trigger an all-out civil war. So the mess will likely end up being passed on to the next administration.
It is hard for me to remember a time when I have felt that the United States was so hopelessly, brutally, and thoroughly trapped in a thankless policy. However, since despair is not a policy option, we are compelled to continue the search for practical options.
Having read both the full Roundtable in the print edition of the magazine and the first round of posts in this online exchange, I still think my proposal makes the most sense—even though I'm not particularly optimistic that it will be tried, or executed well if it were, or that it would necessarily solve the problems at hand.
On reflection, I think my appeal (and Dobbins') for a new, intensified, and more broadly regional effort at diplomatic mediation could converge in an interesting way with elements of what Gelb suggests. Gelb's proposal could be adapted to provide not for one Shiite region in the south but three. This would still devolve power substantially, but it would be a more balanced federation (six regions, each composed of three provinces) and thus less objectionable to the Sunnis than a single (hegemonic) Shiite super-region. It would also be much less likely to lead to the further polarization and possible break-up of the country, as it would create a more fluid and complex federal system, activating the cleavages among the Shiites and making it likely that different Shiite political forces would control different provinces. (Such a modified regional system would also diminish the potential sway of Iran over the new political order in the south).
As Gelb himself emphasizes, any such federal system would have to give clear and full control over the country's oil and gas resources to the central government. I also think his federalist proposal would be more viable and acceptable if it created some kind of automatic and internationally guaranteed payment mechanism for transferring the statutory shares of Iraq's oil and gas revenues directly to the regional governments.
Broadened regional diplomacy to foster consensus around some such a federalist, power-and-revenue-sharing approach seems the least hopeless option at this point. But it would need to be combined with new efforts to negotiate with Sunni insurgent elements, and continued efforts to confront and diminish the murderous sectarian militias and to build up some semblance of a genuinely Iraqi state and army.
It seems very likely that large numbers of American troops (probably at least 100,000) will remain in Iraq through 2008. Then, if the Iraqis haven't made major progress in constructing a state apparatus, army, and police that can hold the country together, Washington will—and should—start heading for the exit while trying to contain the regional repercussions. What should be conveyed pointedly to the Iraqi government now, and to the parties that look to the United States for stabilization, is that they should not consider the American presence open-ended, and had better start assuming more responsibility for forging political consensus and a viable state.
I am again a little dispirited at the absence of the historical dimension from many of these postings, or by its appearance only in the form of false analogy. There is nothing remotely comparable here with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, or with the experience of the United States in Indochina, let alone that of the Israelis in Lebanon. The United States has not claimed territory in Iraq, as the French did in Algeria: it is not the inheritor of a bankrupt French colonialism, as Eisenhower and Kennedy were in Vietnam; and it is not pursuing a vendetta, as was Sharon in Lebanon.
It is, instead, in a situation where no superpower has ever been before. The ostensible pretext for American intervention — the disarmament of a WMD-capable rogue state and the overthrow of a government aligned with international jihadist gangsterism — was in my opinion based on an important element of truth rather than on a fabrication or exaggeration. But the deeper rationale — that of altering the regional balance of power and introducing democracy into the picture— is the one that must now preoccupy us more. The United States is in Iraq for its own interests, to ensure that a major state with a chokehold on a main waterway of the global economy is not run by a barbaric crime family or by its fundamentalist former allies and would-be successors. But it is also there to release, and not repress, the numberless latent grievances of Iraqi society. And—something surprisingly forgotten by many who fetishize the United Nations—it is there under a UN mandate for the democratization and reconstruction of the country.
It was to be expected that the forces of reaction would try to sabotage the process of resolving Iraqis' grievances by democratic and federal means, and it is true that this menace was underestimated. Where, I wonder, have we not underestimated the sheer viciousness of this enemy, and its willingness to destroy states and societies rather than allow them to be even partly democratic or secular? We are underestimating it in Darfur — which has been handled a la Kofi Annan, presumably to the satisfaction of the so-called "multilateralists" — even as I write. We are in the process of ignoring its challenge in Nigeria, and also of downplaying its attempt to destroy the all-important multi-ethnic democracy of India (where the United States has an alliance of both principle and interest).
If there is an Algerian analogy at all, it would be to the war waged by Salafist fanatics against the FLN government during the 1990s. Based initially on a far wider public support than anything enjoyed by the Baathists and bin Ladenists of Iraq, this insurgency was eventually defeated by two things. The first was the strategic majority that was eventually mobilized, consisting of the urban secular middle class, many of the Berber/Kabyle population, women, and a crucial section of the armed forces. The second was the nature of the insurgency itself, which resorted to the takfir mania of declaring all its foes to be apostates, and which imploded as a result of the war on civilians that it conducted. The Algerian authorities employed tactics we would not—and should not—allow ourselves to use, but there should still be a much closer study of the way in which this victory was accomplished.
I repeat what I said in my first posting: The United States can contemplate leaving Iraqis to settle their sharp internal differences by themselves, but it cannot abandon them to a victory for clerical and political fascism and has its own reasons for demonstrating that such a threat can be met, engaged, and defeated. Those who believe, or half-believe, that the insurgency is produced by the Coalition presence are deceiving themselves, and have paid no attention to the countries where such tactics are used against the population in the absence of any Western involvement or even concern.
At present, then, the United States is acting as a militia for the majority of Iraqis who do not have a militia of their own. (It is not without significance that when sectarians are found operating private or semi-official squads and prisons, the victims take their complaints to the Green Zone.) Clearly, this cannot become a long-term dependent relationship. My chief worry, however, is of the opposite type, and was mentioned by Marc Lynch. If our calculations become unduly inflected by considerations of American domestic opinion, then both Iraqis and foreign intruders (and their state backers in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) have only to set their watches and begin making their respectively pessimistic and gloating dispositions. We thus condition the outcome without much influencing it.
A possible solution — ask the Iraqis what should be done — is insufficiently canvassed. As a means of concentrating all minds, one could either propose a vote in the Iraqi parliament, or a national referendum, on the single question of a date for withdrawal to begin. Much might be learned from the analysis of the results, and we could remind people again that Iraq is the only country in the region, apart from Lebanon, where citizens are regularly called to the polling-booth. This was part of the point to begin with.
After the analyses and critiques, one is faced with the discomfiting question: "So what would you do?" Or, as Kevin Drum poses it: To withdraw or not to withdraw; and, if not, why not?
I would stop far short of Christopher Hitchens, whose preconditions for even considering departure—repair all industrial damage done by the sanctions as well as by the war and "inflict a battlefield defeat on the Baathist Party and al Qaeda"—define the term "permanent basing." (They're also implausible under even the most optimistic of scenarios.) However, though I've been critical of the war, I cannot support a total American pullout, nor do I see the point of setting a timetable for one. The key phrase here is "total pullout." I see no problem with substantial withdrawals—of, say, at least half the U.S. forces by early '07—or with setting benchmarks for reducing even more.
All Iraqi political factions want the Americans to leave at some point, but they also want them stay for now, and as long as that's the case, the United States has an obligation to do so. Drum asks what good American troops are doing there—a reasonable question. Sectarian riots break out in Baghdad in broad daylight, 140 people are killed in four days, and American troops stay holed up in their garrisons. But it makes sense to stay out of communal conflicts as much as possible and to keep a very low profile, for both our own troops' well being and the Iraqi government's perceived independence and thus legitimacy.
Still, to the extent that a viable Iraqi government and military exist, they will need outside help—which for now means U.S. help—for training, logistics, air support, intelligence, and border protection. They have no ability to do any of these vital tasks, nor will they for several years. A core deployment of roughly 30,000 U.S. personnel is required for these missions, even if all the other troops come home.
Should the Iraqi government collapse and the military crumble into sectarian militias, the big danger would be that Iraq's neighbors would rush into the power vacuum, whether out of aggrandizement or defense: the Saudis taking over Sunniland, the Iranians unfurling their "crescent arc," the Turks crushing the Kurds. At that point somebody would have to step in and mediate, to stave off not just a civil war but an even bloodier and more destabilizing regional war. Here, too, the United States is—at least potentially—in the best position to play that role, a position that would be enhanced by having a military presence on the ground.
For Washington to play such a constructive role, however, it would have had to lay the diplomatic groundwork ahead of time. That is why I support the otherwise amorphous idea of a "regional conference"—not because it might devise a peace pact or a formula for security (it won't), but because it would at least get all the players in the same room talking. If all hell did break loose, and if regional discussions had a chance of containing the conflagration, the forum for such negotiations would already be up and running.
Under these circumstances, military forces would serve as back-up to a diplomatic campaign. So the more important question in this debate is "Where's the diplomacy?"
We all seem to agree that Stephen Biddle is right to call the current conflict in Iraq a civil war. We also agree that Biddle's solution is probably unworkable, and that all the other solutions on offer are probably unworkable too. In fact, there's only one real source of disagreement between us: I think a prudent withdrawal is our best option given the lack of any other workable solutions, and at least on the basis of their first posts, the other participants in this symposium don't. However, since I already discussed withdrawal in my own first post, I don't think it's worth dwelling on here.
Instead, I'd like to widen the focus to the region more generally. In Iraq, Biddle's civil war is proceeding apace. London Times correspondent James Hider writes that West Baghdad has become an "orgy of ethnic cleansing" and the city itself is "verging on total collapse." The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan, an early and enthusiastic supporter of the war, now believes there is "very little that we can do to dampen the sectarian rage and pathologies tearing Iraq apart at the seams." And Riverbend, an Iraqi blogger who writes from Baghdad, has given up entirely on the American troops there. During last Sunday's carnage in the Jihad Quarter, she notes, "They just sat by, on the outskirts of the area, and let the massacre happen."
And what of Afghanistan? It once seemed to be a success story, but now press reports indicate that the Taliban is becoming increasingly sophisticated and lethal. "We need to realize that we could actually fail here," warns Lieutenant-General David Richards, the British commander of NATO forces in the country. And the much hyped Cedar Revolution in Lebanon? All it took was the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah to put paid to that. Ditto for the Palestinian elections.
Still, these events have had the virtue of clarifying at least one fundamental point: that the key to stability in the greater Middle East—including Iraq—lies in Iran. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Iran's proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, has been widely viewed as a signal from the mullahs that Iran can make life hard for George W. Bush in more ways than he suspects, while America's near-silence in the face of Israeli retaliation is equally widely viewed as tacit approval of an escalated war against Tehran. Iran's dogged pursuit of nuclear technology is probably the single most destabilizing development in the world today. And the war in Iraq itself has increasingly become a conflict between Shiite parties aligned with Iran and secular and religious parties aligned against them.
Things didn't have to work out this way. It's unlikely that anything would have turned Iran into a genuine American ally in the Middle East, but after 9/11 Tehran was nonetheless helpful, providing Washington with useful assistance against both al Qaeda and the Taliban. A few months later, according to James Dobbins, Iranian diplomats and military officers offered to expand cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan and launch a broader dialogue. And in 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the Iranians drafted a letter offering a "grand bargain" on a stunningly wide array of issues, including "decisive action" against terrorists, a dramatic reorientation of Iran's sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah, support for the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and concessions on international monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. American diplomats who have seen the letter say that it was detailed and genuine.
Needless to say, the Bush administration turned Iran down flat, even going so far as to admonish the Swiss ambassador who had passed the offer along. Since then, the Iranians have gained influence in Iraq, elected a firebrand anti-American president, accelerated their nuclear program, and given Hamas and Hezbollah a green light to ramp up terrorist attacks on Israel. All of this has affected the civil war in Iraq, where American success now requires at least a minimal level of cooperation on Iran's part.
This means that, like it or not, Washington has to engage seriously with Tehran. Are serious negotiations still possible? It's hard to say. Thanks to the hardliners in the White House, the United States is in a significantly worse position than it was three years ago. Iran's nuclear program is further advanced, its alliances with Russia and China are more substantial, and U.S. regional military leverage is far more tenuous. Still, there are cards Washington can play. Iranian cooperation in Iraq can't be forced by sanctions and threats of military action alone, but it might still be purchased with genuine security agreements and acknowledgments of legitimate Iranian interests in the region.
Of course, there's no way to know unless Washington starts talking with Tehran, something the Bush administration apparently believes is by itself sign of weakness. But as Nelson Mandela said (and Ronald Reagan understood), you negotiate with your enemies, not your friends. It's time to recognize that serious negotiations with Iran might not guarantee success, in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East, but refusing them certainly guarantees failure.
What is most striking to me about the first round of posts is the degree of consensus on two points: Biddle's description of Iraq as a severe and deteriorating communal conflict, and the limited resources the United States can bring to bear on the situation. This strikes me as progress: at least we can argue about how to solve the problems at hand rather than debate what they are. In my second post, I'd like to comment on three major points: ethnic polarization, al Qaeda's role in Iraq, and the question of U.S. withdrawal.
First, polarization. Here the lessons of history and political science are not kind. De-communalization is difficult and rare, and it is foolish to expect any easy escape from a spiral of conflict fueled by intense anger and legitimate fears. How could Iraqis today, any more than Bosnian Muslims or Croats or Serbs, easily forget the crimes against their families and the destruction of communities? These psychological dynamics are reinforced by every aspect of the political system, and enshrined in the Iraqi constitution. Iyad Allawi's failure in the January elections put paid to fantasies of the emergence of a unifying nationalist figure. Even worse, Iraqis today receive their information from ethnically affiliated media. Ethnic identification in Iraq is there to stay, and the United States really shouldn't waste its scarce and declining resources trying to change that now.
Still, the primacy of ethnic identities by itself does not guarantee perpetual conflict. Survey research shows wide areas of agreement among Iraqis on many core issues such as democracy, the role of religion, and national sovereignty (that is, the need for Americans to leave eventually). Prime Minister Maliki's recent initiatives seem aimed at finding some common ground on that basis. But intensely committed minorities willing to use violence to inflame the situation—whether hard-line Sunni nationalists or jihadists or Shiite death squads—make achieving any of these ambitions difficult. Contra Hitchens, these spoilers simply cannot be stopped through a greater military presence or dramatic events such as Zarqawi's killing. Spoilers can be stopped only when their violence starts failing to produce the desired results. When it became clear that Zarqawi's beheading videos were generating a backlash, for instance, his propaganda unit stopped making them. The United States thus needs to focus on shifting the terms of the Iraqi political debate, taking away the strong cards in the hands of the spoilers and providing the right incentives to the political leadership to reach a consensus. Moving toward a dramatically reduced American presence would help on both counts.
Second, Washington needs to better understand where Iraq fits in to al Qaeda's strategy. The bogeyman of al Qaeda seizing power and establishing a new caliphate in Baghdad can be safely ignored: the Iraqi Shiites will never allow a Sunni movement this kind of power. Even most Iraqi Sunnis would stand against the establishment of an Islamist state, as would every Arab regime (including Saudi Arabia). A failed Iraqi state might allow some pockets of jihadist-controlled territory to emerge, but a jihadist Iraqi state more generally is simply not in the cards.
Iraq is important for al Qaeda because the conflict there helps polarize the Islamic world and hasten a true "clash of civilizations." Americans fighting in Iraq do not hurt al Qaeda; they help it, because such fighting fuels the master narrative of an American "crusade" against a besieged Islam and provides images and stories for use in propaganda. Both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have said that the killing of Shiites does al Qaeda no good, only the killing of Americans. An Iraq without a major American presence would thus be of little value to al Qaeda's grand strategy, and its jihadists would more likely follow the American deployments out of the country than seize Baghdad.
Which brings me to the question of withdrawal. I've long been skeptical about the calls for it, for two main reasons: First, it seemed irresponsible to walk away from the mess the United States has made, repeating on a larger scale the elder Bush's abandonment of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to Saddam's tender mercies. And second, announcing plans for withdrawal seemed likely to create dangerous incentives for all political actors to game the schedule. But those reasons now pale in comparison to the problems posed by not withdrawing. It seems the height of strategic irresponsibility to remain in a place where there is not only no realistic plan for victory, but also every indication that the American presence is making things worse.
At this point, focusing solely on coming up with a strategy for "victory" does not make sense, because no such strategy is out there. The United States does not need to defeat insurgents or jihadists in hand-to-hand combat to prove its mettle, and indeed, the more it tries to impose its will in Iraq now the worse the results are likely to be. Washington's credibility is so low, its presence so inflammatory, that virtually any initiative under an American brand name will generate resistance. For these reasons, therefore, I have regretfully come to the conclusion that—although much would depend on the terms, context, and execution of it—a gradual U.S. withdrawal seems like the least bad option still available.
Responses and DiscussionChristopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, Marc Lynch, Kevin Drum, Stephen Biddle, and Larry Diamond
Fred Kaplan is the "War Stories" columnist for Slate and the author of The Wizards of Armageddon .
Kevin Drum is a contributing writer for The Washington Monthly and author of the blog "Political Animal" at www.washingtonmonthly.com .
Marc Lynch is an associate professor in the department of political science at Williams College and the author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today . He writes the blog "Abu Aardvark" at www.abuaardvark.com .
Larry Diamond is a Senior Fellow at the
Hoover Institution , and the author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.