A Thirty Years War?

Back in September 2002 James Webb, assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, raised a specter that has come back to haunt us. “The issue before us,” he wrote in the Washington Post, “is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”

Recently the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a prominent London-based think tank, concluded that the U.S. will be in Iraq until 2010, because of the difficulties in establishing law and order. University of Michigan expert Juan Cole sees this estimate as optimistic. “The guerrilla war,” he writes, “is likely to go on a decade to 15 years.” But Paul Rogers, a diffident Oxford military expert, now echoes James Webb. His “ostensibly rash” conclusion is that “a thirty-year war is in prospect.” On June 19 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that America’s involvement in Iraq is indeed “a generational commitment.”

Webb had warned about our not having an exit strategy. In an August 2002 television interview, Charles Krauthammer, the well-connected columnist, explained why not. “We don’t speak about exit strategies,” he noted. “We are going to stay.” Responding to concerns about the cost, he explained, “If we win the war, we are in control of Iraq, it is the second largest source of oil in the world, it’s got huge reserves. . . . We will have a bonanza, a financial one, at the other end.” Today we can see that while Krauthhammer was wrong about the bonanza, he was right about the prolonged stay.

Currently the occupation is going poorly. One reason is the indiscriminate tactics used by U.S. forces. Whole towns – from Fallujah to Ramadi and now to the desert villages around Qaim – have virtually been flattened. Analyst Fred Kaplan comments: “Leveling towns, bombing every suspicious target in sight – this is not how hearts and minds are won or how persistent insurgencies are defeated.” Indiscriminate tactics, of course, also violate morality and the laws of war.

It is not surprising that the occupation lacks wide popular support. Civilian casualties – already in the tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands – are steadily on the rise. Among children malnutrition has doubled and mortality has tripled. Hospitals still lack basic medicines and equipment, water and electricity are in short supply, half the population is unemployed, and prices for food are inflated. Car bombs, assassinations, kidnappings, deadly roadblocks, stagnant sewage, and strikes from American forces are a daily occurrence. At least one million refugees have fled the country.

Those who insist on “staying the course” overlook the unpleasant fact that the occupation is the main cause of the insurgency, not its cure. Outstripped and illegitimate, it will only bring more death and destruction.

Although no good options exist, a viable exit plan might include the following:

  • The U.S. should cease all offensive military operations, withdraw from population centers, and announce that it plans to depart in six months.
  • An international peacekeeping force should be established, consisting of UN blue helmets along with forces from the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
  • Iraqi security forces should be trained under international auspices, with special attention to respecting human rights.
  • Plans for permanent U.S. military bases should be abandoned, and the American embassy (now the world’s largest) should be reduced to normal size.
  • A generous aid package, with no strings attached, should be offered to rebuild what the war has destroyed.

As unpalatable as such a strategy may be to our national pride, it is as prudent, principled and ambitious as the quagmire permits. It is arguably more “realistic” than continuing to fight indefinitely against a growing insurgency that is inreasingly sophisticated in weaponry and tactics. Those who believe otherwise should explain to the increasingly disillusioned American public how we can extricate ourselves from the biggest U.S. foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam.