Iraq Three Years On

So have we learned anything after three years in Iraq and two years and 10 months after the White House created a "Mission Accomplished" sign for an aircraft carrier on which President Bush spoke?

Well, we learned, or were reminded, early on in the Iraq war, that the U.S. military long ago sloughed off the post-Vietnam syndrome characterized by self-doubt and dubious morale to become what is probably the most efficient fighting machine in history. From the "shock and awe" aerial attacks, to the remarkable race to Baghdad, to the ability to operate with "embedded" reporters, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, the men and women of the U.S. armed services, for the most part, showed themselves to be well-trained, equipped with some impressive weapons and materiel, personally brave, and cool and professional under fire.

But war, as the 19th century Prussian theorist Karl von Clausewitz explained with a good deal of elaboration, is politics carried on by other means. We have a solid (and healthy) tradition of civilian control of the military in this country. Civilians determine the political goals, and much about the acceptable means to be employed, for which military people then risk their lives.

We are learning, through books such as Cobra II by Michael Gordon and retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor, that even in the early phases military professionals who wanted to spend more time cleaning up pockets of resistance were overruled by civilian leaders in Washington who cared more about the appearance of a swift victory than a complete victory. It is hardly controversial these days that the military, or at least many in the military’s upper echelons, would have preferred a larger invasion force than the civilian masters permitted. It also became apparent almost immediately that almost no planning was done for the post-invasion occupation. Indeed, many in both the civilian and military leadership did not expect an occupation to last more than six months.

It is likely that abuses like the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which so tarnished the reputation of the United States and its military and have been widely blamed on a few lower-level grunts, are at least partly the responsibility of civilians in the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the White House, who were busy writing memos that blurred the reasonably clear lines between interrogation and torture found in the Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions.

Pious Platitudes

Even now, three years after the invasion, the objectives outlined by civilian leaders are more pious platitudes and aspirations than concrete objectives and hardheaded strategies for achieving them. The ongoing occupation has given bin Laden-style radicals a recruiting tool, and Iraq has become an incubator for terrorists that didn’t exist before – an "ultimate real-life training ground," as Charles Peña, author of the forthcoming book Winning the Un-War told me, for terrorists who are likely to afflict Europe and perhaps the United States for years to come.

Now, as conflict that may or may not be a genuine civil war rages in the wake of a temple bombing, the need for concrete objectives is more urgent than ever. Unfortunately, our civilian leadership is stuck on stock phrases and relentless optimism.

None of this suggests we should give up civilian control of military action. Even though recent experience suggests that the military as an institution is more cautious than many individuals entranced with the potential for reshaping the world through military action, over the long haul this might not hold true in all circumstances, and civilian control is still preferable. But the American people should have learned to be more skeptical of civilian leaders and determined to hold them accountable, especially when the war drums are pounding.

That’s not always easy, of course. Presidents and their advisers have learned, over the years, to shape their war-inciting messages so as to appeal to most patriotic Americans who don’t pay close attention to foreign developments on a day-to-day basis. And terrorists like Osama bin Laden can generally be depended on to play their symbiotic role of committing the occasional outrageous attack that keeps most Americans feeling insecure and in need of protection, even aggressive or "preemptive" protection. In fact, especially when a country is a global power with military installations and "interests" throughout the world, the rest of the world really can be a dangerous place.

Unrealistic Expectations

The United States is in this mess, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see a face-saving way out. In large part because the president, once all the other justifications evaporated into the ether, made the establishment of democratic governance the quasi-official new goal of the assault on Iraq, a semblance of stable governance seems to be the requirement for at least beginning a draw-down of U.S. troops.

President Bush in his recent speeches and appearances has stressed the importance of Iraqis putting aside their differences and agreeing to support a national unity government. There are several reasons this is a questionable tactic.

For starters, having the president of the United States deliver this opinion is a constant reminder to Iraqis that the United States is an occupying force, that this Iraqi government is not fully sovereign in its own territory, and that any future government will have limited actual sovereignty so long as the United States has a substantial number of troops in the country and is counted on to provide a significant amount of security. In addition, there are reasons to doubt whether a strong national unity government is a workable way to deal with the problems governing that particular piece of Mesopotamian territory.

It has become all too familiar to Americans who follow Iraqi issues, but it’s worth a reminder. The country as currently constituted was cobbled together by the British after World War I from provinces that the previously ruling Ottoman Empire had chosen to govern as three separate provinces. Thus there are Kurds in the north, Shia Muslims in the south (constituting a majority of the entire country), and Sunni Muslims (the ruling class under Saddam) in the center, with other minorities and many mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns to complicate matters.

A straight majority-rule democracy in Iraq would give the Shia, who have plenty of valid grievances from the past and the present, fairly complete control. The governance problem is to permit majority rule without encouraging suppression and oppression of minorities. Beyond a few reassuring words, the United States has not confronted this problem openly and honestly.

The obvious solution short of outright partition is something like federalism (though there must be a term from Islamic history that means much the same) with a relatively weak central government and a great deal of local autonomy. Getting there is complicated by the fact that there are no working oil fields in the central, mostly Sunni region, so Sunnis would have to have great confidence to agree to oil revenue-sharing agreements.

There’s evidence, beginning with the agreement Sunday to form a national security council outside the framework of the largely American-designed constitution, that the Iraqis understand this much better than the American government does. Having Americans repeat that the fantasy of putting aside differences for the sake of national unity is the only acceptable course discourages more realistic approaches and delays the day when Iraqis take full responsibility – and accountability – for their own political future.

Perhaps it is necessary for U.S. forces to provide a semblance of security a while longer. But the sooner the United States removes itself from the governance of Iraq, the sooner Iraqis will have to take that responsibility on themselves. That’s the outcome toward which U.S. diplomats and military leaders should be working.

Effects on Neighbors

Among the long-term hopes for the war in Iraq was that ousting Saddam Hussein from power and establishing a reasonably democratic form of government would provide a model of freedom and stability that would inspire others in the region and lead eventually to a more secure region. U.S. officials still talk bravely as if this consummation is inevitable, and it could happen. But all actions have unintended consequences, and war tends to magnify them.

As of now, militancy in the region is on the rise rather than on the decline. The regional influence of an Iran that may be seeking nuclear weapons has been increased. Terrorists are using Iraq as a training base for attacks elsewhere. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – even the United Arab Emirates, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited recently – leaders are concerned that chaos and sectarian tensions in Iraq will spill over into their countries.

"Who could possibly look at anything in Iraq and think, ‘I want some of that’?" Yusif Kanni, editor of the Turkish Daily News, recently wrote.

Even Israel, the country many war critics say the war advocates were trying to protect, may be less stable (though Ariel Sharon’s stroke certainly has something to do with that). Dore Gold, Israel’s former UN ambassador, says the war has fueled the spread of al-Qaeda in the region. Gerald Steinberg, senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, cheers the ouster of Saddam but criticizes U.S. postwar policy. "The assumption that just being there and talking about democracy and elections would work was naive," he told Knight Ridder correspondent Dion Nissenbaum.

What lessons might the United states take from what has been a much more difficult and costly endeavor than advertised, even if it does (however unlikely it may seem now) bring a modicum of stability and decent governance in the long run?

Preemptive or Preventive?

First, Americans should learn the difference between a preemptive and a preventive war. A preemptive war occurs when there is solid evidence of an imminent attack (e.g., troop movements, bombs being loaded) and the country fearing attack strikes first. A preventive war is designed to counter a potential threat that might occur months, years, or even decades down the road. Preventive wars are morally and strategically much more difficult to justify or carry out successfully.

The attack on Iraq was clearly a preventive rather than a preemptive war, and not justified by the values the United States claims to uphold. As reprehensible as he was, Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent or even a medium-term threat to the United States, and he wouldn’t have even if he had possessed weapons of mass destruction. His neighbors were not demanding a U.S. invasion; even those who went along had doubts.

Americans would do well to learn more skepticism when their leaders are beating the war drums. Whether our leaders consciously lied during the run-up to the war may be impossible to know with certainty, but they clearly emphasized or chose to believe the evidence that validated their preferred course of action and downplayed countervailing evidence. Leaders have done likewise in the past and will do so in the future. Caveat emptor.

In the longer run, even before the fallout from Iraq clears completely, the United States should move toward a more modest conception of its role in the world. This is clearly the most powerful country in the world, but it cannot shape the future of the entire world – and attempting to do so endangers freedom here at home. It is better to lead by example than to try to establish democracy by force of arms. Moving toward a noninterventionist foreign policy, one that, as John Quincy Adams once put it, makes the United States the friend of freedom everywhere but the active protector only of its own, has become almost an imperative. It will be a tough slog.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).