A Real Debate on Iraq

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by Paolo von Schirach

September 26, 2007

WASHINGTON – There is a peculiar American tendency to obsessively dissect peripheral details about a major issue with the objective of determining exactly what shape and form they have; but leaving completely out of the analysis the basic underlying problem itself. Lots of trees examined. Huge forests missed entirely.

The recent Petraeus-Crocker testimonies in Washington were all about evaluating “the surge” in Iraq in minute detail, with very little focus and attention on the true, fundamental questions. Namely: are there vital American strategic interests in Iraq? If so, what are they? And, (assuming that there are some), once we have identified them, what mix of policies and tools (military and non military) would appear most suitable to secure them?

In a more enlightened environment, the testimonies of the most senior US military and diplomatic representative in Iraq could have sparked a debate on what should be the strategic drivers justifying and supporting US policy in Iraq. Alternatively, if, after careful analysis, it appears that no vital interests are involved, then disengagement is the logical policy.

Whereas we wasted this opportunity and instead we had detailed and mostly useless diatribes about metrics that are supposed to gauge and measure the trends of sectarian violence, including the silly and preposterous notion (allegedly used by the US military; but firmly denied by Petraeus during the hearings ) that those Iraqis shot in the back count as victims of political violence; those shot in front do not as they are victims of crime.

The “surge” was not, is not nor can it become a “strategy”. It is a significant tactical move aimed at reaffirming a measure of control over a situation that was slipping away at the end of 2006, as the country, (in large part because of bad US policies), was becoming more and more chaotic. The two witnesses testified that, after the arrival of additional US military assets, (the surge), the overall situation has been somewhat stabilized. They did not make absurd claims of final or even near stabilization of the country. 

But the challengers in Congress claimed instead, that, since the goals stated initially by the administration have not been met within the time framework envisaged, then this surge is yet another disaster. We may as well acknowledge the inevitability of a situation in which we cannot do anything worthwhile and leave.

In truth, there is a certain logic to all this. Goals stated at the time of the announcement of the surge only partially met. In fact, most of the political ones not met. So: “Time to go”? But what are the consequences of leaving?

According to many in Congress, setting a firm timetable for withdrawal would give the Iraqis a last chance to see the light. With a withdrawal timetable in place, the “message” to the Iraqi Government would be: “You better shape up and start doing the right things, (reconciliation with the Sunnis, pass a law that would determine how oil revenues should be apportioned, etc.), because we are beginning to leave. You have a limited time to do what you are supposed to do, with our cover. If you have not done it between now and our final withdrawal, well, tough luck.”

While this tough love approach towards the Maliki Government might  have some sense if taken in isolation, the proponents of this policy talk about withdrawal as if this cannot possibly have any negative consequences for US national interest. It seems that this whole issue of America’s presence in Iraq is between ourselves and an immature, non cooperative Maliki government. Somehow, what is left out of the picture here is that, while the lack of capacity and follow through ability of the Iraqi government is a frustrating issue, the overriding policy concern for the US is that in Iraq there are dynamics that present dangers for US interests. The unexamined question is: “What is really at stake for the US”? 

The lack of capacity and political cohesiveness of the Maliki government is part of the current landscape. For sure, we should press them to do more. But what if the Iraqi government gets the message but just does not have the ability to deliver? What if we give up and withdraw and the enemies overwhelm the not so capable Iraqis and take over the country? Does this mean anything to America? The advocates of withdrawal never discuss this scenario. Implicitly one is tempted to conclude that, according to them, apparently we have no strategic goals of any consequence in Iraq.

I say strategic goals “of consequence” because not all strategic goals of a superpower operating on a global chessboard are vital. Some can be relinquished. We do not have to win everywhere and secure every position. But before going away in defeat from such a key country, right in the middle of the world’s oil patch, in a volatile region crisscrossed by dangerous political currents, on the basis of the fact that this has gone on too long and is costing too much, a debate on the US national interest and on the consequences of loss should take place. But instead of doing this, we chose to focus on details of troop rotation and leave time.

According to the prevailing mood, there is only one good policy: leaving Iraq. Thus we should do anything that we can to force the administration to start cutting down the number of troops deployed. Success will be measured in how fast we get out of there. To support this astonishingly myopic approach, the opponents cite arguments that would have validity only if judged in isolation, out of context. We know them: the growing number of dead, wounded and disabled US troops; the extremely high cost of this war; the manifest incompetence of the administration at least in the first 3 years and the ensuing unquestionable unpopularity of the war.

All true. But all this assumes, without a real debate, that there is no US national interest at stake in Iraq and that withdrawal would have no adverse effect on US interests and objectives in the region and around the world. Whereas, assuming vital US interests in Iraq, the reality of past egregious mistakes since 2003, however unpleasant, is no valid argument to let the whole thing go.

Many advocates of withdrawal have advanced the idea that, as we cannot win militarily, we should engage in regional diplomacy so that we could obtain a more secure Iraq by getting everybody (that includes countries that are currently playing a negative role such as Iran) involved in a constructive dialogue that would help solidify the Iraqi polity. This is really odd. The notion that we can withdraw in defeat and at the same time engage in fruitful diplomatic dialogue regional adversaries like the Iranians –who rejoice in our defeat– is peculiar.

Speaking generally, diplomacy may or may not help in solving or at least defusing important issues. But concessions from our adversaries may take place, if at all, when the other side knows that we are not going to sacrifice vital interests ands that, should diplomacy fail, we can resort to other means. The perception of inherent weakness or –worse– the reality of an American acceptance of defeat is not a good way to enter a negotiation with adversaries that have no intention to be nice to us in the first place. Nobody will concede much to a defeated and humiliated power.

On the other side of the divide, the administration’s counterarguments are not very helpful in determining the true US strategic interests in Iraq. The tenet that we are in Iraq because Iraq is the central front in the ongoing “war on terror” is a misrepresentation. Of course we are facing al Qaeda in Iraq. But we did not go into Iraq to engage al Qaeda (this was the case in Afghanistan). Al Qaeda emerged as an added major complication in a context characterized by growing sectarian violence.

Assuming US vital interest in the region, the US cannot leave Iraq until a measure of self-sustaining stability has been reestablished (this includes defeating the al Qaeda forces and other Sunni insurgents), without conceding any strategic new ground to the Iranians or their agents in Iraq or elsewhere. Leaving an oil rich, civil war torn, Iraq to its own devises, hoping that, whatever negative outcomes there may be, they will be compensated by the fact that our troops will be finally “out of there”, does not look like an enlightened strategy.

As a minimum, as Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan dared to articulate, Iraq is right there in the small area of the globe from which we and the rest of the world get a huge amount of the oil we absolutely depend on for the viability of our economies. If Iraq were in the middle of the Sahara desert, then events there would not affect us so much. As things stand, (leaving aside any other consideration about other complex issues such as the fight against Islamic radicals or the chances for democracy in the Middle East), what happens in Iraq  matters, a lot.

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