Iraq: An Exit Strategy

by , March 31, 2005

Robert Novak told us last year that the U.S. was headed for a “quick exit” from Iraq – and in a recent column he’s holding to this prediction, crowing that he was right about Condoleezza Rice ascending to the State Department, and her deputy Stephen Hadley taking her place as national security adviser. Okay, so he was wrong about Wolfowitz moving up to fill Rumsfeld’s spot at Defense, but only because Rummy decided to stay put. Two out of three ain’t bad, says Novak. No, it isn’t at all bad, but does this mean his view that the Americans are on the way out will be evidenced any time soon?

I wish I had Novak’s faith in Condi’s realism, and in his own predictive powers, but there are several obstacles in the path of this hoped-for outcome, first of which is that we are being held hostage by the insurgency and the inability of the Iraqis to get their political act together. The policy of unilateralism ended, apparently, with the invasion and conquest of Iraq: in the aftermath, we are the American Gulliver, held down by a thousand strings of obligation and circumstance.

An American withdrawal, we are told, is dependent on the progress of the training program now being undergone by Iraq’s nascent military and police forces, and the news, as the Carnegie Foundation points out (hat tip: Justin Logan), is not good:

“Training Iraq’s security forces is the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s strategy in Iraq. To the extent that training records can be uncovered in the muddle of conflicting reports, the chronicle of the past eighteen months raises grave doubts about the strategy’s hope of success. Pentagon figures show that not only has there been no progress over the past year, but the gap between the total number of Iraqi security forces and the total required is now almost twice the size of the gap reported fourteen months ago.”

The problem is not merely a technical and military matter: first and foremost it is a political conundrum, one that arises from the near-complete boycott of the electoral-parliamentary process by the previously dominant Sunnis. This is the sea in which the insurgency swims, and, contrary to the wishful thinking of our Pollyanna-ish pro-war analysts, it shows no signs of evaporating in the near future. Given the perpetuation of Sunni grievances, there is no reason to expect the Iraqi insurgency to be any less tenacious or violent than their counterparts in the Irish Republican Army. Will American soldiers be fighting and dying in Iraq throughout a good part of this century?

Until this administration moves toward a political solution to the Iraqi civil war, that is the fate that awaits us.

Two months after the much-vaunted elections, and the Iraqis have yet to form a working government – never mind get started on the work of drafting a constitution to be voted on at the end of this year.

The most recent session of the newly-elected Iraqi National Assembly dissolved in chaos the other day over disputes about how to include the Sunnis in the new government: the Sunni factions were unable to come up with a unified candidate for speaker of the Assembly, a largely symbolic post. The Financial Times reports that 32 different factions would have to be consulted before a decision could be reached. Since the Assembly has only 17 Sunni members, one can see how Iraq is truly a nation divided against itself.

This is hardly a recipe for the success of the Lebanese-style consociational or confessional model of democracy that seems to be evolving in Iraq, in which every religious and ethnic group of any consequence is guaranteed a certain amount of representation in rough proportion to their numbers. The success of the confessional model rests on the willingness of religio-ethnic minorities to entrust their fate to the protections afforded by such a system, but the isolation of the Sunnis – enforced and formalized by the “de-Ba’athification” provisions written into the American-authoredprovisional” constitution – ensures the persistence of the primarily Sunni-led insurgency. The insurgents’ popular base feeds on resentment of the military occupation – and arguably cannot be ended or even successfully tamped down until and unless the occupation ends, or, at least, becomes far less visible. The cause of the insurgency is the presence of American troops on Iraqi soil, and the administration’s staunch refusal to set out a definite timetable for withdrawal has driven the majority of Sunnis into the arms of the rebels.

Iraq’s Sunnis, who constituted the former political elite, don’t seem to have the equivalent of Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, whose religious and moral authority forged the winning electoral coalition. More secular and less inclined to view events through a sectarian lens, the Sunnis have nevertheless coalesced around the Association of Muslim Scholars, and the leader of this group, Sheik Hadith al-Dari, is key to bringing his brethren into the government in significant numbers. While his stance has been that U.S. troops must leave – and quickly – Mr. al-Dari has recently begun to modify his position, averring that he might be temporarily happy with a solid timetable for withdrawal. The New York Times quotes him as saying:

“I think Iraqi leaders could speak and appeal to the resistance. They could tell them: ‘If you want to liberate your country, liberation is coming now without any price. So you must save your efforts of blood and money.”"

The Americans, too, want to spare themselves the expenditure of blood and money: Novak rightly points to Republican uneasiness over the war, and a willingness – nay, eagerness – to put this chapter, however botched, behind us. It won’t happen, however, unless the influence of the neoconservatives in this administration is radically rolled back, and the White House’s vague exit strategy assumes a more concrete – and less contingent – form.

Success depends on recognition of the central problem: that the Iraqis are in danger of becoming dangerously dependent on the American military presence. Just as recipients of U.S. government largess at home – welfare recipients both corporate and individual – become part of a self-perpetuating system of interlocking subsidies and subventions, so the U.S. government’s Iraqi clients are locked into systemic dysfunction and dependency. The results are to be seen in recent sessions of the Iraqi National Assembly, where the cameras were shut off and the media chased out after the whole thing descended into a shouting match. Huddled under the umbrella of American military power, the Iraqis don’t have to get their act together – because the American safety net is there to catch them in case they fail.

There is just one possible solution: the threat that this net will be withdrawn has to become real to them. Once they realize we mean business, you’d be surprised how quickly their behavior will change for the better.

Remember all the brouhaha that accompanied President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform? We were told that the system would let so many fall through the cracks that the level of poverty would rise and overwhelm our society. It didn’t happen. Instead, what happened – to the degree that the system was really reformed – is that people adjusted. Faced with the necessity of making it on their own, welfare recipients went out and found jobs. They made do, and the predicted disaster never unfolded.

If we apply the same principle to U.S. government intervention in Iraq, the answer to the problem of how to extract ourselves from this seeming quagmire becomes all too clear: announce a definite timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. This will focus the minds of squabbling Iraqi politicians on the imminent necessity of governing themselves. More specifically, it will encourage them to engage more fully in the woof and warp of politics – which is compromise.

As it stands now, the various tribal and factional leaders have no incentive to carry out even the most basic duties of real-world legislators: their only concern is showing their own followers how fiercely and uncompromisingly they can advance narrow factional interests. Such blithe indifference to the actual business of governing is only made possible by their American protectors. U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying so that the National Assembly can be turned into a giant sandbox in which Iraqi leaders can cavort, fighting over who gets to play with whose toys.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then let’s give the Iraqis an ultimatum, one that will be welcomed, rather than resented, at least among the most recalcitrant – and violently anti-American – elements of Iraqi society: we ought to tell them we’re leaving at the end of this year, just as soon as the scheduled constitutional referendum and new parliamentary elections are held.

This announcement must be coupled with the release of the thousands of prisoners being held in American-run prisons in Iraq: let them be charged in Iraqi courts, or else set free. This is a key demand of the Sunnis, and it needs to be met before the insurgency can be drained of its widespread support.

Furthermore, we need to begin withdrawing some troops immediately, if only for the sake of those National Guardsmen whose lives have been thrown into chaos by extended duty. Let’s put an end to this de facto conscription. The Republicans, especially, need to be concerned about growing unrest among the electorate as the congressional elections approach. Do they really want to have to explain to the wives and families of our soldiers why the American occupation of Iraq seems to be without any discernible end?

Americans love the idea of “closure” – but they don’t see it, or any possibility of it, when it comes to Iraq. The GOP is courting disaster, and will pay the price at the ballot box, especially if the Democrats wake up in time to make this a political issue. Let’s apply the Novakian “tough love” Republican view of the welfare state to the problem of how to get out of Iraq.

The longer American troops stay in Iraq, the more dangerous the situation becomes: the almost impossible task of containing the war within Iraq’s borders is bound to overwhelm us sooner or later, and recent turmoil in Lebanon is not a good sign. The American people, as well as the opinion-making elites, are increasingly drawing the conclusion that the Iraq war was never a good idea to begin with, but unless immediate measures are taken to gracefully admit our error and hightail it out of there, forces unleashed by the invasion could take on a regional momentum of their own. Do we really want to see Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon thrown into chaos? That will please only Osama bin Laden and the more frenetic neocons, both of whom are committed to fighting what Norman Podhoretz and Eliot Cohen call “World War IV.”

Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s special unit targeting bin Laden, is right: the Iraq war has proved a boon to the worldwide Islamist insurgency that is rising even as I write. This, and not the Ba’athist remnant in Iraq (or Syria), is the real enemy, one that is recruiting hand-over-fist in the Mesopotamian killing fields. Iraq has become a vast training camp for al-Qaeda and its imitators, and what they are training for is another strike on their ultimate target – the continental United States. That is the real danger, one that is only increased by our stubborn refusal to recognize the colossal mistake we made in Iraq. While Bush is bringing the light of “democracy” to the Middle East and beyond, the forces of darkness are aiming at the soft underbelly of the American giant – and sharpening their blades on the battlefields of Iraq.

Whether bankruptcy forces us into taking the right course, or the neocons drive us over the cliff, it seems that disaster is bound to overtake us in any event. I pray Novak is right and someone in this war-crazed administration realizes the imminent danger we face – but I fear the worst.

Read more by Justin Raimondo