The recent American presidential campaign has had the perverse effect of postponing any serious national debate on the future U.S. course in Iraq. Electoral considerations placed a premium on consistency at the expense of common sense, with both candidates insisting that even with perfect hindsight they would have acted just as they did two years ago: going to war or voting to authorize doing so. The campaign also revealed the paucity of good options now before the United States. Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq will only provoke fiercer and more widespread resistance, but withdrawing them too soon could spark a civil war. The second administration of George W. Bush seems to be left with the choice between making things worse slowly or quickly.

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won--but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States. Achieving such wide consensus will require turning the U.S.-led occupation into an Iraqi-led, regionally backed, and internationally supported endeavor to attain peace and stability based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.


In the eyes of the Iraqi people and of all the neighboring populations, the U.S. mission in Iraq lacks legitimacy and credibility. Only by dramatically recasting the American role in the region can such perceptions begin to be changed. Until then, U.S. military operations in Iraq will continue to inspire local resistance, radicalize neighboring populations, and discourage international cooperation.

Within Iraq, the most pressing issue is when and how to stage the national elections currently planned for January. Continued insecurity could prevent anything approaching a free campaign and a fair ballot. On the other hand, prolonged postponement of the elections could precipitate civil war. The United States has little choice, consequently, but to try to accommodate the preferences of the moderate Shiite leadership for early elections. At the same time, the electoral system must be adjusted to ensure that the minority Sunni population will be adequately represented in the new government, even if large elements of that population are prevented from voting or choose not to in protest. Making such adjustments could delay the balloting by a few months, but not doing so would ensure an unbalanced result and risk pushing Iraq one step closer to civil war.

Assuming elections do occur, the new government will emerge with only modestly enhanced legitimacy. Shiites and Kurds may be adequately represented, but the Sunnis will not be. If they cannot or do not vote, the Sunnis will be underrepresented. If the electoral system is modified to peg the number of representatives to the number of eligible rather than actual voters, the Sunnis will be represented by individuals they regard as unrepresentative. Elections are always polarizing events, and in a fragile, deeply conflicted society such as Iraq's, they could deepen the gulf between Sunnis on the one hand and Shiites and Kurds on the other.

In the meantime, the insurgency will continue to rage and probably gather further momentum, at least in Sunni areas. If Shiite extremists do not gain influence within the new governing establishment, they too are likely to continue opposing it violently. U.S. and international forces will remain widely unpopular, and they could come under pressure from the new government to leave or to drastically curb their activities.

Yet if keeping U.S. troops in Iraq provokes further resistance, withdrawing them prematurely could provoke much worse: a civil war and a regional crisis of unpredictable dimensions. A middle course is the best option. Wielding the promise of withdrawal, for example, could give Washington valuable leverage, compelling Iraqis, Iraq's neighbors, and much of the international community to look beyond their desire to see the United States chastened and toward their shared interest in Iraq's long-term stability. Thus the Bush administration should carefully modulate two simultaneous messages: a clear desire to leave Iraq and an equally clear willingness to stay until the Iraqi government, with the support of its neighbors and the international community, proves capable of securing its territory and protecting its citizens. Washington should establish that its ultimate goal is the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces as soon as circumstances permit and that it has no intention of seeking a permanent military presence in the country.


American forces have lost the support of the Iraqi population and probably cannot regain it. The insurgency can be defeated only by Iraqi forces under Iraqi leadership, and only to the degree that those forces can dramatically reduce their dependence on the United States. Military operations should be governed by a counterinsurgency strategy emphasizing pacification--that is to say, priority should be given to securing the civilian population, not hunting down insurgents. In the end, insurgencies are defeated not by killing insurgents, but by winning the support of the population and thus denying the insurgents both refuge and recruits.

Counterinsurgency campaigns require the close integration of civil and military efforts, moreover, with primacy given to political objectives over military goals. They require detailed tactical intelligence, which can be developed only by Iraqis and is best gathered by a police force in daily contact with the population. Training the Iraqi police and building a counterterrorist "special branch" within it should take priority over all other capacity-building programs, including the creation of an Iraqi military. Given the United Kingdom's superior experience in domestic terrorism and counterinsurgency, Washington should ask London to take the lead in creating special units within the Iraqi police.

No population will support a force that cannot protect it, so enhancing the Iraqi people's security should take priority over other military and civil objectives. Doing so will require freeing the population from intimidation by the insurgents, and that will require military action. Yet if such action is U.S.-led, employs heavy ordinance, produces large-scale collateral damage, and inflicts numerous innocent casualties, it could be counterproductive. In the end, the success or failure of an offensive such as the November assault on Falluja must be measured not according to body counts or footage of liberated territory, but according to Iraqi public opinion. If the Iraqi public emerges less supportive of its government, and more supportive of the insurgents, then the battle, perhaps even the war, will have been lost.

Pulverizing cities to root out insurgents may restore some control to the Iraqi government, but the benefits are unlikely to last long if the damage also alienates the population. Sacrificing innocent Iraqi lives to save American ones is a difficult tradeoff. Using better-calibrated warfare tactics--manpower instead of firepower, snipers and special forces instead of tanks and artillery--could mean saving innocent Iraqi lives at the cost of more U.S. casualties. Of course, the U.S. government must concern itself with American as well as Iraqi public support for the war. But for now, Washington should be especially mindful of the losses it inflicts on Iraqi civilians, because today the lack of support for its efforts among them is a far more immediate threat than the lack of support at home.

Such caution is all the more warranted because, in one important respect, the Iraqi insurgency is very different from the communist and nationalist insurgencies of the Cold War: it lacks unity of command and an overarching ideology. The only factor that unites Muslim fundamentalist mujahideen, secular Baathist holdouts, and Shiite extremists is their desire to expel American forces--a goal that a majority of the Iraqi people seems to share, too. If that rallying cause can be weakened by diminishing Washington's involvement, the Iraqi government should be able to play on divisions among the rebels, steering some of them away from violence and toward the political mainstream, while marginalizing or dividing the rest. Washington should encourage the Iraqi regime in such efforts, including by offering amnesty to those prepared to renounce violence and enter the political process. The United States never sought to try German, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese soldiers for shooting at Americans. Washington is currently backing the Colombian government's plan to offer amnesty to right-wing paramilitaries and should encourage a similar effort in Iraq.


In order to stabilize Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the United States had to work with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the two individuals personally responsible for the genocide it was trying to stop. In 2001, Washington worked with Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia to install a broadly representative successor to the Taliban, even though those states had been tearing Afghanistan apart for a generation. Strikingly, however, the United States has marched into Iraq without any underlying strategy designed to secure the support of neighboring states. In fact, insofar as it has cast its occupation of Iraq as the first step toward the democratic transformation of the entire region, its public diplomacy has actively diminished incentives for regional collaboration.

What efforts the Bush administration has made to forge regional and international cooperation have centered on democratization and counterterrorism. Both campaigns have considerable merit and potentially broad appeal; regimes in the region fear terrorism, and their people desire more democracy. Unfortunately, both projects have been irredeemably compromised in the eyes of Arab constituencies because the United States has chosen occupied Arab lands on which to test them. Whatever the logic of trying to sow democracy in Palestine and Iraq first, the United States' attempts to do so have largely undermined its broader efforts. Until Washington's democratization campaign can be purged of its association with pre-emption and occupation, it will have little resonance in the region.

So it is, too, with Washington's war on terrorism. The Iraqi people need no lessons on the topic of terrorism: they have lost more compatriots to the scourge over the past year than Americans have in all the terrorist incidents of their history combined. Allowing for its population's smaller size, Iraq suffers every month--sometimes every week--losses comparable to those the September 11, 2001, attacks inflicted on the United States. Unfortunately, Iraqis are as likely to attribute these losses to the U.S.-sponsored war on terrorism as to the terrorists themselves.

Peace, stability, territorial integrity, and respect for national sovereignty are the themes on which a compelling regional strategy can be built to motivate Iraqis to take responsibility for their own destiny, induce Iraq's neighbors to support the emergence of a moderate, broadly representative, and regionally responsible regime in Baghdad--as Afghanistan's neighbors have done in Kabul--and secure broader international support for the effort. The United States should continue counterterrorism cooperation with regional governments and support for democratic forces in the region. But if Washington hopes to build regional support for the regime in Baghdad, these goals will have to recede from the fore of its public diplomacy and its rhetoric at home.


The Bush administration should name a special Iraq envoy, whose task would be to launch several simultaneous sets of consultations on the issue, as the United States did for the Balkans in the mid-1990s and for Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of September 11. One such set should center on major U.S. allies, in particular the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, and be expanded to include other governments and organizations in a position to help stabilize Iraq, such as Japan and the EU. Another set of discussions should involve all of Iraq's neighbors and other regional states. Expanded roles for the UN, NATO, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 states promoting Muslim solidarity, should also emerge from these consultations.

Engaging Iran will present the greatest difficulties for the United States, given Tehran's nuclear aspirations, its support for terrorism against Israel, and several decades of mutual hostility and noncommunication. But Iraq cannot be stabilized without Iranian cooperation. Conversely, if Iraq is not stabilized, there can be no prospect of dimming Tehran's nuclear ambitions, however much its actual capabilities might otherwise be delayed by military or economic action.

Yet quiet U.S.-Iranian cooperation of the sort Washington and Tehran achieved on Afghanistan after September 11 could pave the way for a more constructive dialogue on both Iraq and other issues. In early 2002, Iranian diplomats and military officers offered to expand cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan and to launch a broader dialogue. But Washington failed to pursue the offer, and in the wake of an Iranian arms shipment to Palestine, cut off further talks. Tehran has nevertheless continued to support the Karzai government in many symbolic and practical ways. Equally important, it has not supported or encouraged any challenges to Kabul's authority.

Peace in Iraq and peace in the broader Middle East should be pursued on their own merits, but they cannot be entirely divorced. To the Arab people, the United States' resort to pre-emption, occupation, and aggressive counterterrorism, with its high collateral damage and numerous civilian casualties, is barely distinguishable from Israeli practices. Israel may have given up on winning over the Palestinian people long ago, but the United States cannot afford to do the same in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. One crucial way the United States can demonstrate its sincerity toward the Arab world is to reengage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the United States will have little success in enlisting the Iraqi population, neighboring governments, and the international community to bring peace to Iraq if it cannot reposition itself as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However dim the prospects for quick progress in settling the issues of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, Washington must be seen as giving them its highest attention.

As an initial step toward a regional consensus on Iraq, the United States should ask the UN to convene a consultative group with the five permanent members of the Security Council, Iraq, and all its neighbors, modeled after the Peace Implementation Council on Bosnia or the group of two great powers (Russia and the United States) and six neighbors (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) that was gathered to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan. This core group could be expanded to include other Arab and Muslim states willing to play a constructive role and perhaps even contribute forces to a reconfigured international military presence in Iraq. The meeting among regional governments and major donor countries that the Egyptian government convened in late November at Iraq's request represents a step in the right direction. But more than one meeting and one communique will be needed.

In parallel with these regional efforts, Washington should seek to restore a transatlantic consensus on Iraq, launching quiet and informal talks with its principal partners and critics in Europe, including London, Paris, and Berlin. Whatever can be settled by these governments could then be sold to NATO, the EU, and the G-8 group of highly industrialized states plus Russia; whatever cannot be settled will never find support in any wider forum.

The transatlantic discussions should first focus on devising a common approach to Iraq and only later broach the issue of greater contributions to its rebuilding. Expanded allied efforts should initially seek to build Iraq's capacity for self-governance, encourage efforts within Iraq to bring elements of the resistance into the political mainstream, and support the constructive engagement of regional powers. New military contributions, to the extent that they reduce the preponderance of U.S. forces and expand the circle of countries committed to helping Iraq, would be helpful. But these are unlikely to be forthcoming, and even if they were, it is unclear whether, at this stage, the presence of many more European troops would help stabilize the country. Rather, the major contribution U.S. allies can now make is to help the Iraqi government to become more self-sufficient and to create a regional dynamic in its favor.


Extricating the United States from the costly conflict in Iraq, ending the insurgency, and leaving behind a representative Iraqi regime capable of securing its territory and protecting its population cannot be achieved without the support of the Iraqi people and the cooperation of their neighbors. To win that support, Washington will have to redefine its goals in Iraq in terms that the populations and governments of the region can identify with. The U.S.-led campaigns against terrorism and for democracy are tainted in local eyes by their association with the doctrine of pre-emption and their application in occupied Iraq and occupied Palestine. Whatever their considerable objective merits and potential long-term appeal to Arab audiences, the war on terrorism and regional democratization are not themes around which Iraqis and their neighbors will unite, as they must if the current insurgency is to be defeated.

As the new Bush administration reaffirms its support for the current Iraqi government and for the electoral process, it should begin to reemphasize the importance it places on peace, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. It should commit the United States to a complete military withdrawal from Iraq as soon as the Iraqi government can safely be left in charge. It should conduct a counterinsurgency campaign focused on enhancing public security and should support the Iraqi government's efforts to co-opt elements of the resistance into the political mainstream. Once again, it should take the lead in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. And it should develop new consultative arrangements to engage all of Iraq's neighbors, as well as its allies across the Atlantic, and secure their active cooperation in stabilizing Iraq, thereby creating the conditions for an early drawdown and, eventually, for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

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  • James Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand. He was a U.S. Special Envoy in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
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