Containing Iraq’s Civil War
Is Not the Answer

The bulk of expert opinion predicts that the Bush administration’s escalation strategy in Iraq will fail. The void created by the administration’s lack of a backup plan for that outcome has been filled with proposals from pundits, academics, and think-tank analysts, who recommend containing Iraq’s civil war.

Most of these analysts suggest removing U.S. troops from harm’s way, pulling them back from major Iraqi population centers, and moving them to outlying areas safer from the raging civil war – for example, the Iraqi borders, more remote regions of Iraq, or neighboring countries – while using those forces to try to prevent the civil conflict from turning into a regional war. In general, this is the opposite of the strategy now being pursued by the administration. The administration is taking U.S. troops from existing large bases on the outskirts of Iraqi cities, and quartering them within those cities, so that they can be closer to the Iraqi people and the “bad guys.” So if the administration’s Plan A doesn’t work, the pundits are advocating doing the opposite. Such containment strategies, however, are almost as flawed as the administration’s current tack.

But at least the containment strategies acknowledge the reality that the Bush administration keeps avoiding: the Iraq War has been long lost, and it’s time to talk about how to deal with the unpleasant ramifications. The administration is not known for nimbly changing course. For example, although the administration could respond to pressure groups rapidly and fire the secretary of the Army and the commanding general at Walter Reed military hospital for shameful conditions imposed on wounded military personnel, it took the president almost four years after the start of the Iraq War to fire Donald Rumsfeld, a secretary of defense whose very policies were failed, creating more dead and wounded troops. President Bush’s current escalation strategy is much like having your finger in the dike, seeing it start to crack, and endangering friends by demanding that they, too, stick their fingers into the many eroding holes. The president is just imperiling more U.S. forces in the upcoming tsunami of civil war.

Yet the containment planning of many of the U.S. foreign policy elite exaggerates the threat that such a civil war – or even a regional war – would pose to U.S. security. Many seem to agree with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s exaggerated claim – advanced to make political hay – that the Iraq War is the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. (Did Reid forget that the United States started the inconclusive War of 1812, only to see a foreign invasion and the burning of its capital? Or that the U.S. tipped the balance in World War I and helped to cause World War II, the Russian Revolution, and the Cold War?) The same cries of a coming disaster were sounded during the Cold War when the United States withdrew from Vietnam, but were never borne out. Reid’s exaggerated prediction of disaster, however, undermines his stated goal of convincing the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

In arguing why the outcome in Iraq is so important, the foreign policy elite usually refer to “vital U.S. interests” in the Persian Gulf region. These code words are a euphemism for “oil.” Politicians and the foreign policy establishment rarely discuss this topic directly, because the use of U.S. military power to ensure oil supplies might be compared unfavorably to similar behavior by the Imperial Japanese, which led to World War II. In any case, the oil market will deliver oil – which exporters need to sell as much as importers need to buy – without military deployments or intervention by any government in the Persian Gulf. And if some oil production is impeded by an Iraqi civil war or a broader regional conflict, and the price rises significantly, modern economies have shown that they can weather high energy prices and still grow. The United States did so recently.

Some say an Iraq engulfed in civil war will create a haven for al-Qaeda. It already has; but in a worsening internal conflict, al-Qaeda will be so busy helping its Sunni brethren fight the majority Shia there that the group will have less time, energy, and resources with which to attack U.S. targets around the world. Besides, if the United States withdraws its forces from the Muslim country of Iraq, al-Qaeda will be less likely to attack U.S. targets. After the United States withdrew military forces from Lebanon during the Reagan administration, anti-U.S. attacks from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah sharply declined. Then, as now, non-Muslim occupation of Muslim lands is the chief driver of blowback Islamist terrorism.

Lastly, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, always the overprotective parent of Israel, fears that a regional war could adversely affect Israeli security. But this skittishness is unfounded, because Israel’s military is very capable, has a good combat record against its foes, and is believed to have between 200 and 400 nuclear weapons.

Thus, the United States can and should rapidly withdraw all forces from Iraq and bring them home. Leaving large, vulnerable troop concentrations in Iraq’s outlying areas, along its borders, or in neighboring countries is a recipe for getting sucked back into any conflict in the region. Delaying their withdrawal while the administration searches for a way to salvage U.S. prestige will only lead to the faster erosion of such standing – as it did when Richard Nixon tried the same approach in searching for “peace with honor” in Vietnam.

The best bet is to use an impending complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to pressure Iraqi groups to negotiate a decentralized form of governance: either a loose confederation in which the factions govern their own areas autonomously, or an outright partition. At this late date, however, the Iraqi factions may be too splintered to reach or to honor such a settlement. It’s still worth the attempt. But whether it is successful or not, U.S. forces should be withdrawn before the tidal wave of a full-blown civil war hits.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.