Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
The question “What if we win?” seems to involve three core assumptions. The first is that America is currently winning in Iraq by making significant progress in defeating the insurgency, and that the present strategy and tactics, resolutely pursued, could lead to actual victory in the sense of restoring reasonable security and effecting economic recovery and political stability there. The second assumption is that Iraq would then be capable of governing and defending itself, cooperating in the general struggle against terrorism, and affording the United States and others access to its oil, freeing America to turn its main attention and resources elsewhere. The third assumption is that now is the time for Americans to begin thinking about how to exploit this opportunity.
The Bush Administration, along with the Republican Party and virtually all its presidential candidates, support the first two assumptions; most Democrats and other critics reject them. My views are that the first assumption may prove true after a fashion, that the second and more important one almost certainly will not, and that, therefore, the opportunity offered by “victory” will be quite different from the one currently envisioned.
As evidence of progress toward victory, the war’s supporters point to fewer incidents of violence in certain areas and fewer Iraqi and American casualties overall; signs of increased cooperation and better relations between the American occupiers and some Iraqis; improved security and more normal living conditions in particular areas; and some signs of economic recovery. Other, less tangible indications of progress are sometimes claimed—improvements in Iraqi security forces, less interference from outside forces and governments, more divisions and quarrels among the insurgents.
Critics deny or disparage these signs of alleged progress as far too fragile, spotty and superficial to prove a sustainable trend. Meanwhile, more important indicators are missing or remain negative: no political progress toward national reconciliation and unity, supposedly the main point of the military surge and the key to victory; unsolved and increasingly insoluble constitutional, ethnic, sectional and religious dilemmas; continued strain on the American armed forces, making the surge in its present form unsustainable; worsening problems and dangers in the region (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Waziristan and the Turkish-Kurdish frontier); the survival and growth of al-Qaeda and the spread of Islamic radicalism; the rise in Iranian influence; the persistent Israeli-Palestinian struggle; and growing strains in America’s relations with its erstwhile regional and Atlanticist allies. When one adds to this the collateral damage done by the war—its enormous ongoing and future costs, the damage to America’s prestige and credibility, the critical domestic and world problems left unaddressed, and the divisions and deadlock produced in the country—it becomes senseless even to talk about “winning” in Iraq.
The critics’ case seems stronger, yet it is not currently gaining ground. The war, though not becoming popular, may be becoming marginalized, half forgotten. While various factors may explain this—among them the very limited public sacrifice the war has demanded and the persistence of patriotic ideas about supporting the troops and trusting battlefield generals—one important reason is that supporters of the war, even as they deny, minimize, or ignore most of the critics’ arguments, appropriate some of them as reasons for pressing on to victory. Yes, many concede, the outlook is uncertain and the road to victory long and hard. But because so much rides on defeating the insurgency—because it could allow a stable, self-governing, secure and pro-U.S. Iraq to emerge; because an American success now, after many setbacks and predictions of disaster, would strengthen us in the face of other threats and problems; and because all the efforts, sacrifices and gains made will likely be lost if America loses heart now—we must carry on.
This shows why critics of the Iraq war (as I have been, even in anticipation of it, since day one, i.e., 9/11) need to separate these two assumptions, emphasizing that success against the insurgency will not entail victory in the larger so-called war. The defeat or decline of the insurgency may be happening; given the enormous disparity between the two sides in weapons and resources, that would hardly be surprising. Historically, most insurgencies have ultimately died out on their own or been crushed by military force, especially if they are not supported by some organized outside forces. One should hope that it is happening, for the sake of the American forces and, even more, the suffering Iraqi people. The real question, however, is whether a U.S. military victory over the insurgency can be expected to promote a durable, worthwhile American victory in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. The answer is that it cannot.
Assume for the sake of argument that the insurgency does continue to subside before military deployments have to be cut back (say, by the time George W. Bush leaves office). Will we know with confidence what caused this, or what the development means? No doubt the surge and changed tactics will have been one factor, but what of other plausible ones? The ethnic cleansing involved in most of the violence in Iraq—four to five million internally displaced persons, 1.2 million refugees abroad—may simply have largely run its course and exhausted its targets (though key trouble spots like Kirkuk and Mosul remain). How much of the decline in violence is due to simple exhaustion, despair, local battles, struggles for power and opportunistic shifts in alignments—all commonplace in insurgent struggles? How much is due to American bribes and concessions? How much to typical guerrilla/insurgent tactics of lying low under pressure, only to resume the struggle after the pressure abates?
These points are not cited for purposes of scholarly explanation, or to illustrate the logical flaws in the Administration’s arguments (arguing post hoc ergo propter hoc and analyzing on the basis of a single dependent variable), or to make political points for the coming U.S. presidential elections. They concern the central practical issue: What defeating the insurgency (i.e., reducing violent resistance to the American occupation to low levels) will actually be worth, and what wider effects it will have. If we assume, plausibly, that a large U.S. armed presence and active anti-insurgent operations helped bring this about, but that many other factors—known and unknown, most of them subject to change, beyond our control and impossible to measure accurately—undoubtedly also contributed vitally to it, then we cannot ensure that the victory will “stick.” We will therefore be unable to end the occupation or cut back seriously on it. Thus “victory” over the insurgency will serve to tie America down indefinitely from a military standpoint, making it a permanent target for enemies vowing to destroy foreign occupiers, and politically setting up the United States to be exploited by rival factions within Iraq and attacked by radical Islamic propagandists for as long as we remain there. As any competent historian will tell you, this is a common result from the suppression of insurgencies (take for example Britain in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt; France in Syria and Algeria).
If current U.S. military strategy thus promises to promote an American victory of the sort won by Br’er Rabbit over Tar Baby, the same conclusions hold even more for its political implications. The central premise has been and remains that a decline in violence and an improvement in essential services will provide Iraq’s leaders the space, time and incentive required for necessary political compromises and conciliation. This premise now epitomizes the triumph of blind faith and hope over logic and experience. All the efforts and gains made to date have promoted precisely the opposite outcome—to encourage contenders for particular power and advantage to continue fighting, without having to fear either complete destruction for themselves or the total collapse of the country, because the United States will intervene to prevent it and maintain a modicum of order. The same holds for training and equipping Iraqi armed forces and police to provide Iraq’s external and internal security. Even assuming that Americans are capable of success in this endeavor despite formidable cultural obstacles, there is no way that U.S. and allied trainers can predict or ensure whom the trainees will be loyal to in a pinch. Thus, the more we train and equip Iraqis to defend and govern themselves, the more we will have to remain in charge in sufficient force to ensure that they do not ultimately defect to some enemy. Again, history is full of examples. Britain’s experience in India, especially after 1857, offers one.
The long-range, wider implications are worse still. It boggles the mind how anyone could think that military victory over a relatively minor insurgency, a “victory” that results in keeping American forces in Iraq over many future years, would win more support for the American position and policy in the Middle East from other once-friendly regimes; how it could gain more cooperation from Iran and Syria, or restore the confidence of Turkey and other NATO allies; how it could palliate the Arab street or undercut the propaganda and recruiting efforts of al-Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists; how it could overcome the disastrous heritage of five years of scandal, crime, humiliation and destruction in Iraq, and the legacy of neglect of the Palestinians and other issues; or how it could re-knit our frayed alliances and restore our blackened reputation in the world.
All this has been said many times. It is disheartening to repeat it, knowing that it will have no more effect than before. One senses a ghastly inevitability about this American adventure—half tragedy, half farce and all folly. But there is one important purpose that military victory over the insurgency could serve. If relative quiet does settle over Iraq, and if the United States recognizes this development for what it is—a merely tactical success in a secondary theater that affords us an opportunity to retreat without further loss and concentrate on the wider contest, using a different strategy with better hope of genuine success—then that would constitute at least a step toward a real victory.