The war in Iraq is nearly over, and the United States has nearly lost.
It's time for us to recognize a few core realities about the conflict in Iraq, and reason from those to an action plan for salvaging what we can out of this debacle. What I'm about to suggest is not a good outcome for the people of Iraq. It is, I think, a reasonable outcome for the United States, at least compared to the alternatives. It is actionable. It will preserve the most important, minimal necessary interests of the United States. It's possible to make a case that in the long run it might work to the benefit of the Iraqis as well. But I'm not so cynical as to defend it on that basis.
First a mea culpa. I was a mild to moderate supporter of the war at first, for a set of reasons that now look to be truly stupid. Believe it or not, my thinking in 2002 went like this: The Bush Administration is a political animal of the first order. More than anything else, they want to be re-elected in 2004. To start a war in Iraq is a huge and incredibly risky undertaking, that is not on the face of it necessary. The list of things that could go wrong is so extensive and so frightening, that they must have an incredibly compelling reason to take such a huge risk. They must know something that we don't. Because otherwise the cost-benefit calculation is incredibly clear: why take such a risk if you don't have to? The downside is so much worse (and more likely) than the upside.
I don't think I've ever been so wrong in my life. And it's a classic mistake of strategy -- to overestimate the strategic rationality of someone you don't know very well -- mistaking his or her ideologically inspired, or narrow minded, or standard operating procedure driven behavior, or just plain stupidity -- for a carefully reasoned and logical plan that would make sense if you just had all the data. Live and learn.
Okay then. Here are two realities we should acknowledge:
1. We are fighting precisely the war that Saddam Hussein wanted to fight against us. The so-called 'insurgents' did not develop their very sophisticated strategies on the fly. Saddam knew he could not defeat the US Army at the borders of Iraq. So, he called what any decent quarterback would call on 3rd down and 7 yards to go when you have a very weak defensive line: a draw play. The US Army is indeed fighting something very much like the dreaded urban warfare scenario that people talked about in 2002-3. And, not surprisingly, we are losing. I would go one step further. The only thing Saddam has really done wrong was to get caught in his foxhole. If he had not been captured, we'd be looking at a plausible scenario where Saddam Hussein himself was back in power a few years from now. I suppose that was pretty much what he had planned.
2. The so-called 'insurgents' do have a political program. And they can win. Why do I say that? Because I am tired of reading statements from the Pentagon and elsewhere that categorically denies both of these points. On what basis can we say that? The political objectives of the anti-American forces in Iraq may not be fully coherent and consensual, but then again neither are the objectives of the pro-American forces. Some of the insurgents want a return to Baathist rule. Some probably want Iraq to be the center of the Osama Bin Laden caliphate. Some want a gang-ruled warlord state where they can extract money. Those are political programs. We may not agree with them, or see them as sustainable. But they are as real as any political program. And the fact that they are not coherent in our view is a very bad reason to assume that they cannot win.
So what should we do about all this?
Here's my modest proposal. Acknowledge that we have lost, withdraw American forces, and let the chips fall where they may. It may take a decade for the country to sort out a set of civil wars. It will be a humanitarian nightmare for the people of Iraq. And it is as likely as not that whatever political authority comes to rule Iraq, or parts of Iraq, will be as troubling to American foreign policy objectives in the region as Saddam was.
Here's why this is not a crazy idea. Go back to the Winter of 2003. What were the smart anti-war Americans saying at that time about US policy? They said, 'Iraq is a threat, but containment is working. So why invade? Let's create a policy called 'containment-plus'. Let's tighten the enforcement of the embargo, incent the surrounding countries to really hold to sanctions policies, beef up UN inspections, increase our support for opposition groups within the country, and so on...'
It's time to consider applying that exact policy to a post-Saddam Iraq. Pull our forces out. Station UN-authorized troops on Iraq's borders to monitor people and goods moving in and out. Compensate Iraq's neighbors with real cash for lost revenue and be ruthless about enforcing a strategic embargo. Use air power to enforce an inspections regime and to destroy any protean terrorist training facilities. Reign in whatever new government comes to power in Iraq. Turn Saddam over to a UN war crimes tribunal. And so on.
Would it 'work'? That depends on what you mean by 'work'. What I mean is quite minimal: protect America's vital interests in the region, at a cost we can afford to bear.
If you hate this idea, remember that Jonathan Swift used his modest proposal to break up what had become a calcified discussion about seemingly intractable dilemmas.