Belmont Club

Iraq: Victory or defeat?

We are in trouble in Iraq. The Bush victory was a fraud. That, in short is the judgment of Thomas Ricks writing in the Foreign Policy Review. His essential claims are that the turnaround in Iraq began when US Commanders began listening to foreign and even anti-war voices; that the Surge was essentially the name for buying off insurgents; and that the Surge in any case failed.

Why, then, do I maintain that the surge didn’t work? Militarily, or tactically, it did. It improved security. But its stated goal was to create a breathing space in which a political breakthrough could occur, and that did not happen. In fact, Odierno says at the end of my book that the surge did create a breathing space, and that to our surprise, some Iraqis used it to move backwards rather than forward.

But no breakthrough occurred. All the basic questions that vexed Iraq before the surge are still out there unanswered: How do you share oil revenue? What’s the relationship between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd? For that matter, who speaks for the Shiites? What’s the role of Iran, which for my money is the biggest winner in this war so far? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? All of these questions have led to violence in the past, and all of them almost certainly are going to lead to violence again.

So now it is President Obama’s war. I have a great deal of sympathy for him. I believe he’s a good strategic thinker, but I also think he has inherited the worst foreign policy situation that any new president has ever taken on—and foreign policy isn’t even his top-priority problem, which would have to be the economy. It’s a huge load to take on. But Obama’s handling of it thus far worries me.

It’s interesting to compare Rick’s prognostications with those of Michael Totten, who presents both sides of the story. His introduction to Part I summarizes the problem perfectly. “During my last trip to Baghdad I tried to figure out if the worst in Iraq is over or if the dramatic reduction in violence is just a long lull. Half the Iraqis and half the Americans I spoke to were optimistic. The other half think Iraq is probably doomed. I have no idea who’s right, and neither does anyone else. This is the first in a four-part series where I’ll present both cases and let you decide what to think for yourself. We’ll start with the good news”. His Part 2 is already up.

I’ve not been to Iraq. However I remember something which an Australian officer who occupied a senior position in Iraq said at a dinner I recently attended. He said, and I am quoting only approximately, that ‘interventions are about allowing history to restart in a society that has become stuck. Iraq had become stuck in Saddam. The future of Iraq is unknowable,’ he said, ‘but it has started again.’ That remark didn’t answer any questions about the future of events, but it helped frame my expectations.

Personally, I think Ricks is thinking about the problem the wrong way. The “political breakthrough” he speaks of could never have occurred under Saddam. But in a larger sense I think Ricks is right to warn about failure in Iraq. OIF was meant to send a signal to the despots of the Middle East to mind their manners; to avoid supporting nonstate terror actors; to avoiding seeking weapons of mass destruction. But the dominant meme to emerge from the last six years has almost been the exact opposite. That it is hopeless, except in the sense of buying them off, to deflect Middle Eastern despots from their schemes; that it is equally impossible, and possibly even immoral to stand forcibly in the way of those who seek nuclear arms. Obama is not entirely, as Ricks argues, the hapless victim of the policies of the last six years, rather he is the expression of a point of view that believes they are a failure.

The debate over the future of Iraq is inseparable from the larger argument about the future of Middle Eastern policy. Some think that Bush’s policies were a recipe for failure. Still others think Obama’s actions are active pursuit of disaster. Maybe we should take Michael Totten’s attitude and chronicle events and leave judgments to the future.

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