The life’s work of the late Albert Wohlstetter reminds us that we cannot solve a problem whose very nature we misconstrue: First and foremost, we must not confuse ourselves. That is the case with U.S. Iraq policy. In essence, the U.S. political system is trying to master a three-dimensional problem in two-dimensional space. Both the Bush Administration and its critics have largely framed the problem in the two dimensions of domestic politics and counterinsurgency. But even if the Administration manages to maintain sufficient public support for its Iraq policy, and even if the counterinsurgency effort should make major progress, that will still not assure strategic success. That is because a third dimension is too often ignored in practice: the political transition of Iraq from a broken, traumatized country into a stable democracy.
We are now at a turning point in this transition. The December 2005 election of a Parliament under the new permanent Constitution was a significant achievement for the Iraqi people, who once again faced down terrorist violence and political intimidation to insist on their rights as free men and women. This success, however, should not be exaggerated. Indeed, the completion of the formal political transition process could well pave the way to defeat if it accelerates a broad American disengagement from Iraq.
With the ultimate cost to the United States alone already measured in thousands of dead and maimed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, it is tempting to resurrect the legendary Vietnam-era advice of Republican Senator George Aiken: Just declare victory and come home. This is an understandable sentiment, but it is most unwise. Whatever one thinks about how the United States reached this point in Iraq, no one can deny that Iraq matters and will continue to matter to U.S. interests. With 26 million people, Iraq is among the most populous Arab countries, and it possesses the world’s fourth largest reserves of oil. Bordered by Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria, there is no escaping Iraq’s strategic significance. Iraq could become a springboard for global terrorism if al-Qaeda burrows into Iraqi society. What happens in Najaf and Karbala will likely reverberate throughout Shi’a communities worldwide. And if we accept the premise that the Middle East’s most dangerous pathologies flow from the authoritarianism of its political cultures, then ours must be a patient but determined effort to help Iraqis achieve and keep their own personal and political freedom. We should therefore be focused not on how to withdraw from Iraq, but on how to broaden and deepen our engagement there.1
That engagement need not and should not be principally military, however. We should turn over responsibilities for security to Iraqis as soon as they can manage them. A successful, integrated counterinsurgency effort is clearly necessary, as well. And the White House must continue to make the case for a successful policy, for it would be naive to contemplate the scale and scope of our engagement in Iraq without reference to what the U.S. domestic political market will bear. But the hallmark of our policy in Iraq must be larger than counterinsurgency; it must be political in essence and inspiration, not military. Thus there is no contradiction between a reduced U.S. military role and presence in Iraq and an expansion of non-military engagement by the United States, and by the international community as well.
There is a catchphrase for such a policy of political engagement—”nation-building”—and it is a catchphrase often used incorrectly. When people talk of nation-building what they usually mean is state-building: creating or enhancing governance capacity. A nation is a group of people bound by shared identity; a state is the administrative apparatus with and through which a territory (or country) is governed. In Iraq, however, the task ahead is both state-building and nation-building. Iraq needs governance capacity, but it also needs a firmer sense of its own national core after decades of Ba’athi terror and destruction—after what amounts to the prolonged torture of Iraqi civil society.
As President Bush emphasized in his second Inaugural Address, genuine transition from tyranny to democracy is the “concentrated work of generations.” No one should underestimate the challenges of state- and nation-building in Iraq. But American interests in Iraq and in the Middle East more broadly will not be served by avoiding the difficult; those interests can only be served by facing the difficult and overcoming it. To do that we have to see Iraq right; we must match a three-dimensional reality with a three-dimensional vision.
A strategy can only succeed if it can be sustained. It is a truism, therefore, that any practical strategy must be reconciled with domestic politics in both the United States and Iraq. The option of increasing the U.S. military presence to stabilize Iraq is no longer politically viable, even if the U.S. military were not stretched thin. Instead, political pressures in both Washington and Baghdad are making the start of a significant withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq this year nearly inevitable.
The pressures at home are unmistakable: fading public support for the war; a “credibility gap” over the reasons for it in the first place; post-Katrina frustrations about failures to protect the home front; disarray among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and growing anxiety in Republican ranks over the November 2006 midterm elections; and a Democratic Party ready to exploit Iraq in those elections and, if at all possible, to do so again in November 2008. Patience was already wearing thin among the political classes long before Cindy Sheehan and Congressman John Murtha grabbed headlines last year. Against the backdrop of President Bush’s admissions of past mistakes, his warning about “more testing and sacrifice before us” and his pledge to persevere until we achieve “complete victory” in Iraq, the signals from the White House, State Department and Pentagon are clear: We expect Iraqi security forces to soon be sufficiently trained and equipped to justify a U.S. drawdown. And this will be the most tangible sign of progress for the American people. The December 2005 announcement that the 1st Infantry Division’s original redeployment plan to Iraq would be scaled back is just one of these signs, and others abound. The politics of Washington are pulling U.S. forces home.
At the same time, the new Iraqi government will push to have U.S. forces leave sooner rather than later. The November 2005 Cairo reconciliation conference—with its call for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal—was a harbinger of things to come. Iraqi officials argue that their security forces will soon be able to tackle the insurgency without Coalition support. Iraqi politicians want to escape the taint of being a “puppet” of American occupiers, and will distance themselves from us for the sake of legitimacy. We have already seen how calling for U.S. disengagement burnishes Iraqi candidates’ nationalist credentials.
Others, including some followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, remain deeply skeptical of American intentions in light of the U.S. failure to intervene to help the Shi’a uprising against Saddam in 1991 and some of the policies pursued under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003-04. Indeed, there is an even darker side to Iraqi domestic dynamics. Some in the Shi’a parties look forward to the removal of the moderating influence of the United States. The United States pushed for compromises in the constitution to protect Sunni interests, hoping to split more Sunnis from the insurgency and bring them into the political process. Likewise, the United States has tried to moderate the tactics used by predominantly Shi’a security forces. While denying credible evidence of the torture of Sunnis in the hands of the new Ministry of the Interior, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and of the predominantly Shi’a United Iraqi Alliance slate in the December elections, recently suggested that the United States prevented more forceful, direct action to defeat the Sunni insurgents. We should not fool ourselves about what such measures might involve once U.S. forces withdraw.
So any strategy for Iraq must cope with the political reality of a drawdown of Coalition forces in 2006 and thereafter. At the same time, our objectives will not have been secured. So what should be done? The answer is nearly unanimous: Defeat the insurgency, first mainly by our own effort, but ultimately through those of Iraqis.
The Incomplete Promise of Counterinsurgency
To “win in Iraq”, the influential military analyst Andrew Krepinevich has argued, “the United States needs a real strategy built around the principles of counterinsurgency warfare.”2 When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified this past October before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about our new “clear, hold and build” approach, she employed the language of counterinsurgency. Such language is heard in conferences and corridors throughout Washington, where it has become by now almost cliché to invoke General Creighton Abrams and the CORDS program, and to praise those who have since written about U.S. military successes in the final years of the Vietnam War.
From this perspective, policy success in Iraq lies in building up Iraqi security forces; winning hearts and minds, often by improving the material conditions of life such as providing reliable electricity, clean water and jobs; persuading some Sunni insurgents to trade bullets for ballots; and then crushing the remaining domestic insurgents and the foreign jihadis led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The refrain that military force alone will not defeat the insurgents is familiar and, of course, correct; nonetheless, the mission remains counterinsurgency and the policy as a whole is cast in that light. State Department officials admit, for instance, that the effort to establish Provisional Reconstruction Teams, designed to help drive nation and state-building assistance at the grassroots, is part of a broader counterinsurgency campaign.3
The state of the insurgency has thus become the key driver of U.S. engagement in Iraq. Ironically, both the Administration and its critics often view the problem through a similar lens. But an assessment of when the Iraqis will be ready to provide their own security should not be the main metric for calibrating U.S. engagement, and the reason is simple: Even a successful counterinsurgency effort will not achieve our objectives.
The hard truth is that if Iraq’s Sunni insurgents surrendered their weapons tomorrow morning and foreign jihadis converted to peaceful secularism, Iraq would still be a long way from a stable country under the rule of law, and even further from a genuine democracy. Sectarian and ethnic fault lines would still exist; potential fragmentation would still loom. Local campaigns of ethnic cleansing would continue. A full-blown tyranny of the majority against the Sunnis and other minorities—including Christians and Turkomen—could be in the offing. Political parties would still seek to suborn new government institutions to augment their own power, relying upon their militias when necessary. The Sadrite menace reminds us that intra-Shi’a violence to control Iraq’s destiny is possible, if not probable. Iraq’s neighbors would still meddle in its affairs, hoping to tip the internal balance in their favor. In sum, the attitudes and institutions needed to sustain free democracy would be fragile at best, likely under siege and, in many cases, in retreat.
Even an improbably successful counterinsurgency effort could not solve such problems. Ending the insurgency is a necessary condition for success, but counterinsurgency is not sufficient as a long-term strategy. It could even backfire if it overshadows other critical elements of strategy, leading to an imbalance of U.S. attention, priority and effort. If the American public comes to assume that the problem in Iraq is solely defeating insurgents, they will expect overall U.S. disengagement to move in lockstep with progress on the security front. Moreover, the Bush Administration will not be able to rally new international support for Iraq as long as it defines the problem in counterinsurgency terms—and that broader support in the long run is vital for ultimate success.
The Need for Broad Engagement
Success in Iraq must be defined in political terms—that is the necessary third dimension of sound policy. Our full strategic challenge requires fostering an enduring political transition in Iraq and we are still a long way from success.
However important they may be, elections alone do not a democracy make. Rather, a complex web of institutions, attitudes and embedded experience make democracy possible. True victory will be achieved only when this web is woven, tested and seen to hold. This will be a much more protracted and difficult endeavor than defeating an insurgency; it will be, again, a “work of generations.” Our strategy in Iraq, therefore, must be conceived in generational terms as well. At its foundation must be the building of institutions and the engendering of attitudes that sustain democratic practice. Overall, we should aim to fortify and widen open political space in Iraq, where debate and civil organization can survive and then thrive.
We claim to be doing this already. The National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development and others have done important work on this front. Overall, however, American efforts have been inadequate—and higher education is a crucial case in point.
What happens on campuses is critical to the political life of Iraq, much more so than in the United States. Iraqi elites have often emerged from the most competitive academic programs, mainly in medicine, engineering and science. Doctorates carry status. The fact that the first two prime ministers of post-Saddam Iraq, Iyad Allawi and Ibrahim Jaafari, are trained as medical doctors is no accident. Nor is the fact that other contenders for leadership in the new Iraq such as Adel Abdel Mehdi and Ahmad Chalabi hold Ph.Ds.
Today’s Iraqi political parties understand, like the Ba’ath Party before them, that the universities play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and producing future leaders. The Iranians appreciate this, too. This is why Iraqi campuses have become battlegrounds, with dozens of professors, students and administrators murdered and countless others terrorized into silence or exile. In August 2004, about one in four Iraqi university presidents was either recovering from an assassination attempt or dealing with the nightmare of a kidnapped relative. We are now witnessing the beginnings of another brain drain from Iraq as doctors, medical school faculty and others are being threatened. Islamists, moreover, have been notably successful in intimidating women, forcing them to go covered on campus for their own personal safety.
Simple numbers matter too, when we consider the importance of higher education. Today the median age in Iraq is about 19.5 years, with 40 percent of the population under the age of 15. Iraq’s more than sixty universities, colleges and technical institutes must educate more than 250,000 post-secondary school students annually. But after decades of neglect, isolation, brain drain and sanctions, Iraq’s universities and colleges are unable to train sufficient numbers of qualified professors and teachers at all levels of the educational system. Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to restore the system to its pre-Saddam caliber, when Iraqi higher education was a leader in the region. Billions of dollars must be spent for Iraq’s higher education system to catch up to today’s regional standards set by countries like Qatar. The foundation for long-term success in Iraq will be built by the majority of Iraqis—those under twenty—whose views of their country and politics have not yet hardened into dogma. That is why education is so vital.
Despite the strategic importance of higher education to Iraq, American support for it has been paltry. From 2003 to 2005, USAID’s Higher Education and Development (HEAD) program allocated only $20 million to help build partnerships between U.S. and Iraqi universities. The program was designed in Washington by bureaucrats with no knowledge of the Iraqi higher education system. The majority of the funds were eventually spent inside the United States, not on the ground in Iraq. Nonetheless, this program helped with some local projects, such as renovating libraries, and it symbolized the possibilities of more ambitious, sustained engagement. Iraqis were encouraged to hope that more assistance would be forthcoming.
It hasn’t been. The HEAD program ended without a successor. No agency funds are allocated for Iraqi higher education programs in 2006. The Embassy in Baghdad has backed the founding of an American University in Iraq in Sulaimaniya, but future support for that project, too, is uncertain.
Otherwise, the State Department offers Fulbright Scholarships to about thirty Iraqis annually to study at universities in the United States. This is a positive step, but these few scholarships concentrate on the humanities and the social sciences rather than the scientific and technical disciplines that attract the most likely future leaders of Iraq. Imagine the impact of only a $25 million program—in terms of immediate goodwill and long-term economic and political benefits in Iraq—that would come from bringing 250-300 future Iraqi leaders a year to the United States at a critical time in their personal development.
Progress is thus possible before the shooting stops. We can do more now, dramatically expanding our efforts to bring Iraqis to the United States for training and education across the board, from ministry technocrats to the doctors of tomorrow. We should sponsor more conferences and seminars in the region of the sort that have already begun to reconnect Iraqi professionals and advanced students to the outside world. Moreover, targeted investments in key communications technologies—such as the Internet and videoconferencing—are other ways to make progress despite the current security situation.4
The importance of the Iraqi higher education system illustrates the need to reprioritize U.S. efforts across the board, not just rhetorically but in terms of resources and commitment to full implementation. Ultimately, our efforts must aim not at doing the job ourselves, but building Iraqi capacities—whether to run a political campaign, organize programs to improve women’s health or supervise a ministry budget. We should expand “train and equip” programs for Iraqi editors, journalists and publishers, as well as for soldiers and police. We should also further increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Institute of Peace and other organizations that are helping Iraqis build and sustain civic institutions. The scale of our effort must be proportional to the stakes.
Taking seriously this third dimension of Iraq policy also focuses attention on major gaps not just in our budgets, but in staffing key positions in the U.S. Mission in Iraq. Many skilled, experienced Foreign Service Arabists have avoided Iraq, leaving Embassy Baghdad to make due mainly with contractors and younger, inexperienced officers. In practice, this means that the State Department mission is short on experience, language skills, cultural awareness and understanding of the operational complexities of Iraq’s post-conflict environment. The use of one-year voluntary deployments exacerbates the situation, preventing any real continuity between Americans and Iraqis in a society where personal relationships mean so much.
Exemplifying the downside of these staffing gaps, last year the U.S. military had to take over responsibility for advising the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior because the State Department could not adequately staff these critical missions. After originally being heralded as the new vanguard in our civic, political and economic development efforts at the local level, early indications are that the Provisional Reconstruction Team initiative may fall prey to the bureaucratic squabbles and inadequate staffing that hamstrung previous efforts. In January 2006, Secretary of State Rice spoke eloquently before the Georgetown School of Foreign Service about the new requirements to succeed in 21st-century “transformational diplomacy”, including the need for our diplomats to endure hardship posts and work more closely with the military. In this light, the Administration will need to consider dramatic action to cut the bureaucratic Gordian Knot that has prevented adequate staffing in Iraq, perhaps resorting to “directed assignments” (i.e., ordering Foreign Service Officers to serve).5
A reinvigorated emphasis on building Iraqi civil society may have other benefits as well. Such an emphasis could contribute to forging a new, forward-looking bipartisan consensus on core elements of Iraq strategy. Democrats and Republicans alike can acknowledge that long after our military has scaled down its presence, we will still need to invest in rebuilding Iraq. Such investments cannot be postponed and can no longer be considered “supplemental.” As we bring the initial phase of “reconstruction” funding to a close, we must lock Iraqi assistance programs into our normal budgets for the long term.
The U.S. government should not carry this burden alone, however. Americans of all types—including educators, management consultants and municipal officials—can contribute and need to step forward. More organizations should follow the lead of Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, which works with civic leaders in regions of Iraq that are relatively peaceful. American trade unions, professional associations, educational institutions, journalists, students, human rights activists, scientists and business executives should establish ties with their Iraqi counterparts. Major foundations should recognize the pivotal importance of Iraq and dramatically step up the funding of independent initiatives there. And the private sector should expand strategic investments in Iraqi capacity building. The time has come for responsible Americans to focus on Iraq’s future and put aside the politics of the past.
Such an approach may also make it easier for international partners to contribute to Iraq. To be sure, if the United States does not do the heavy lifting, the lifting will not get done. Nonetheless, stressing the development of Iraqi civil society will enable a higher level of international support for Iraq than will be possible as long as U.S. strategy is viewed only in the counterinsurgency dimension. Moreover, such an emphasis will be important in convincing the World Bank, the United Nations and other international organizations to expand their engagement in Iraq now that the formal political transition process is complete. To return to higher education as an example, persuading the German or French or Spanish government to train a hundred Iraqis as vocational educators would be infinitely easier than trying to convince them to put one military trainer on the ground in Iraq.
To many, it will sound unrealistic, even idealistic, to propose we should concentrate on improving Iraq’s civic life at the grassroots. To the contrary, such a strategy is a realistic response to the challenges we and our Iraqi allies face.
We must not understimate the tenacity of the Iraqi people or lose sight of the lessons of history. Photocopiers, after all, became samizdat weapons against Soviet tyranny. American unions assisted their brethren behind the Iron Curtain in becoming independent forces for change. A once jailed playwright eventually led the Czech Republic. Serbian youth groups galvanized the peaceful uprising that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. Videos of that success inspired activists in Ukraine and elsewhere. And leaders of Georgia’s Rose Revolution were once Muskie Fellows in the United States.
While we work with the party leaders of today, a new generation will determine what kind of country Iraq becomes. The forces we hope prevail should be the Shakespeare scholar turned newspaper editor, the architect leading an organization devoted to spreading Internet connections among students, the imam promoting a progressive interpretation of shari’a, and the independent candidate for parliament advised by the National Democratic Institute. Promoting their success is not an “extra”, but essential to long-term U.S. strategic success.
Investing as a Hedge
Undoubtedly, some will still object to the very notion of broadening and deepening U.S. engagement in Iraq. One can hear the critics intoning, “Haven’t we done enough already?” But even critics and pessimists should support efforts to build Iraqi civil society for one more reason, namely, because this is also the best available hedge against possible significant setbacks in Iraq.
The situation in Iraq remains tenuous. Many of those in office under the new constitution seek to advance their own parochial interests—personal, party, sectarian, ethnic and tribal—just as their predecessors in the transitional government did. More purging of ministries to make room for party hacks is likely. Powerful militias still stoke fear; Islamists still try to silence secular voices. Sunni extremists still plan mass murder, and Shi’a extremists are not beyond forming death squads and building new torture chambers.
We should be under no illusions about the dark possibilities ahead. If worst-case scenarios of civil war and fragmentation occur, we will face the need to contain spillover effects throughout the region, and to try as best we can to support forces inside Iraq working for positive change over the long haul. To do so, we will need to call upon a diverse network of connections and partnerships, and it takes years of consistent attention to nurture such partnerships. We need to think like venture capitalists and invest widely, with the understanding that only some of our investments will pay off strategically.
Even if the worst does not happen, success in Iraq will continue to defy easy answers. We must avoid siren songs for “stability” in the hands of a “strong man”, and we must resist the seduction of a supposed clean and quick withdrawal. As Secretary Rice has emphasized, political transition in Iraq will not follow a “straight line.” There will be more setbacks even if the insurgency is checked. But we should not just stay the course; we should broaden and deepen it.
It is true that, in the end, no matter how great the Coalition effort, victory will come not through American efforts, but by those of Iraqis. Yet we must help Iraqis secure their freedoms, for in their freedoms our own will rest more safely. The challenge now for Americans both inside and outside government is to look forward, to see Iraq in all its dimensions, and then to summon the will to act accordingly.
1 Portions of this essay appeared in "After Withdrawal, Engagement", New York Times, December 27, 2005.
2 Krepinevich, "How to Win in Iraq", Foreign Affairs (September/October 2005).
3 Glenn Kessler and Bradley Graham, "Rice's Rebuilding Plan Hits Snag", Washington Post, January 15, 2006.
4 For recommendations on how to foster democratic transformation in Iraq, especially through its intellectual life, see Eric Davis, "Strategies for Promoting Democracy in Iraq", United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 153 (October 2005).
5 See Shawn Zeller, "Extreme Diplomacy: Evaluating Embassy Baghdad", Foreign Service Journal (March 2005); Bradley Graham and Robin Wright, "Aid to Iraqi Ministries to Shift to Pentagon", Washington Post, September 26, 2005; and Paul Richter, "The Challenges in Iraq", Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005.