The Bush Administration has been very successful in controlling the debate on the Iraq war. In a remarkable bit of political jujitsu the Administration pivoted from the findings of the Iraq Study Group that the United States should withdraw from Iraq to a debate on whether to escalate the war or not. By introducing the "surge" into the debate the Administration effectively tied the Democrats in a knot. Instead of debating the withdrawal from Iraq, the Democrats in both the House and the Senate have been debating whether to "surge" or not to "surge" – the withdrawal question was buried deep while the Democrats looked for a politically safe position against an escalation in Iraq. The Democrats have been embarrassingly outmaneuvered. It is time to put the political mathematics aside and debate the national interest. It is time to shift the debate back to the question of withdrawal from Iraq.
There is a strong argument to be made that an withdrawal from Iraq is the best strategic option available to the United States. I contend that the United States is the major destabilizing force in Iraq. I further contend that the longer the United States remains in Iraq, the more unstable Iraq will become. Iraq cannot begin the process of stabilizing until the United States withdraws from Iraq. Finally, the consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq will not be chaos (as the Administration contends), but a more stable Iraq.
It is time to make the case for a strategic withdrawal from Iraq.
Today in the Washington Post, Toby Dodge, formerly of SOAS, presents a cautionary tale about the British experience in Mesopotamia. He argues that the Bush Administration is reliving the sad history of the British in Iraq:
At the center of Baghdad’s neglected North Gate War Cemetery, near the edge of the old city walls, stands an imposing grave. Sheltered from the weather by a grandiose red sandstone cupola, it is the final resting place of a man from whom George W. Bush could have learned a great deal about the perils of intervening in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was head of the British army in Mesopotamia when he marched into Baghdad on a hot, dusty day in March 1917. Soon thereafter, he issued the British government’s "Proclamation to the People of Baghdad," which eerily foreshadowed sentiments that Bush and his administration would express 86 years later: British forces, Maude declared, had entered the city not as conquerors, but as liberators.
Maude did not live to see the failure of his efforts to rally the people of Iraq to the British occupation. He died eight months later, having contracted cholera from a glass of milk.
In an echo of what is happening under the U.S. occupation, hopes for a joint Anglo-Iraqi pact to rebuild the country were dashed by a violent uprising. On July 2, 1920, a revolt, or thawra, broke out along the lower Euphrates, fueled by popular resentment of Britain’s heavy-handed behavior in Iraq. The British army had set about taxing the population to pay for the building of the Iraqi state, while British civil servants running the administration refused to consult Iraqi politicians, judging them too inexperienced to play a role in the new government.
Dodge goes on to chronicle the failure of the British to stabilize Iraq. Ultimately, after the loss of much "blood and treasure" and loss of popular support at home, the British government belatedly declared "victory" and withdrew from Iraq. They left behind a legacy that resulted in the reign of Saddam Hussein and the intervention of George W Bush.
Toby Dodge describes what I have often called the logic of occupation. Failure is preordained because ultimately the invader will go home. That inescapable end is always futilely resisted by the occupier – the result is instability and loss of blood and treasure. Dodge describes the three phases of this collapse:
Where does this leave U.S. policy toward Iraq? Historical studies often divide military interventions into three general phases. The first phase, the initial decision to invade, is shaped by common misperceptions that the conflict will be short and that military force can be used to achieve political objectives. World War I began with an assumption that British troops would be home by Christmas; Bush declared "mission accomplished" after three weeks.
The second phase is marked by a slow realization that both these assumptions are wrong. The policy failure leads to increasingly desperate attempts to stay the course, to pour in ever greater numbers of troops, gambling on a resurrection of the initial policy. This middle stage comes to an end with the decision to disengage. Interestingly, this choice — admitting defeat and going home — is usually taken by a new government. [Emphasis added by me.]
Mr. Bush is a victim of forces he has unleashed and he is faithfully playing his time-worn yet ultimately disastrous role as the occupier.
If we are to stop the logic of occupation before it reaches its bitter end, it is time for an intervention – not in Iraq, but regarding Mr. Bush.
General William Odom made the case a few weeks ago for a new strategy in Iraq. In his op-ed entitled "Victory Is Not an Option", he argued in the Washington Post that withdrawal is a precondition for stability and a new strategic direction:
The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region.
Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East.
Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region. Spreading democracy, using sticks to try to prevent nuclear proliferation, threatening "regime change," using the hysterical rhetoric of the "global war on terrorism" — all undermine the stability we so desperately need in the Middle East.
Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq. We must redirect our military operations so they enhance rather than undermine stability. We can write off the war as a "tactical draw" and make "regional stability" our measure of "victory." That single step would dramatically realign the opposing forces in the region, where most states want stability. Even many in the angry mobs of young Arabs shouting profanities against the United States want predictable order, albeit on better social and economic terms than they now have.
Realigning our diplomacy and military capabilities to achieve order will hugely reduce the numbers of our enemies and gain us new and important allies. This cannot happen, however, until our forces are moving out of Iraq. Why should Iran negotiate to relieve our pain as long as we are increasing its influence in Iraq and beyond? Withdrawal will awaken most leaders in the region to their own need for U.S.-led diplomacy to stabilize their neighborhood.
General Odom has been consistent and consistently right on Iraq. I wrote in March 2006 about his article in Nieman Watchdog where he described the quagmire in Iraq and argued that the precondition for international support and stability in Iraq was an American withdrawal. He was right then, he is right now.
Shortly before the Iraq Study Group released its report, I wrote a post entitled "The Way Forward in Iraq" (please note that I coined "The Way Forward" before both the ISG and Mr. Bush!) where I argued that a post-withdrawal Iraq will not lead to chaos but is more likely to lead to stability. This is what I wrote then and I think it still holds true today:
I think there is a strong case to be made that the American presence in Iraq is fueling the civil war by delaying its resolution. That is not to say that the United States has effective control of the situation on the ground – it does not, but the presence of American troops gives the respective parties cover to arm and consolidate control of areas of the country. Without a doubt, the American presence guarantees that the Kurds in the north are able to consolidate their hold on Kirkuk and beef up the peshmerga. The American presence also allows the Shia factions to consolidate power in the various arms of the government, especially the security forces. The American forces also act as a buffer between the Shia and the Sunni by providing some measure of protection to the Sunni community to arm and consolidate their power in the western parts of Iraq. The American presence has also allowed the systematic ethnic cleansing of Iraq by Shia, Sunni and the Kurds. The ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other parts of the country has now effectively drawn geographical battle lines in Iraq’s civil war. The American presence also holds together a fractious Shia coalition that would otherwise collapse, and probably needs to if Iraq is to survive as a nation.
It seems to me that it is essential that the United States pull out of Iraq. After an American pullout, the Iraqi civil war may start to resolve itself. The Iraqi civil war has regional implications. Those regional forces can, without the constraints of American occupation, begin to pull Iraq toward a resolution.
As cited above, one possible outcome is military victory by one warring side. The conventional wisdom is that if the Americans leave the Shia will prevail in a civil war by virtue of their majority. I do not believe that is likely to occur for three reasons. First, the Sunni Arab countries of the region would see a Shia victory in Iraq as an expansion of Iranian hegemony into Arab territory. Without an American presence, the Sunni Arabs are likely to get significant support from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. The risk of a regional conflagration is likely to dampen any hopes of a Shia military victory in Iraq. Second, the Shia in Iraq are fractured between pro-Iranian groups such as SCIRI and more nationalistic Shia such as the Sadrists. Moqtada al-Sadr, like his father the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, represents an Iraqi nationalist Shia movement. Sadr’s Shia movement and the Mahdi Army are likely to come into open conflict with the Iranian backed SCIRI and the Badr Brigade when the American occupation ends. Al Maliki’s Dawa Party sits in the uncomfortable middle between Sadr and SCIRI while being at the mercy of both. With an American exit, the Dawa Party is likely to see its fortunes dwindle. Lastly, the Shia cannot prevail over both the Sunni and the Kurds. Any military victory by the Shia would have to accept an independent state in the Kurdish north.
The other possible outcome of a civil war is partition. However, any partition of Iraq that leaves the Kurds with an oil-rich independent country in the north of Iraq will be fiercely opposed by Turkey, and to a lesser extent by Iran and Syria. Turkey has between 25 to 30 millions Kurds who have been long persecuted. Any Kurdish country to Turkey’s east will endanger Turkish territorial integrity and will be a non-starter. The Sunnis in the west and center of Iraq also cannot form a viable country without having access to the oil rich north and south of Iraq. There is no three country map that can be carved out of Iraq that does not deny one of the group’s much needed oil revenue.
The only remaining outcome for Iraq is then a negotiated settlement. The negotiated settlement may however come after an attempt at all out military victory is fought to a stalemate. The negotiated settlement will happen not because it is the preferred outcome, but because it is the only viable outcome. A negotiated settlement will certainly have to include the major regional players such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The negotiated settlement will come after realization by the Arab states, and acceptance by Iran, that Iraq is, and historically has been, the Arab bulwark against Persian influence. Iran will find once again that the Iraqi Shia are not Iran’s fifth column in Iraq. An American departure from Iraq will eventually lead to a restoration of the balance of power in the region between the Arabs and the Iranians.
The Kurds of Iraq will once again be denied an independent homeland. But that denial will likely come at a price for Turkey. Turkey may be forced to give autonomy to its Kurds as a condition for Kurdish guarantee of Iraq’s territorial integrity.
The Iraq that is likely to emerge through the meat grinder of civil war will owe its stability to a regional need for stability, not to some gift of freedom given by George W Bush. Ironically, Mr. Bush is likely to see this precarious yet stable Iraq emerge from the ashes of his failed policy. Yet, it will emerge because Mr. Bush will finally have left it alone, and not because of his efforts at playing puppet master to the Arabs.
The above is my case for an American withdrawal from Iraq. I think the above scenario is far more likely than the doom and gloom predictions of the Bush Administration.
Now, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, let the conversation on the American withdrawal from Iraq begin.