Iraq: Tell Us How This Ends

We are winning in Iraq, so the administration tells us. Gen. David Petraeus has appeared on Capitol Hill to explain the winning strategy. But his equivocal endorsement of current policy never answered the question he posed to a reporter at the war’s start: "Tell me how this ends." It’s time the American people demanded of President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, and the rest of the War Party: "Tell us how this ends."

It seems like an eternity, but it was only five years ago when the administration cavalierly went off to war, convinced that it could effortlessly reengineer the globe. The U.S. would defenestrate Saddam Hussein, drain the Middle East swamp of terrorists, cow antagonistic governments in Tehran and Damascus, spread democracy throughout the Muslim world, safeguard Israel, and demonstrate American power to the world. Of course, all this would occur at little cost – there would be few casualties, the war would pay for itself, Iraqi oil revenues would cover reconstruction expenses, U.S. occupation forces would quickly drop to barely 5,000 now, allied nations would rush to help with Iraq’s reconstruction, and statues to George W. Bush would rise throughout Baghdad and across Iraq.


It all seems like a bad joke. Administration officials proved to be as incompetent as they were unrealistic. They failed to plan for the ugly reality which many others saw, deployed insufficient forces, failed to adequately provide troops with body armor and armored vehicles, didn’t budget for the conflict’s rising costs, refused to engage neighboring states, and dismissed criticism as veritable treason.

Although completely discredited, war supporters now claim that the past is history. Why waste our time crying over spilled geopolitical milk? But the past must be highlighted so that it won’t be repeated in the future. No more preventive wars launched by hawkish ideologues ignorant of foreign realities, relying on rotten intelligence and ludicrous assumptions. No more wars of choice, where unleashing death and destruction is treated as just another policy tool, like raising marginal income tax rates, lowering tariffs, or increasing energy subsidies.

More important, the past must be highlighted so that the faux warriors who bungled this unnecessary war receive their just political desserts. Their views on both Iraq and the many other wars they want to fight around the globe should be dismissed unheard. Unfortunately, the incompetent fools – what is the President’s posse but a collection of incompetent fools? – who got America and the world into such a geopolitical mess are still in charge. And they continue to advance policies as if their prior advice had worked. Even worse, one of them, John McCain, a man who jokes about bombing Iran, writes about attacking North Korea, and once lobbied for a ground war against Serbia, could win the presidency.

But the uber-hawks should no longer be listened to. The War Party took its chance and botched it, launching a war that has killed thousands of Americans, maimed tens of thousands more, killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, created millions of Iraqi refugees, diverted resources from the worsening conflict in Afghanistan, created an endless recruiting campaign for al-Qaeda, destabilized an already unstable Middle East, weakened America’s military, degraded the nation’s international reputation, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And we are nowhere near the end: thousands more will die, hundreds of billions of dollars more will be wasted, Islamic anger against the U.S. will continue to spread, and American power will continue to suffer as the war goes on and on. How will this end, Mr. President?

Indeed, Gen. Petraeus gave little reason for comfort even to the war lobby. He said the progress in Iraq was "significant and uneven." The gains are "fragile but reversible." Moreover, he added, "We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel." And while al-Qaeda in Iraq has been largely defeated, that is in large part because Washington put Sunni tribesman, who had tired of al-Qaeda’s depredations, on the U.S. payroll and armed them with U.S. weapons.

That was a smart anti-insurgent tactic, but it hardly bodes well for the administration’s original goal of creating a liberal, federal Iraqi state. Nor does the continued power of the Shia militias, such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Left unchecked, noted Gen. Petraeus, such groups "pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq." But inserting the U.S. in the middle of a Shia civil war is the worst option of all. While endorsing the ongoing war effort, Gen. Petraeus pointedly refused to directly answer Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who asked: "Is all this sacrifice bringing about a more secure America?" Gen. Petraeus apparently was unable to honestly say yes.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was little more optimistic. He pointed to some political progress, but admitted: "Iraq is hard, and reconciliation is hard." Indeed, he added, "Almost everything about Iraq is hard." Of course, most Americans had come to that conclusion without his assistance. Crocker tried to put a positive spin on the recent government offensive in Basra, but the spectacle of Shia fighting Shia, a failed offensive reflecting unrealistic expectations and incompetence, government soldiers deserting, and Iran brokering a cease-fire is anything but positive.

But Amb. Crocker gave away the game when pressed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden on whether there was a greater national security need to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, or in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Crocker picked "al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border." Yet the Iraq invasion prematurely diverted forces from the Afghan war, exacerbated popular Pakistani antagonism towards the U.S., and continues to limit Washington’s effort in Afghanistan. Increasingly, it looks like "winning" in Iraq, whatever that means, may entail losing in Afghanistan.

The real bottom line is reflected in Gen. Petraeus’ plea to put off consideration of any troop withdrawals until fall. It is possible for Washington to temporarily lower the sectarian violence in Iraq, but much more difficult to permanently transform the conditions generating the violence. Pull out U.S. forces and renewed chaos threatens. That’s not much of an endorsement for administration policy after five years of war – longer than either the Civil War or World War II, which involved serious conflicts with major powers. Indeed, the aborted Maliki government assault on the Mahdi Army offers a depressing glimpse of Iraq’s likely future. The Shia struggle for power and the Sunni Awakening Council’s relationship to the central government ultimately will determine what Iraq becomes. That probably means sustained conflict punctuated by paroxysms of violence, something the U.S. cannot prevent at anything approaching acceptable cost.

Indeed, it is a mistake to simply view America’s presence as a force for stability. Better U.S. tactics on the ground have helped suppress both al-Qaeda terrorists and nationalist insurgents. But Washington’s presence may not be promoting political compromise and especially national reconciliation of any sort. Unfortunately, the U.S. forces serve as a source of antagonism for many, a target for some, and an excuse to avoid making hard decisions by others. Withdrawal might lead to an upsurge in violence. But it also might lead to greater pressure on the various factions to cobble together the necessary political and institutional compromises necessary for them to live together in relative peace.

Give Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker their due: they did their best to sell a failed policy by a failed president. But the administration’s patriotic blather and demagogic attacks on critics cannot disguise the fact that no one in the war lobby is able to tell the American people how it ends. And the public knows that.

The American people have judged the war. Never mind the administration’s emotional calls for victory and praise for democracy. The American people want out. A new Rasmussen poll found that 26 percent of Americans support withdrawing U.S. troops "immediately." Another 39 percent want to leave within a year, with no conditions. Only 31 percent take the Bush-McCain-War Party position of staying until "the mission is complete," whatever that means at any given moment. Political support for the war is disappearing.

The Iraq war should not have been started. It should not be continued. It should never have been fought. Spinning the surge cannot change the fact that the war was unnecessary and has been botched. Praising the surge does not change the fact that the continuing fight wastes too much blood, costs too much money, creates too much damage to America’s international position, and causes too much harm to the U.S. military. Tell us how this ends, Mr. President. Since you don’t have an answer, it is up to the rest of us to end it.

Read more by Doug Bandow