June 27, 2013

Iraq's Shiite Militias Are Fighting in Syria on Behalf of Assad


Shiite militias from Iraq are engaged in the civil war in Syria, according to a new report from the Washington Institute. The group -- Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) -- is being aided by Iran's Qods Force and while it's currently just a small group (some 800-2,000 fighters), the Washington Institute's Michael Knight sees it as having a potentially "strategic impact on the war."

Why? "Small but highly motivated forces can have a disproportionate impact in civil wars, where the fighting is often focused on specific locales, and where small, iconic battles can significantly affect morale," Knight writes. "Lebanese Hezbollah's direct intervention at al-Qusayr is one example of this phenomenon, and the role of the predominantly Iraqi LAFA forces around Damascus could become another..."

Iran has played a "key role" in forming this militia and sending them into the Syrian fray, Knight continues. Citing Philip Smyth, an "independent expert on LAFA's operations," Knight claims that Shiite militias formerly targeting U.S. troops have been retrained in Iran and Lebanon to wage a more conventional urban war against Syrian rebel groups.

Despite U.S. pressure and Iraqi assurances, the flow of support from Baghdad to Damascus continues.

What should the U.S. do? Knight suggests bombing the Damascus airport and instituting a no-fly zone in the country -- essentially, starting another U.S. war in the region.

That doesn't strike me as a very sensible option, given how beneficiaries of the last U.S. war in the region -- Iraqi Shiites -- are behaving.

(AP Photo)

March 29, 2013

Report Places Iraq and Afghan War Costs at Between $4 and $6 Trillion


A new report from Havard's Linda Bilmes estimates the total cost of both wars at between $4 and $6 trillion. Here's how Bilmes frames the accounting:

This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid. Since 2001, the US has expanded the quality, quantity, availability and eligibility of benefits for military personnel and veterans. This has led to unprecedented growth in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense budgets. These benefits will increase further over the next 40 years. Additional funds are committed to replacing large quantities of basic equipment used in the wars and to support ongoing diplomatic presence and military assistance in the Iraq and Afghanistan region. The large sums borrowed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs.

Bilmes notes that the U.S. has already borrowed $2 trillion to pay for both wars, making it a significant component of the $9 trillion in debt the U.S. has larded onto its balance sheet since 2001. Of this, an estimated $87 billion was wasted in Iraq reconstruction projects and $61 billion was siphoned off in boondoggle Afghan projects.

"Throughout the past decade," Bilmes writes, "the United States has underestimated the length, difficulty, cost and economic consequences of these wars, and has failed to plan how to pay for them."

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2013

Iraqis Feel Safer Now That America Is Gone


More Iraqis feel safer now that U.S. troops have been removed from the country, according to a new survey from Gallup. While Iraqis feel more secure with American troops gone, Gallup did find that on other crucial metrics, such as political stability and jobs and unemployment, Iraqis are far less confident.


These findings aren't terribly surprising, given that the U.S. pumped billions of dollars into Iraq during the occupation, creating a bubble which has since burst with the draw-down of American troops.

The picture in Iraq also varies by sectarian affiliation with the formerly dominate Sunnis being more pessimistic about the country's trajectory than Shiites, particularly when it comes to issues like corruption and jobs. Gallup also found strong support among the Kurds for greater regional autonomy (87 percent favored it).

(AP Photo)

October 23, 2012

Whither the Neocons?

During the debate, Mitt Romney rather consciously played down the neocon rhetoric he had been employing previously. Indicative, I think, of how tired and toxic it is on the public stage. In fact, Romney explicitly distanced himself from both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying: "We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us."

Christopher Preble isn't quite buying it:

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

One reason that Romney has surrounded himself with pro-Iraq war neocons is because that's largely the GOP policy-making bench these days. While the American people writ large have a dim view of the Iraq war, there are plenty of people in Washington's foreign policy establishment that think it was a great idea, if poorly executed.

That means that, no matter the rhetoric of vote-seeking Romney, the policy proposals generated by a Romney administration are going to be made by the same people who thought invading, occupying and spending $1 trillion on Iraq was a brilliant strategic gambit.

October 15, 2012

Can Romney Score Points on Iraq?

Jeremy Herb reports on Iraq's return to the campaign spotlight:

Romney specifically took aim at Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from Iraq during a major foreign policy address this week at the Virginia Military Institute.

“In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran,” Romney said.

“And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The president tried — and failed — to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”

In targeting Iraq, Romney is taking on one of the biggest achievements of Obama’s first term.

The president frequently mentions his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq in stump speeches, and the campaign has pushed back aggressively against Romney by saying the Republican nominee would still have troops there.

Iraq is not about to reemerge the major issue it was in 2008, of course.

Even the war in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops remain, has played a relatively small role in the 2012 campaign.

But a renewed focus on Iraq this week shows that it will be more than just an applause line for Obama for the campaign’s duration.

Both campaigns think they can score points by using Iraq as a key indictment of their opponent’s larger foreign policy.

This is a strange line of attack for a number of reasons. First, most Americans favored the pullout. Pew Research found a whopping 75 percent in favor when they polled at the end of 2011. As far as public opinion is concerned, Obama is on the right side of the Iraq issue.

Substantively, the Romney charge is a head-scratcher. It's true that the Obama administration tried and failed to secure a deal whereby a residual force would remain in Iraq. Harping on that failure is certainly fair game. In fact, it's bizarre for the Obama administration to brag about the troop pullout when it was clear they worked hard to prevent it. U.S. troops left Iraq in spite of the administration's efforts, not because of them.

But those deals broke down because the Iraqi government refused to provide immunity for U.S. troops that remained in the country. So Romney is essentially saying that the administration should have found a clever way to subvert the wishes of the Iraqi government and impose U.S. troops on Iraq on American terms. That's not a charge someone who is constantly championing "American values" wants to make all that loudly, is it?

September 10, 2012

Iraq Through the Partisan Looking Glass

One persistent criticism of Mitt Romney's foreign policy is that he has yet to distance himself from the Iraq war. Jordan Michael Smith (via Larison) offers a typical complaint:

The GOP wants the public to forget that Republicans got America into a disastrous, unnecessary war, of course. But the larger problem is that conservatives simply have not acknowledged the failure they unleashed in Iraq, let alone learned from it. To judge both from Mitt Romney’s rhetoric and his advisors’ track records, when it comes to foreign policy, a Romney administration would be a second Bush administration.

Often critics of the Iraq war write as if it was self-evidently a mistake and that the Republican party establishment will somehow be forced to come to grips with it. Certainly, a majority of the American public thinks the Iraq war was a mistake, but what they think really doesn't matter that much (it could, potentially, if Congress asserted a more active role in these matters, but that's not something they care to do). The truth is that the Iraq war is slipping (if it hasn't already) the bounds of objective reality and entering a realm of partisan positioning.

Many of those advising and supporting Governor Romney's campaign not only think the war was the right thing to do, they think it was largely a success. Furthermore, because the Democrats have, brazenly, evaded their share of responsibility for voting for and endorsing the Iraq war, and have instead painted themselves as the war's skeptics and critics (which, to be fair, some were from the outset) they have reinforced a Republican tendency to circle the wagons on Iraq.

So it's no surprise that Romney and his advisers won't offer a mea culpa for Iraq, since they don't believe it was wrong and because such an admission would invite negative political consequences.

This leaves us with one political faction that believes the lesson of the Iraq war was that it was a good idea and something to replicate in the future - likely with Iran, and another that doesn't have a strong position one way or another but will gladly tack in whatever direction political expediency points to.

Ordinarily you'd be forced to conclude that no superpower could continue in this manner for very long, but when most of your potential challengers are equally dysfunctional (or even more dysfunctional), there's really little external pressure to get your act together.

July 31, 2012

As Syria Goes, So Goes Iraq?

Joost Hiltermann analyses the powder keg that is Iraq:

It’s easy to be distracted by an uptick in violence in Iraq and ignore the larger political crisis in which al Qaeda, however diminished in its capabilities, can operate with apparent impunity. Despite last week’s events, violence has been at a steady level since 2008 – too high for sure to those caught up in the spasms that occur, but sufficiently low to nonetheless convey a general sense of stability – a vast improvement over the days of sectarian fighting some years ago. Spectacular attacks have punctuated a pattern of declining violent incidents, causing mass casualties even as overall casualty levels have gone down. Shia militias, which mainly targeted the U.S. presence, put their guns back under their beds after the military component of that presence came to an end late last year....

What matters in Iraq today isn’t so much its sporadic violence, however spectacular in nature, as the total absence of basic consensus over how the country should be run, as deepening discord could trigger a new round of civil war.

But wait, it gets worse:

In this unhappy state of affairs, the Syrian crisis threatens to exacerbate political tensions in Iraq and give them a renewed sectarian cast. As the minority-based Assad regime goes down, Syria’s Sunnis are certain to rise, re-empowering Iraq’s Sunnis, who have felt marginalized since 2003. Shiite perceptions of a looming Sunni alliance of Gulf states, Turkey, and a new Syria arrayed against the remaining Shia-run bastion of Iran and Iraq – with the intent of bringing down Maliki to deal a further blow to Iran’s influence in the region – are increasing sectarian polarization in Iraq. This is the perfect breeding ground for groups such as al Qaeda, which may find it easier to recruit in Sunni quarters, finding deep frustration and grievance, but also new Syria-inspired hope that the tide is again turning in their favor.

This is also the logical endgame of Washington's singular focus on "containing" Iran. We are fanning a jihadist whirlwind. Rather than stepping back and allowing the Mideast to work out its own problems and sectarian blood feuds, we're repeatedly jabbing our fingers into the hornet's nest.

June 4, 2012

Winning the Iraq War


Walter Russell Mead claims the Iraq war was a strategic success:

But granted all that and more, and not forgetting the terrible human toll among Americans, allies and above all of the Iraqis themselves, there is one more thing about the Iraq War that students of foreign policy need to get clear in their heads: the strategic aims of the war have been largely achieved. Nine years after the invasion, an independent Iraq has a military that is linked to the United States. The Arab world is moving against the autocracies and incompetent kleptocracies that at once blocked development and generated waves of hate against the US and the west. The dangerous minorities of the Shiite and Sunni communities who are radical terrorists and nutjobs are more focused on their hatred of each other than on their hatred of us. The Sunni Arab world has united with the US against Iran and its allies. Despite the alienation caused by the Iraq War and the execrable way it was launched, our closest European and Arab allies are working more effectively and in a more united way against Iran than ever before.

I hope Mead's students at least contemplate some additional facts and analysis. The over-riding 'strategic aim' of the war was to deprive al-Qaeda a source of weapons of mass destruction and to remove an anti-American dictator from the Middle East. The first aim not only was not accomplished - since it was based on erroneous information and dubious reasoning - but was set back by the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. That threat, though greatly diminished, remains alive both inside Iraq and, increasingly, beyond its borders.

The second aim of the war was indeed accomplished. Maliki may have many faults, but he is no Saddam Hussein. At least, not today. But let's be honest: when it comes to Middle Eastern rulers and their relations with Washington, "friend" and "enemy" are rather fluid classifications.

But the cause of Mead's celebration was the news that Iraqi oil is finally coming back on the market. That's indeed great news. So it's worth asking a question: if getting that oil back onto global markets is a strategic boon, as both Mead and I would agree it is, were there easier ways to accomplish that than spending over a trillion dollars and killing tens of thousands of people?

After all, Iraqi oil wasn't flowing to global markets because of artificial barriers - namely, sanctions. Would the cost of lifting those sanctions have been worse for the U.S. than the second Iraq war? You could argue that Saddam would have used the oil revenue to rebuild his war machine and go on another rampage that would have cost the U.S. even more than the occupation - although that's difficult to fathom, given how the U.S. was able to dispatch Iraq's army in the first Gulf War, losing far fewer soldiers and spending hundreds of billions less than the second time around.

Ideally, U.S. policy should seek benefits at the lowest cost possible. I don't believe for a second that Hussein would have taken his improved economic fortunes and spent it on schools and clinics. But would the consequences of relaxed sanctions have been worse for the U.S. than the path the Bush administration chose? I'm not sure. There are no cost-free alternatives with this question. But certainly students of U.S. foreign policy ought to at least consider the possibility before accepting Mead's assertions.

(AP Photo)

March 27, 2012

The New Conventional Wisdom on Osirak?

One of the interesting facets of the debate over military strikes on Iran is a new understanding about the impact of Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor. The popular take on Osirak is that the Israeli air force sparred the world (and particularly the U.S. in the first Gulf War) from a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. The strike proved, moreover, the efficacy of military action as a counter-proliferation tool.

Fast forward to today, however, and a new picture is emerging. Rather than a success that spared the world from a nuclear Iraq, the Osirak strike may have actually spurred Saddam Hussein toward a nuclear weapon:

For a start, Saddam wasn't building a bomb at Osirak. Richard Wilson, a nuclear physicist at Harvard University who inspected the wreckage of the reactor on a visit to Iraq in 1982, noted how it had been "explicitly designed" by French engineers "to be unsuitable for making bombs" and had been subject to regular inspections by both on-site French technicians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak," Wilson tells me, three decades on. "I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so."

For Wilson, the Israeli raid marked not the end of Saddam's nuclear weapons programme but the beginning of it. Three months later, in September 1981, Saddam – smarting from the Osirak incident and reminded of Iraq's vulnerability to foreign attack – established a fast-paced, well-funded and clandestine nuclear weapons programme outside of the IAEA's purview. Nine years after Osirak, Iraq was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Wilson's analysis is shared today by leading non-proliferation experts, including Columbia University's Richard Betts ("there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. The attack may actually have accelerated it"); Emory University's Dan Reiter ("the attack may have actually increased Saddam's commitment to acquiring weapons"); and Harvard University's Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer ("it triggered a covert nuclear weapons programme that did not previously exist").

Colin Kohl also cited some additional evidence that the conventional wisdom about Osirak is incorrect:

By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy.

You can read a wonkier version of this argument in a paper (PDF) Dan Reiter authored in 2005.

February 29, 2012

How Many Iraqis Have Died?

The Iraqi government has released figures stating that 70,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2004, although as AFP reports, that's not the definitive total:

However, the numbers are significantly lower than previous figures that cover a shorter time span, including from Iraq's own human rights ministry.

The ministry said in October 2009 that 85,694 people were killed from 2004 to 2008.

And the US military's Central Command posted figures on its website in July 2010 indicating that 76,939 Iraqis, including security forces members, had been killed from January 2004 to August 2008.

Independent British website says that at least 114,584 civilians were killed in violence in Iraq from the US-led invasion of 2003 through December 30, 2011.

In a 2003 article for the New York Times, reporter John Burns tried to calculate the number of deaths Saddam Hussein was responsible for:

Doing the arithmetic is an imprecise venture. The largest number of deaths attributable to Mr. Hussein's regime resulted from the war between Iraq and Iran between 1980 and 1988, which was launched by Mr. Hussein. Iraq says its own toll was 500,000, and Iran's reckoning ranges upward of 300,000. Then there are the casualties in the wake of Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait. Iraq's official toll from American bombing in that war is 100,000 — surely a gross exaggeration — but nobody contests that thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in the American campaign to oust Mr. Hussein's forces from Kuwait. In addition, 1,000 Kuwaitis died during the fighting and occupation in their country.

Casualties from Iraq's gulag are harder to estimate. Accounts collected by Western human rights groups from Iraqi émigrés and defectors have suggested that the number of those who have "disappeared" into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again, could be 200,000.

February 21, 2012

Why Iran Is Not Like Iraq

Peter Beinert has a question:

How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well?

I'll take a stab at this. First, among the people who were "manifestly, painfully wrong" about Iraq are the current U.S. secretary of state and the vice president. Support for the Iraq war was a largely bi-partisan affair at the time it was launched, and so very few people have an incentive to insist on accountability for that advocacy.

The second reason is that there's always a bias toward activism when it comes to the Washington debate. It would be unheard of for President Obama to stand at a podium, shrug his shoulders and tell the American people that the U.S. will not go to war against Iran because the country poses almost no threat to the United States. Instead, he must defend his program of sanctioning and isolating Iran while insisting that "all options are on the table."

Finally, and most importantly, the situations are just very different. To sell the Iraq war, the Bush administration had to engage in a lot of threat inflation and dubious assertions about Iraqi capabilities and intentions. With Iran, that's not (as much) the case. We know they have a nuclear program and whether they divert it to military uses or not, they are significantly further along the path toward a bomb than Iraq ever was. Ditto with terrorism. There is a much stronger link between Iran and Hezbollah than there ever was between Iraq and al-Qaeda (although thanks to the war, al-Qaeda is now ensconced in Iraq).

February 13, 2012

Iraq's Democracy Transforms the Middle East

Like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, analysts say, Syria is likely to become the training ground for a new era of international conflict, and jihadists are already signing up. This weekend, Al Qaeda’s ideological leadership and, more troublingly, the more mainstream Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for jihadists around the world to fight Mr. Assad’s government....

Tribal leaders and security officials describe a small but increasing flow of weapons to Syria from Anbar Province and areas around Mosul, the northern city that is a headquarters for Al Qaeda in Iraq. For some weapons smugglers the price of an automatic rifle has increased dramatically — to $2,000 from about $300, according to one account. [Emphasis mine] - New York Times

It's certainly encouraging to see Iraq serve as a model for the region.

January 5, 2012

Who's Killing Iraqis?

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country. - Max Boot

If Boot is indeed blaming today's violence in Iraq on the Obama administration - even "indirectly" - would he therefore accept that the Bush administration was responsible - however "indirectly"- for the 114,000 dead Iraqis killed since the invasion?

January 3, 2012

Civilian Deaths in Iraq

The Iraq Body Count is out with 2011 figures for casualties in Iraq:

The number of civilian deaths in Iraq in 2011 was almost at the same level as in 2010 – there has now been no noticeable downward trend since mid-2009. As observed in IBC’s previous annual report, recent trends indicate a persistent low-level conflict in Iraq that will continue to kill civilians at a similar rate for years to come...

The total number of violent civilian deaths recorded since the 2003 invasion has now exceeded 114,000...

14,705 (13%) of all documented civilian deaths were reported as being directly caused by the US-led coalition.

December 21, 2011

Things Fall Apart (Iraq Edition)


No sooner do U.S. forces leave Iraq than Prime Minister Maliki sends the tanks towards his political opponents. It's a measure of how debased Iraqi "democracy" is that the sympathetic figure in this latest drama is a man accused of running death squads to murder his political opponents.

This incident underscores just how fragile Iraq's government really is. The timing of Maliki's moves was clearly intentional and it's hard to believe he would have pulled a stunt like this had the U.S. remained in Iraq in force. So supporters of an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq have a point - the U.S. might well have stayed Maliki's hand and lent a degree of stability to Iraq that will otherwise be missing.

But this also demonstrates quite clearly that actually creating an Iraq that does not descend into violence the moment the paternalistic hand of the U.S. military is withdrawn was going to be the work of decades - or more. And that's if everything went well - and there's no reason to believe that it would have. Asking large numbers of troops to stay inside Iraq as a hostage to Iraqi political squabbling is a huge investment at a time when the U.S. has other pressing needs around the world (and at home).

(AP Photo)

December 16, 2011

Was the Iraq War Worth It?

CFR put the question to four foreign policy heavyweights. Andrew Bacevich picks up on a theme I raised yesterday:

The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint.

November 21, 2011

As Iraq Went, So Goes Syria

The administration cannot imagine a post-Assad Syria because its vision is obscured by a post-Saddam Iraq. The Obama White House wants to avoid the sectarian bloodshed that split Baghdad. More than anything else, it wants to steer clear of anything that smacks of George W. Bush. Accordingly, the administration has petitioned the opposition to stay peaceful and include minorities in the Sunni-majority movement. A White House wary of Bush-style nation building has taken on the role of opposition building. - Lee Smith
A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month, with supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets. - Anthony Shadid

I would say the Obama administration has this right.

November 3, 2011

Drawing Lessons from Iraq

America will pay a high price for defeat in Iraq. Our global credibility is seriously damaged—it is surely no accident that the weekend after President Obama announced that we were abandoning Iraq, President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan would stand with Pakistan against a U.S. attack. Why not? The Iranian and Pakistani narratives all along have been that the Americans will ultimately abandon their allies to their fate, while the neighbors will be around to exact revenge. President Obama has just reinforced that narrative before all the world. - Frederick Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Marisa Sullivan

This "narrative" is based on geography and despite the fulminations of our pundit class, geography is what it is. It is very difficult - not to mention costly - to sustain forward deployed garrisons in hostile countries. The lesson various countries no doubt take from American military forays into foreign countries is that ultimately there's a limit to how long the U.S. can stay if segments of the country (and its neighbors) remain violently hostile to that presence.

Moreover, the effort to lay this at the president's feet strains credulity. The architects of America's failures in Iraq (such as they are) are those who urged on the invasion in the first place. It was obvious from the beginning that the war's cheerleaders had hyped the surge precisely because they understood that the ramshackle state they had bequeathed the Obama administration might collapse. The political imperative was blame shifting and lo-and-behold, that is precisely what has happened.

This does not exempt the Obama administration from their fair share of criticism - it's clear that they wanted to retain a large military presence inside Iraq and failed to convince the Iraqis otherwise. By their own standards, they failed to achieve their objective. The post-hoc effort to spin this failure as fidelity to a campaign pledge is ridiculous.

October 27, 2011

Iraq and Iran

Reading the various accusations that the Obama administration has surrendered Iraq to Iran, I think it's worth keeping this in mind:


By nature of religious affinity and geography, Iran was always bound to play an outsized role inside Iraq. As several people have pointed out already, the era when Iranian influence was at its lowest ebb inside Iraq was when a Sunni autocrat ruled the country. Moreover, in a democratic Iraq with a loser political structure, Iran is going to have far more levers of influence inside Iraq. It's unavoidable.

This underscores, I think, a lot of the naivete that drives the "stay in Iraq" policy advocacy. Follow the chain: the U.S. has to knock off a Sunni Arab dictator, and has to install a democratic government in its wake, and has to install a democratic government that is friendly to Washington's strategic priorities, and has to create a political system immune from too much influence from its neighbor, and has to commit tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the effort indefinitely irrespective of America's balance sheet.

It's also worth stating the blindingly obvious: Iran increased its influence inside Iraq under the nose of roughly 50,000 U.S. troops from 2008 on (and over 150,000 before then). The U.S. may have "beaten back" some Iran-affiliated militias during and after the Surge, but it never "defeated" them. Keeping 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops in the country to chase Iranian agents and their Iraqi sympathizers around southern Iraq is hardly going to do the trick, and in an era of tighter resources, it's a rather decadent waste of time and money. I do think a Lebanon-style civil war, with Iranian-funded Shiite militias battling Saudi-funded Sunni militia (and Turkey bombing the Kurds in Northern Iraq) is a distinct possibility, which is why the removal of U.S. troops is ultimately a wise choice.

October 25, 2011

Iraq and the Arab Spring


There's been plenty of rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the Obama administration's announcement that U.S. troops would be leaving Iraq. The principle line of complaint seems to be that the Obama administration didn't find a clever way to make an end-run around Iraq's democracy to keep substantial number of combat troops in the country (there will still be an Army Division-sized contingent of guns-for-hire under State Department command).

One could point out the hypocrisy of those who once hailed the birth of Iraqi democracy now complaining about the will of the Iraqi government, but I think this is also a very clear harbinger of where the Arab Spring is going - if it does indeed succeed at replacing despots with democrats.

In other words, it's going to almost impossible in the short-run to have a strategic relationship with many democratic countries in the Middle East of the kind that would satisfy the demands of sustaining U.S. hegemony in the region. The curious dynamic of the Arab Spring in the U.S. is that many of those who would champion U.S. hegemony in the region are also cheering on the revolutions. It seems increasingly clear that, in the short-run at least, the U.S. is not going to have both.

(AP Photo)

October 19, 2011

U.S. Forces May Really Be Leaving Iraq

Yochi Dreazen reports that the U.S. pull down is for real and is being driven by an Iraqi desire to see U.S. forces leave:

“The message we’re getting, to be frank about it, is, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,’” a senior military official said in a conversation on Sunday.

U.S. officials publicly insist that Washington is continuing to discuss a possible troop extension with Baghdad, and it's possible – though highly unlikely at this late date – that a deal will be cobbled together to allow several thousand American troops to remain in Iraq past the end of the year.

Privately, though, U.S. military officials with direct knowledge of the informal negotiations, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, say the two sides have never been close to an agreement and that the talks have effectively broken off in recent days. Two officials said in separate interviews this weekend that the most recent sticking point had been Iraq’s insistence that any remaining U.S. troops receive no legal immunity from Iraqi courts -- an absolute non-starter for Pentagon officials concerned about the possibility American soldiers could be arrested and put on trial in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld took a lot of heat over the handling of the U.S. occupation of Iraq but he did hit on one important insight that was never really internalized by his administration: American forces are "antibodies" on foreign soil. They are welcome on a utilitarian basis - to protect one faction or sect against another - but outside of those functions, there doesn't appear to be a genuine enthusiasm for a prolonged U.S. military presence by Iraq's Arab population (the Kurds are a different story).

October 10, 2011

The Real Iraq

Daniel Larison has a very good take-down of Jackson Diehl's claim that Iraq is what Syria would aspire to be:

Iraq has a semi-authoritarian government ruled by a sectarian majority leadership. Iraq has suffered hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced internally or sent into exile, and it continues to be classed among the unfree nations and non-democratic governments of the world. Is that what Syria might hope to be?

One might also add that present-day Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But really, what's the point? Since the surge, Iraq war boosters have taken an "other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" attitude toward the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis that resulted from the invasion and resulting insurgency. Syrians may view a civil war or armed insurgency as preferable to the murderous rule of Bashar al-Assad, but it's hardly because things look so rosy next door.

September 12, 2011

Staying in Iraq for the Oil

Meghan O'Sullivan, who witnessed Iraq's descent into sectarian chaos during the Bush administration, urges the Obama administration to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq because it has a lot of oil:

The world economic recession eased pressure on global oil supplies and provided relief from the climbing energy prices of 2007 and 2008. But a quiet trend of 2010 was that growth in global oil consumption grew at the second-fastest rate ever, 2.8 percent, while growth in global crude oil production lagged behind at 2.5 percent. If demand continues to outgrow supply, it will be only a few short years before global spare capacity of oil — one of the indicators most closely tied to prices — gets dangerously low, and jittery markets push prices up and up. Assuming the world escapes another dip in economic growth, this outcome would probably materialize even without any additional geopolitical hiccups, such as political unrest in Saudi Arabia or a military confrontation with Iran.

Iraq is one of a very small number of countries that could bring oil online fast enough to help the world meet this growing demand at a reasonable price. In fact, major energy institutions and international oil companies are already assuming that Iraq will significantly increase its oil production in the coming decade. The International Energy Agency expects Iraq to nearly double its production in the next decade, from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day to 4.8 million barrels per day; BP’s 2030 global assessments are based on similar assumptions.

I do think the U.S., and indeed the world, has a clear economic interest in seeing more Iraqi oil reach world markets (any doubts why, see Kevin Drum). But appreciating Iraq's potential impact on the global economy does not equate with an understanding by U.S. officials of how the country is to be remotely managed and secured. O'Sullivan is disheartened by the Obama administration's (admittedly bizarre) decision to leave just 3,000 troops inside Iraq, but seems to forget that 150,000 troops couldn't secure the place when the going got tough.

August 25, 2011

Losing Iraq?

This was predictable:

It hasn’t yet entered our political debate, but Barack Obama is on course to become the president who lost Iraq. This could be a sleeper issue that does great damage to his bid for reelection, as the man whose case for leadership rested on opposition to the war may become the man who engineered a tragic and devastating “end” to it.

This is the natural result of nearly three years of an American policy focused on abandoning rather than securing—disowning rather than building on—our hard-won gains. Even by the antiwar president’s own reckoning he had inherited a success in Iraq. “From getting rid of Saddam, to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections,” Obama told American troops stationed in Iraq in May, 2009, “you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement.”

Since then, he has failed to keep that achievement on track. In March 2010, when parliamentary gridlock effectively froze Iraqi politics, Washington barely lifted a finger to ensure progress and guide the country toward a favorable outcome.

That's Commentary's Abe Greenwald. I agree with Greenwald that Iraq's trajectory is troubling. But it has been troubling since the U.S. invasion (and it was pretty awful before then). But for the "Obama lost Iraq" script to be intellectually honest, there needs to be an accounting of how Iraq could have been "won." Greenwald doesn't provide one. Kenneth Pollack does:

The reason that Iraqi politics fell apart so quickly is that few Iraqi leaders have internalized the patterns of behavior conducive to democracy, and Iraq lacks the kind of strong institutions that would compel them to behave properly without that internal moral compass. The reason they behaved well during 2008–2009 was that the combination of the new security created by the surge and the greater American involvement in Iraqi politics had imposed a new, external incentive structure on Iraq’s politicians—in effect, forcing them to act like good democratic leaders. Once that pressure began to be removed in 2010, so too did these externally imposed incentives. Not enough time has passed since the ouster of Saddam Hussein for a fundamental change in the psyches of Baghdad’s political elite—let alone the emergence of large numbers of new, better politicians. Not surprisingly, Iraq’s many bad leaders are going right back to behaving badly.

What’s more, without that external American pressure, Iraq’s top politicians have largely abandoned their willingness to make difficult compromises—on anything from the country’s hydrocarbon revenues to the conduct of its security services to the very nature of Iraqi federalism—to enable broader progress. The result has been political paralysis.

So what we have here is essentially a few months of Iraqi leaders "behaving well" and much more time - before and after 2008-2009 - when they were behaving badly. It's possible that further conditioning of aid and patient mentoring by their American betters would whip the Iraqis into shape, but it's also possible that the limits of American leverage would have eventually be revealed. It's also worth stepping back and highlighting not just the difficulty of what Pollack is proposing - micromanaging Iraqi politics so that multiple disparate factions behave themselves in a manner acceptable to American bureaucrats - but that the reason we face a choice between doing that and facing a resumption of Iraq's civil war is because the prior administration thought invading and occupying the country was a good idea. If anyone "lost" Iraq, it was them.

August 3, 2011

Iraqi Security and U.S. Troops


The Washington Post reports today that the U.S. and Iraq are negotiating a longer-term U.S. troop presence for "training" purposes. Unfortunately, even with the current 47,000 U.S. troops in the country, security is getting worse - as a recent report from the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has indicated. U.S. officials can certainly make the case domestically that it's important to keep troops in Iraq for strategic reasons but that's not an argument likely to sway many Iraqis.

Much like the conflict in Afghanistan, security in Iraq will rise and fall on political factors. The number of U.S. troops currently being bandied about aren't going to have much impact on internal security. Indeed, if the situation is getting worse with 47,000 troops in the country, is it going to get measurably better with 10,000?

The bigger question, which is rarely addressed in any piece examining the future role of the U.S. in Iraq, is what happens if the security situation really runs off the rails. Maybe that's impossible, and given the general lack of focus on this question it's clear most people treat the prospect as such. But to my mind, President Obama appears intent on keeping the U.S. hostage to events inside Iraq.

(AP Photo)

July 19, 2011

U.S. Troops in Iraq


Reuters is reporting that a potential compromise between the U.S. and Iraq will leave 2,000-3,000 U.S. trainers to remain in the country after the withdrawal deadline:

To avoid angering allies and fuelling sectarian tension, Maliki, who is also acting defense and interior minister, may opt to bypass parliament and have his ministries sign agreements with Washington for 2,000-3,000 U.S. trainers, sources said.

"If the political blocs refused to announce their final decision on the U.S. withdrawal ... Maliki would go it alone and sign memorandums of understanding with the American side," said a senior lawmaker in Maliki's State of Law party.

"In that case, he would not need to get the political blocs or the parliament to approve," the lawmaker said.

The lawmaker, who is close to Maliki, said the 3,000 U.S. trainers would need security, technical and logistic support which could raise the contractors' total to around 5,000.

The irony is that in both democracies, keeping American troops in Iraq is unpopular and yet both leaders are angling to keep troops there anyway.

Robert Baer has more:

The Obama administration fully understands that a symbolic troop presence in Iraq isn't going to turn that country into a Western democracy or measurably improve the the fighting capacity of the Iraqi army. Instead, I speculate, it looks at as troops there as a deterrent - against Iran and against the president's domestic critics. I don't find any of this comforting, but it does explain why the president would continue on with the Iraqi war blunder.

Would 5,000 U.S. trainers and contractors really deter Iran?

(AP Photo)

July 8, 2011

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Greg outlines four points on why Libya is Obama's Iraq. I must disagree. All four points open up a raft of counter responses, some of which go to the current president's benefit. The strongest is likely the third - "preceded by over-confident predictions" - but then, this could be said about the majority of American conflicts, and there is a matter of degrees (which Greg concedes).

But the fourth claim - "surrounded by Potemkin coalitions" - seems the greatest conflation of ravens and writing desks. Colin Powell's much-maligned coalition of the willing was at least a genuine coalition: eventually numbering thirty-four nations, five of which provided troops to the tune of roughly 48,000. Of course, the Bush administration's decision to dawdle and dither in the post-war years, including a epic levels of mismanagement by the State Department and the CPA, resulted in vast increases in the cost of Iraq's prosecution which the U.S. bore almost entirely alone and which peeled off allies over several years. But this does not make the initial coalition less real.

If a major problem with the Bush coalition was that its goal was far too limited to one aspect (not speaking in any serious way to the post-Saddam reality), the Libya coalition's major problem is that it cannot even decide on what their goal is, publicly at least. Even the simple question of coalition policy toward Gaddafi is a difficult one for Obama to answer. And senior rebel military leaders do not believe his ouster is even possible. (The question remains: is the real foe here Gaddafi or Marine Le Pen - the Lunatic of Libya or La Peste Blonde?)

Seen within the context of NATO's long slouch toward irrelevance, the criticism that coalition-based activity is really the U.S., the UK and a series of press releases is increasingly valid. The point is that the Bush coalition's goal in Iraq was limited to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a goal it realized (even more rapidly than expected, which was part of the problem) before fissures emerged. Obama's coalition, on the other hand, was cracking apart before it accomplished anything of significance in Libya, and indeed before they could even decide on the coherent purpose of the coalition other than following France's lead.

July 7, 2011

Obama's Iraq?


The news that the Pentagon has had to go to Congress to request that $5 billion in its budget be "reshuffled" to compensate for the growing costs of the war in Libya isn't surprising. Indeed, it's clear now that Libya is President Obama's Iraq. Certainly not in scale, obviously, but the two conflicts share many of the same hallmarks:

1. They were not necessary: If it's difficult to claim that U.S. security would have been intolerably threatened had the U.S. not invaded and occupied Iraq, it's absurd to say that the U.S. would have been imperiled or its interests irreparably harmed had it not stepped into Libya's civil war.

2. They were sold on the basis of exaggerated claims: The Bush administration used more apocalyptic rhetoric, but the Obama administration has been quite expansive in its claims of a history-staining calamity that awaited if the U.S. did not act.

3. They were preceded by over-confident predictions: Iraq was indeed a cake-walk, before it turned into a quagmire. Libya will - one hopes - not turn into another ward of the United States, but the breezy prediction that the campaign would last "days not weeks" has been proven erroneous.

4. They were surrounded by Potemkin coalitions: President Bush's "coalition of the willing" was far more substantial than President Obama's, but nonetheless the U.S. was on the hook for the lion's share of the costs in Iraq. Despite "leading from behind" in Libya, the U.S. is still paying through the nose as NATO gripes from the sidelines.

There are obviously differences in scale and cost, but many of the policy-making patterns, and perhaps more importantly, attitudes, seem eerily familiar.

(AP Photo)

July 6, 2011

The Logic of Staying in Iraq

From the start of the campaign, there was ample reason to believe that Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq was dubious at best. Now, the LA Times provides further confirmation:

The White House is prepared to keep as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year, amid growing concern that the planned pullout of virtually all remaining American forces would lead to intensified militant attacks, according to U.S. officials.

Keeping troops in Iraq after the deadline for their departure at the end of December would require agreement of Iraq's deeply divided government, which is far from certain. The Iraqis so far have not made a formal request for U.S. troops to remain, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

If the 50,000 troops currently in Iraq are unable to stem the tide of what the Times describes as "near daily" car bomb and other attacks, what will 10,000 do? Are they to serve, as they do in South Korea, as a down payment on a future influx in the event the security situation inside Iraq really runs off the rails? I think we're long past the fantasies of using Iraq as a "springboard" for some kind of invasion of Iran, but it would be nice if the administration sketched out its thinking here.

June 27, 2011

Mission Accomplished

A cruder, more simplistic president from a bygone era might have couched the war in terms of our effort to win. For Obama, the paramount goal is ending, not winning. But ending “responsibly” — which in the case of Afghanistan may mean ending with enough of an interval of relative stability that our exit doesn’t seem an obvious defeat.

Obama’s antiwar supporters trotted out the old chestnut from the late Sen. George Aiken during Vietnam and advised that in Afghanistan he should “declare victory and get out.” As it happens, their counsel was much too hawkish: Obama would never allow himself to declare victory, even insincerely and opportunistically. - Rich Lowry

That reads to me like a back-handed swipe at the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq surge, no? I suppose one could make the case that the Obama administration and its supporters should be handling Afghanistan's wind-down in the same fashion, declaring "victory" where none is evident. It's just odd to hear this from a leading conservative pundit.

June 16, 2011

The American Interest

Glenn Greenwald claims to be shocked that the Obama administration would priviledge American companies over those from other countries:

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton hosted a meeting of top executives from a wide array of corporations -- Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Halliburton, GE, Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Citigroup, Occidental Petroleum, etc. etc. -- to plot how to exploit "economic opportunities in the new Iraq." And one WikiLeaks "diplomatic" cable after the next reveals constant government efforts to promote the interests of Western corporations in the developing world. Nonetheless, the very notion that the U.S. wages wars not for humanitarian or freedom-spreading purposes, but rather to exploit the resources of other nations for its own large corporations, is deeply "irresponsible" and unSerious. As usual, the ideas stigmatized with the most potent taboos are the ones that are the most obviously true.

Really? I think it's just the opposite. There's no real stigma around the idea that the U.S. seeks to maximize its economic advantage or energy security through foreign policy. What else is it supposed to be doing?

It's true, as Greenwald notes, that there is often a taboo around discussing this so blatantly and crassly at the political level. Presidents are expected to engage in ritualistic paeans to universal human rights and paint the U.S. in the best light possible. But outside of some soaring presidential rhetoric, is the idea that the U.S. would seek to advantage its commercial interests when dealing overseas a "taboo?"


Remember Secretary of State James Baker's rationale for the first Gulf War? "Jobs, jobs, jobs."

It was obvious from the start that one of the primary reasons the West took such an active interest in Libya's humanitarian crisis was because of its oil. There has been no shortage of articles dealing with Libya's oil, its impact on the war or the role it has played in motivating countries like Great Britain to intervene in Libya's civil war. This is hardly hush-hush.

(Mind you, I don't think it was wise for the U.S. to intervene in Libya - no matter how much oil the country has - nor do I think the military should be used to tee-up preferential resource contracts for U.S. corporations.)

June 14, 2011

Training the Iraqi Army


Several analysts addressed the Washington Institute on a forum devoted to examining the progress of Iraq's army. Here's Barak Salmoni:

Ongoing problems in Iraq's national security sector threaten Washington's "responsible drawdown" policy. At present, the ISF lacks the means to defend the country's airspace and territorial waters or blunt a major conventional attack; even quashing a domestic insurrection would require the ISF's entire weight. For its part, Baghdad lacks an overarching national security strategy to drive defense strategy and subsequent force development programs. It also lacks capable national security institutions to engage in strategic planning. As a result, Iraqi force development is shaped almost entirely by domestic politics, budgetary considerations, U.S. advice, and lobbying by U.S. and international arms manufacturers.
The picture painted by Salmoni and the other analysts wasn't all bleak but it underscored that a lot of work remains to be done. The lesson seems applicable to Afghanistan as well - the U.S. has embarked on a strategy that requires at least another decade or more to play out with untold billions more to be "invested."

(AP Photo)

May 31, 2011

Who Won the Iraq War?


Walter Russell Mead makes the rather bold claim that the U.S. war in Iraq "changed the course of world history" because it resulted in the loss of stature and defeat for al-Qaeda in Iraq and generally helped to turn the Arab world off of al-Qaeda's brand of terrorist violence. Bold assertion aside, Mead's point begs the question: could the U.S. have "defeated" al-Qaeda another way? Had we focused our counter-terrorism efforts on zeroing out the remaining al-Qaeda leadership around the world, while abstaining from any large-scale occupation of an Arab country, I suspect we'd find ourselves in much the same place vis-a-vis al-Qaeda; not to mention the fact that we'd have lost far fewer soldiers and not have tacked on several hundred billion in debt.

(AP Photo)

May 25, 2011

Staying in Iraq

Frederick Kagan has a new report (pdf) out making the case for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2012. Here's what's in it for the United States:

A long-term strategic military partnership also benefits the United States. It would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran's policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West.

In other words we must stay in Iraq to ensure that we can stay in Iraq.

While Kagan devotes the majority of the report to arguing why U.S. forces should stay within Iraq, he doesn't devote any space to arguing how the U.S. should go about convincing the Iraqi government. And indeed, Kagan admits that the Maliki government is "of two minds" about letting the U.S. retain a military presence in his country after the Status of Forces Agreement expires. One theme Kagan does stress is that Iraq should allow U.S. troops to stay in the country to keep Iraq free of foreign interference. This, for instance, was apparently written without irony:

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government. Maliki and Iraq’s other leaders contemplating such a course should beware the persistent dangers of the Arab Spring to would-be autocrats and those who appear to place control of their countries in the hands of foreigners.

Replace "Persian" with "American" and you can make the exact same argument from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism. Kagan's entire argument is that Iraq's value to the United States hinges, in great measure, on how it can be used to defenestrate Iran. In other words, both the Americans and the Iranians are attempting to use Iraq in much the same way - as a springboard to enhance their power.

March 24, 2011

Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy for Libya

Andrew Sullivan argues that boosters of the intervention in Libya, such as the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, glossed over Iraq as they stumped for a second war of choice in Libya. I've thought about this a bit and have come to the conclusion that they're not treating Iraq as if it never happened, but in fact simply have a fundamentally different view of what happened in Iraq.

To the war's critics, and to a majority of Americans, the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was a mistake. But most neoconservatives seem to sincerely believe that Iraq was a glorious victory for the United States (I don't think Chait believes that, but Bill Kristol sure does). Sure, mistakes were made - too few troops here, too much de-Baathification there - but the strategic mindset that plunged the U.S. into an eight year occupation of Iraq was, in their view, fundamentally sound. There has been very little discussion about Iraq in conservative circles since President Bush left office, especially first-order questions about whether, in the end, the war was worth fighting. To the extent anyone's paying attention to the continuing carnage and the depredations of Maliki's regime, it's to blame Obama for not meddling enough in the country's political development or to warn about leaving prematurely. (There are exceptions, such as Michael Rubin's tireless warnings about the descent of Iraqi Kurdistan.)

So it's actually no surprise that there's no humility or circumspection regarding Western military action against Libya among Iraq war boosters. And by blithely taking military action against another anti-American despot in the region, President Obama has gone a long way in validating the view that Iraq holds no useful lessons for the use of U.S. power in the Muslim world.

March 17, 2011

Libya & Iraq Lessons

Is it really necessary to point out that, lessons notwithstanding, Libya is not Iraq? (It is not Bosnia or Rwanda, either, but, given the administration’s modest definition of American purpose, its members won’t be summoning these precedents any time soon.) The Obama team ought to respond to the Libya crisis on its own terms, if it intends to respond at all. That means acknowledging the differences between Libya and Iraq: the disparity between Saddam Hussein’s 500,000-man army and Muammar Qaddafi’s 50,000-man (and shrinking) army; the distinction between the size of Iraq’s population and Libya’s population, which adds up to about 20 percent of Iraq’s and mostly inhabits a thin slice of coastline; the difference between an essentially American enterprise and an undertaking that has the sanction of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and marches to the tune of La Marseillaise; the difference between a dictator whose crimes (presumably) belonged to the past and one who vows to “cleanse Libya house by house” and, by all accounts, has proved himself keen to do so; the difference between Iraq, with no viable opposition movement, and Libya, which boasts an active and well-armed rebel force; the difference between a country frozen in the amber of authoritarianism a decade ago and an entire region awash in a wave of successful popular uprisings today. - Lawrence Kaplan

There are indeed obvious differences between Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2003 and Kaplan ably catalogs them, but there are more similarities here than Kaplan acknowledges. The first is the utter disregard among those pressing for military action for what happens following a U.S. strike. Much like the commentary in the lead up to Iraq, the entirety of the focus is on urging policy makers to act, now, irrespective of whether the U.S. is capable of sorting out the complex set of political issues that follow the end of hostilities.

The second, related, similarity is that the U.S. almost certainly does not possess the wherewithal to sort out a post-war Libyan political settlement. The Bush administration prepared for months for the Iraq war and its aftermath, and what followed the invasion was not exactly a ringing endorsement of American colonial management. Indeed, the U.S. has been trying for a decade to midwife an acceptable political and security dynamic in Afghanistan with little success.

Of course, this doesn't mean that failure is preordained in Libya, but the track record of American policy toward post-war settlements in the Middle East doesn't instill a lot of confidence - nor does the fact that the Obama administration has had at most two weeks to discuss Libya and American policy toward the country. Secretary Clinton has met a whopping two times with opposition groups.

The third similarity is Potemkin multilateralism. Kaplan trots out the Arab League endorsement, as if this means anything. As Leslie Gelb and others have pointed out, if the Arab League and Libya's neighbors want a no-fly zone, they are well within their rights and have ample equipment to establish one. But just as the coalition of the willing produced only a handful of nations truly willing to commit blood and treasure to the battle, it's far more likely that ringing endorsements from the Arab League are a prelude to holding America's coat while it wades into a second war of choice.

March 9, 2011

An Iraq Syndrome?

Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an “Iraq syndrome” would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. - Lexington

It has always puzzled me why much of the Washington foreign policy community saw the "Vietnam Syndrome" as a bad thing, as if the U.S. had curled up into a geopolitical fetal position, unwilling to use force even to protect vital interests (not true: when push came to shove we ejected Saddam from Kuwait). But to the extent that a "Vietnam Syndrome" prevented policymakers from blundering into an unnecessary conflict, so much the better, I would argue.

The trouble is, of course, that the definition of a "necessary" conflict is quite elastic. If the Iraq war has made at least some cross-section of elite opinion more wary about plunging American power into a Middle Eastern country about which it knows next to nothing, it should be regarded as a good thing.

March 7, 2011

Iraqis Have a Say


While the focus of much of the world has been on Libya and Egypt, Iraq has had its own series of protests, which have elicited some less than benign responses from the Maliki government (or factions allied to the government) including the the detention and torture of journalists and attacks on protesters. Particularly disturbing has been the violence in Iraqi Kurdistan, frequently hailed as a model of democratic, pro-Western values.

Abe Greenwald contends that it's President Obama's fault:

This would not be going on if the Obama administration had taken a minimal interest in the war that the U.S. will soon have devoted almost a decade to winning. Washington has seen Iraq through far more difficult challenges than this: heading off civil war, getting Maliki to turn his guns on Shiite militias, and handing security for cities over to Iraqis — to say nothing of pulling together an Iraqi parliamentary democracy.

Notice what's missing from this equation: Iraqis. They are missing both as agents of their own salvation and as authors of the current violence and repression. But surely it's Iraqis - more than an American president - who are responsible for killing one another.

(AP Photo)

March 3, 2011

U.S. Views on Troops in Iraq

While a majority of U.S. voters view the Iraq war as mistaken, a plurality don't believe U.S. troops will be able to leave the country this year:

A plurality of voters fears that the growing unrest in the Arab world will have a negative impact on the fragile political situation in Iraq, and most think it is unlikely that all U.S. troops will be out of that country by the end of the year as planned.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 19% of Likely U.S. Voters think the political unrest in the Arab world will make things better in Iraq, while 40% expect it to make things worse there. Eighteen percent (18%) say it will have no impact. Nearly one-in-four voters (23%) aren’t sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

If the situation in Iraq becomes more violent, just 22% think the United States should send troops back into the country. Sixty-five percent (65%) say the Iraqis should deal with any growing violence on their own. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided.

March 2, 2011

U.S. Views on the Iraq War

Not so great, according to a new Rasmussen poll:

Looking back, a slight majority of Likely Voters believe the United States should never have gotten involved in Iraq in the first place. They also believe the mission there was more of a failure than a success.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that just 36% believe the United States should have gotten involved in Iraq, while 51% disagree. Another 14% are undecided.

February 22, 2011

Senor and Martinez Respond


Last week, I offered a critique of an Washington Post op-ed by Dan Senor and Roman Martinez in response to Donald Rumsfeld's book Known and Unknown. Senor and Martinez were kind enough to reach out on Friday to share their views, which are included in the following email. I encourage you to read their message in full, and then I'll share a few thoughts in response:

Continue reading "Senor and Martinez Respond" »

February 17, 2011

Rumsfeld vs. Bremer


This week in a Washington Post column, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez write in defense of the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and against his depiction in the bestselling memoir of former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown. An excerpt:

According to Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, U.S. difficulties stemmed not from the Pentagon's failure to plan for the war's aftermath - or Rumsfeld's unwillingness as defense secretary to provide enough troops to secure Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld pins most of the blame on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq's political transition in 2003-04, which "stoked nationalist resentments" and "fanned the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency."

In making their case, Senor and Martinez - who both worked for the DOD and CPA under Bremer - rely primarily on a document Rumsfeld references in his book, "Principles for Iraq - Policy Guidelines".

[Note: Rumsfeld's office has done the impressive due diligence of posting nearly every document he references in his book, a daunting task of memo and report scanning, on his website, I encourage you to dig through them, as there are some fascinating pieces hidden within - my personal favorite is this memo to Doug Feith on September 14, 2001.]

In referencing this memo, Senor and Martinez write:

Rumsfeld's basic theme is that the CPA erred by failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves" early in the U.S.-led occupation. Rumsfeld claims that he favored a "swift transition" of power to an "Iraqi transitional government" and that the Bush administration formally endorsed this strategy when it approved the Pentagon's plan for an Iraqi Interim Authority in March 2003. He writes that the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer, unilaterally decided not to implement this plan.

Not true, Senor and Martinez claim. They write:

Rumsfeld's instructions endorsed the top-down approach his book condemns. The CPA should "assert authority over the country," he wrote, and should "not accept or tolerate self-appointed [Iraqi] 'leaders.' "

There should be "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld wrote. He directed Bremer to take a "hands-on" approach to Iraq's "political reconstruction," noting that "the Coalition will consistently steer the process to achieve the stated objectives" and should "not 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' " The "transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen easily or fast," he concluded, noting that "[r]ushing elections could lead to tyranny of the majority."

If Rumsfeld's goal was to quickly empower an Iraqi government, this was a strange way to communicate that objective.

If that middle paragraph seems to be jamming a lot of partial sentences in to advance their argument, it is. Upon further examination, the quotations Senor and Martinez cite seem to be awfully careful in their cherry picking. Properly understood in context, the emphasis in that sentence ought to be on the "self-appointed" portion. The actual memo includes extensive advice on this front:

8. Improve conditions; involve Iraqis. The Coalition will work energetically to improve the circumstances of the Iraqi people. It will work to achieve rapid and visible accomplishments in vital public services for the Iraqi people, and create an environment that encourages the involvement of the Iraqi people, for it is their responsibility to build the future of their country.

9. Promote Iraqis who share coalition's goals. In staffing ministries and positioning Iraqis in ways that will increase their influence, the Coalition will work to have acceptable Iraqis involved as early as possible, so Iraqi voices can explain the goals and direction to the Iraqi people. Only if Iraqis are seen as being engaged in, responsible for, and explaining and leading their fellow citizens will broad public support develop that is essential for security.

In subsequent memos, Rumsfeld clearly was pressing on the issue of forming an Iraqi Interim Authority. See this memo from June 9, 2003, where he recognized:

Their dream is a guerrilla insurgency. But guerrilla insurgencies depend on popular support. Progress toward an IIA will help neutralize if not dry up that popular support.

Rumsfeld pushed hard for Bremer to move forward in creating an IIA, which at that time had to be interpreted for the vision Bremer had laid out in a June 2, 2003 memo, where he claimed that in a meeting with Iraqi political leaders, he had "laid out our vision for establishing an interim administration (IA) in the next five to six weeks."

Continue reading "Rumsfeld vs. Bremer" »

February 2, 2011

Meanwhile in Iraq

This news is disconcerting:

Iraqi security forces controlled directly by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki continue to hold and to torture detainees in secret jails despite his vows last year to end such practices, according to a statement from Human Rights Watch released Tuesday.

It's going to be difficult for Iraq to emerge as a true democracy if its Prime Minister operates his own torture squad.

January 31, 2011

Democracy in the Mideast: Iraq Edition

Some recent polling (pdf) from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research took the pulse of Iraqi attitudes regarding their government. The survey found that a majority of Iraqis (61 percent) believe that making Iraq more democratic will improve their quality of life but many Iraqis continue to view politics through a "sectarian lens."

The political picture appears most grim in Western Iraq and among the country's Sunnis - 70 percent of whom said job opportunities are getting worse. Few Sunnis think Iraq is a true democracy and a majority (52 percent) said they wouldn't vote in a future election. Kurds, not surprisingly, are more optimistic both about Iraq as a whole and Kurdistan in particular. You can view the full results here. (pdf)

January 21, 2011

The Gulf War, Part One

Thomas Mahnken reflects on the lessons of the first Gulf War:

Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Saddam's subsequent behavior- - his defiance of the United Nations, 1993 attempt to assassinate former President Bush, and his 1994 plan to re-invade Kuwait -- makes it clear that the Bush administration failed in this most basic of strategic tasks. In ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been chastened, the Bush administration condemned the United States to a long-term presence in the Gulf in an effort to contain Iraq. This presence, and the sanctions imposed on Iraq due to Saddam's recalcitrance, in the end served as a rallying cry for jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden against the United States and its friends in the region.

There's a lot to this conclusion, in the sense that the first Gulf War, like the second Iraq war and the current war in Afghanistan, was a conflict where a "political" victory proved stubbornly elusive, despite a dominating military performance.

But the question we need to ask is what it is we are expecting from these military operations. Mahnken suggests we should have continued bombing Iraq until Saddam was "chastened," but what does that actually mean in practice? Saddam wasn't chastened when the second President Bush put troops on his borders and threatened in no uncertain terms to invade and depose him.

January 20, 2011

Arabs & Democracy

The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this [Tunisia]. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about "causation." But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. - Jennifer Rubin

As Larison observed, Iraq did descend into chaos and many secular and middle class Iraqis were driven out of the country, in droves. But the other point here is that the argument, as I understand it, was never about some innate Arab capacity for self-rule but about the institutional structures that would enable it to grow successfully, and whether it was possible to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country on the grounds that doing so would help implant those institutions - and to America's lasting benefit.

Stating the obvious - that the Arab world didn't have a lot of the institutions necessary to make democracy work - isn't the same thing as saying that Arab states are incapable of creating them over time, that they are "undeserving" of them or that they are somehow incapable of functioning in a democratic society.

January 17, 2011

U.S. Focused on Domestic Issues

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank terrorism as the 7th most important priority for the federal government, behind a host of domestic issues. The war in Afghanistan comes in at number 10. Iraq, a distant 14th.


January 11, 2011

Learning From Bad Mistakes

Part of what's disheartening about the current debate over the defense budget is the idea that future American policy makers will make the same poor decisions as those in the past. Here's Max Boot:

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will. [Emphasis mine]

If the Bush administration did not decide to invade and occupy Iraq, there would be no strain on America's armed forces - even accounting for a larger troop commitment to nation build in Afghanistan. It is worth restating this because it's a point that seems somewhat lost (or deliberately obscured) in the debate over the size of American ground forces: the U.S. decided to attack Iraq, it was not compelled to, as it was in Afghanistan.

So what you have here is not a deficit of military strength but a civilian leadership that made a very bad strategic decision and, because it made a bad decision, put huge strains on the American military (and American economy). The way to reverse this problem is not to put more money into building bigger ground forces to occupy future Middle Eastern or North African countries, but to put in place decision makers who will be more responsible stewards of American power.

December 30, 2010

Civilian Deaths Decline in Iraq

A new report from Iraq Body Count notes that 3,976 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2010, down from 4,680 the year before. The study's authors note that the 2010 toll "showed the smallest year-on-year reduction (proportionally as well as in absolute terms) since violence levels began to reduce from late 2007 onwards: 2008 reduced deaths by 63% on 2007, 2009 by 50% on 2008, but 2010 only improved by 15% on 2009."

The U.S. role in Iraqi civilian death is low, according to the study. There were 32 reported Iraqi civilian deaths by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2010, down from 64 in 2009. Insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, collectively dubbed 'anti-occupation forces' by the study's authors, were responsible for the majority of the carnage.

Since the war began, Iraq Body Count estimates that 151,971 Iraqis have been killed, including civilians, Iraqi soldiers and insurgents.

While the reduction in civilian deaths is welcome, there was a statistic that jumped out at me:

2010 averaged nearly two explosions a day by non-state forces that caused civilian deaths (675 explosions killing 2,605).

Many well-established democracies have endured prolonged bouts of terrorism and bombing (Britain comes to mind), but Iraq has no recent democratic pedigree and no strong democratic institutions to speak of. The Middle East is replete with states with powerful internal security apparatuses - and Iraq, if only out of sheer necessity - will need strong internal security services to govern. That does not speak well for the country's democratic prospects.

December 28, 2010

U.S. Troops in Iraq

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he wants U.S. troops out of the country on schedule:

But Mr. Maliki said the only way for any of the remaining 50,000 or so American soldiers to stay beyond 2011 would be for the two nations to negotiate—with the approval of Iraq's Parliament—a new Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, similar to the one concluded in 2008.

That deal took a year of protracted negotiations in the face of vehement opposition from many among Mr. Maliki's own Shiite constituency, and no repeat is expected.

Mr. Maliki and U.S. officials have refrained for the most part from raising the issue publicly during the months of political wrangling in Baghdad, as Mr. Maliki negotiated with potential coalition partners, many of whom have adamantly opposed an extended U.S. stay.

A senior official in President Barack Obama's administration said Washington was "on track" to withdraw all its remaining soldiers in Iraq by the end of next year. That's the final milestone in the security agreement, following the reduction in American troop levels to below 50,000 in August and the pullout of U.S. soldiers from most Iraqi inner cities in June 2009. "The prime minister is exactly right," said the senior official.

During the interview, Mr. Maliki said he was heartened by America's "commitment" to honoring the agreements it reached with Iraq, and he laughed approvingly when told that U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey keeps a frayed copy of the so-called Strategic Framework Agreement in his leather briefcase.

Max Boot is worried:

If such a wholesale departure of U.S. troops does occur, Iraq will face stiff challenges. It may very well surmount those obstacles, but I would be more confident in its future, as I have said before, if there were a substantial and longterm American presence just as there has been in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

The trouble is, unlike Germany, South Korea and Japan, Iraq has waged a fierce insurgency to eject U.S. forces. And, unlike Germany, South Korea and Japan, America's security presence isn't simply to keep rival nation states at bay, but to help shore up Iraq's internal security.

We may know better than Maliki what is required to protect his country - and clearly Boot is right that Iraq is extremely fragile right now - but the insistence on replacing Saddam's tyranny with what is ostensibly a democracy carried with it the obvious risk that the democratic wishes of a sovereign Iraq would not align with the neoconservative vision of stationing U.S. troops inside the country for half a century.

December 24, 2010

Iraqi Women

After highlighting how Iraqi women are protesting their current state of affairs and noting how such protests would be impossible in Saddam's Iraq, Abe Greenwald writes:

But that, in itself, serves as a sterling refutation of the Saddam nostalgiasts. Given the choice between a hopeless dictatorship and a flawed democracy, only moral simpletons would defend the former.

And he's right! But who's defending Saddam? None of the anti-Iraq-war arguments that I'm aware of (or that I'd endorse) centered around "the Iraqis don't know how good they have it under Saddam's boot." And I don't recall President Bush rallying the American people around the urgent need to sacrifice American blood and treasure so Iraqi women can more publicly protest their plight. One can recognize the gains made by the Iraqi people in the post-Saddam era without believing that those gains somehow justify invading the country.

December 9, 2010

Turkey's Growing Role in Baghdad

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie explains:

"With the rising pressure of the international community and increase of sanctions and hints of military actions against Iran, the near future will witness a rise for the Turkish role," he said.

"The Turkish role has the blessing of the international community and is backed by Arab countries. It has not met any Iraqi objection, as happened with the Saudis, who faced objections from the Shi'ites, or with the Iranians, who faced objections from the Sunnis," he said.

November 12, 2010

Obama in Iraq


Since shortly before the Iraqi elections nearly eight months ago, there has been a low but steady chorus urging the Obama administration to micromanage Iraqi politics to ensure an outcome favorable to U.S. interests. The conceit - as espoused by people like the Brookings Institute's Kenneth Pollak - was that the U.S. could (quietly, of course, and oh-so-cleverly) help to pick and choose political winners inside the country to ensure Iraq developed in a way favorable to the United States.

The president apparently took that advice to heart:

Last Saturday, Mr. Obama phoned Mr. Talabani and asked him to give up the seat he has held since 2005 so that Mr. Allawi could be Iraq's president, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials familiar with the diplomacy. Mr. Obama on Saturday also urged the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, to accept Mr. Allawi in the role of the presidency.

Since late summer, U.S. officials had been trying to get Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi to share power in the government because neither man's party won the majority of votes. But Mr. al-Maliki's Rule of Law party ultimately formed an alliance with the Kurds and another Shiite bloc with ties to Iran known as the Iraqi National Alliance.

Qubad Talabani, Mr. Talabani's son and the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the Kurds were disappointed with the United States.

"As the deadlock continues, Iyad Allawi has said the only post he wants is prime minister or president. The Americans have come to us and have asked us to step aside and relinquish the post of president to Iraqiya and specifically to Iyad Allawi, which we find very disappointing," he said.

The Kurds are generally regarded as the most pro-American faction inside Iraq, and if they're not interested in helping out the U.S. then it's safe to conclude that no one else will either.

(AP Photo)

November 10, 2010

Iraq's War on Christians


In 2003, President Bush argued that "the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Unfortunately, it hasn't quite turned out that way:

This morning, the terrorists who had killed 44 of Baghdad's Christians at their place of worship, came hunting them once more – this time in their homes.

They struck 10 times just after 7am in six different places in Baghdad, almost all of them Christian houses.

Mortars damaged two homes in the south. Improvised bombs damaged four in the north of the city and four in the east. A total of four people were killed and 25 injured. Worse was the effect on the city's already traumatised Christian minority, which now seems more fearful than ever – and potentially poised for another mass exodus.

The more acts of violence like this occur, the more it looks like Iraq is sleep-walking back into a blood-drenched nightmare. And taking the U.S. with it.

(AP Photo)

November 4, 2010

Why al-Qaeda Is Getting Tougher

They've learned from their mistakes in Iraq:

Whereas Al Qaeda in Iraq has been led in the past by foreigners, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by locals, Saudis and Yemenis who share a common culture. Although Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late Jordanian mastermind of Al Qaeda's Iraq branch, alienated the tribes, the militant group's Yemeni offshoot is cultivating them.

State Department Issues Iraq Warning


The AP reports:

The Obama administration could be overstating what U.S. diplomats can do to contain Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian tensions without U.S. military forces, a State Department audit concluded Tuesday, raising fresh concerns about the planned pullout of American troops next year.

The auditors also questioned whether American diplomats who remain behind will be adequately protected against insurgent violence, and their report faulted Washington for its planning of the transition from a U.S. military-led mission in Iraq to one run by American civilians in 2011.

The audit’s findings echo worries expressed by some U.S. defense analysts and former diplomats. They say hard-won security gains in Iraq could crumble if U.S. forces leave on schedule.

Security inside Iraq collapsed when there were almost three times the current troop level, so there's no guarantee whatsoever that merely postponing the U.S. withdrawal will have the effect of stabilizing the country. It would ensure, however, that the U.S. is yoked to the country's fractured politics for decades to come.

(AP Photo)

October 26, 2010

Most Corrupt Countries in the World

Transparency International has released their 2010 corruption perception index. The most corrupt country in the world is Somalia, followed by Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iraq. That doesn't exactly reflect well on U.S. efforts. Incidentally, the U.S. is tied for 22nd with Belgium. And the least corrupt country: it's a three-way tie between Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore.

October 25, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Surge

Peter Feaver sees vindication for the Bush administration's surge in the recent WikiLeaks document dump:

There is a cottage industry among academics and some pundits attempting to discredit the surge as either a total failure or as irrelevant to what progress there has been in Iraq. The latest Wikileaks dump poses a real problem for them, and I haven't seen any of them yet adequately rise to the challenge: how would any of their preferred options in 2006 have dealt with the Iranian challenge in Iraq more successfully than did the surge that President Bush ordered?

I think some of this hinges on semantics - i.e. what you feel the "Iranian challenge" is and was in the country. For instance, does this qualify:

Iran has dramatically expanded economic ties with Iraq, taking advantage of increased security there to extend its influence.

That's from yesterday's USA Today.

Or this:

The Iraqi premier met his erstwhile Shiite Muslim rival in Iran Monday, state television said, as Tehran moved to patch over their differences to help ensure Iraq’s next government is led by Shiites.

With Iranian intervention, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had already won the public backing of fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his bid for a second term in office after an inconclusive election seven months ago.

Feaver isn't wrong to highlight the important role that quieting Shiite militias played in reducing violence inside Iraq. But as with the success in curbing the Sunni insurgency, there's little evidence yet that these gains are durable, much less that they contributed to blunting any "Iranian challenge" inside Iraq.

October 21, 2010

Iraq Revisionism


Arthur Herman thinks the Obama administration is responsible for al-Qaeda's resurgence in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Yet this isn't the first time we've been at this fork in the road. The question is whether the American people will rise to this challenge as they did in Iraq in 2006. Then, they backed a strategy to win, not run, in large part because they knew Bush would stay the course and understood the sacrifice he was asking. It's not clear that Obama does.

In 2006, the American people were against the surge in troops into Iraq, so I'm not clear where Herman gets the idea that the American people "backed a strategy to win."

Moreover, as Tom Ricks noted earlier in the week, the surge was a tactical success in that in tamped things down enough to buy the U.S. a decent cover to leave the country in somewhat better shape than it was during the depths of its sectarian violence. But that's a far cry from victory - as evidenced by the fact that Herman insinuates that we need another surge to shore the country up.

(AP Photo)

October 18, 2010

Iraq and American Foreign Policy

Tom Ricks reflects on the news that some of Iraq's Sunnis are rejoining the insurgency:

More evidence, I would say, that the surge worked tactically (that is, improved security and so enabled Uncle Sam to edge toward the exits) but failed strategically (that is, didn't lead to a breakthrough in Iraqi politics).

I think the big question is how far the Sunni Awakening reversal will go. Is this the beginning of the next phase of the war? I dunno. And how much will U.S. troops be involved? Again, an open question. I am hearing through the grapevine that things are getting friskier.

It's kind of hard to believe that these questions aren't getting a wider - and more urgent - hearing.

The Benefits of Off-Shore Balancing


By Robert Pape

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He currently serves as Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. This analysis first appeared on the CPOST blog.

Kori Schake, a valuable participant in our Capitol Hill conference on “Cutting the Fuse,” raises a number of important issues with the policy of off-shore balancing. I am delighted to respond and believe our exchange is an example of thoughtful thinking about how to move beyond the War on Terror.

Schake is right that U.S. policy makers are well-meaning; sending our ground troops overseas to advance our interests. But she overlooks how our ground forces often - and inadvertently - produce the opposite of what they intend: more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one (against the USS Cole) was anti-American. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality - no matter how well-intentioned, our current war on terror is not serving American interests.

Schake is also right that, once we know that nearly all suicide terrorism occurs in response to military occupations by democracies, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "why some occupations and not others?" And, this has been a core element of my research, as readers will see in Chapter 1 of Cutting the Fuse and in my 2008 article in the American Political Science Review, among other publications.

In a nutshell, two factors matter.

The first is social distance between occupier and occupied, because the wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that occupations are especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant relation of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attack - indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious differences matter because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community – which is why bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “Crusaders” – motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims to Christianity, steal Muslim oil and resources, and change the local population’s way of life whether they liked it or not.

This first factor of religious difference explains why some occupations escalate to suicide terrorism, but not others – not only in recent times, but also in the past – such as why the Japanese started kamikaze attacks in October 1944 to defend their home islands from U.S. occupation, while the Germans did not.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicide methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. So, if the South Koreans ever began to resist American military presence in a serious way, this would be more worrisome than it may at first appear.

On the next issue she raises, Schake is simply wrong that “an offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground.” As readers will see in throughout my book, working with local allies is a core element of off-shore balancing. And, America has used the strategy of off-shore balancing to great benefit numerous times and often in concert with local allies - in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, in 1990 to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and in 2001 to topple the Taliban (it controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and 50 U.S. troops, U.S. air and naval power, and U.S. economic and political support for the Northern Alliance kicked them and al-Qaeda out of the country!).

Finally, I agree that replacing mass boots with mass drones would be a mistake - since vast numbers of air strikes could inflict more than enough collateral damage to incite terrorism in response - which is exactly what Cutting the Fuse explains, and it's also why off-shore balancing means responding with stand-off military forces against significant size terrorist camps like Tarnak Farms (a military base larger than the Pentagon), and not every third ranking cadre in individual houses in Quetta, where more selective or even non-military means may well be more effective.

I hope Ms. Schake will have an opportunity to read Cutting the Fuse and to consider the research behind it. Governor Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton - both heads of the 9/11 Commission - have, as did Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in Economics) and Adm. Gary Roughhead (the current Chief of Naval Operations). They too raised the issues Schake did (and more), and found convincing answers in the book.

(AP Photo)

Iraq's Sunnis Rejoining al-Qaeda

A while back, Matthew Yglesias argued that the genius of the Iraq surge was that it lowered expectations for victory, allowing Washington to use the downward trend in violence as a cover for a withdrawal without the aura of defeat.

But what happens if it's no longer possible for Washington to convince itself it won:

Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.

The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters.

There was tremendous violence following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s, but the U.S. was able to stay aloof from the consequences because it had fully disentangled itself from its Southeast Asian war. There are 50,000 U.S. troops still inside Iraq. Are they hedges against Iraq's fragmented and potentially violent politics, or hostages to it?

October 4, 2010

Was Iraq a "Winnable" War for Obama?

Obama came into office determined to declare the Iraq War over and come home. We engaged in a mad rush to go from 100,000 to 50,000 troops, which drastically decreased our leverage; at the same time we had a passive ambassador on the ground who was content to let events drift. Lately Joe Biden has been more involved, but our impatience for the Iraqis to finally form a government may have overwhelmed considerations about its composition. There are obviously limits to our control of Iraqi politics, but we should be using every possible instrument of persuasion to forestall the creation of a government that could be the predicate for renewed ethnic conflict.

The sacrifice of American troops during the surge bequeathed to President Obama a winnable war in Iraq. At this rate, we’ll read in the next Woodward book all the details of how he let it slip away. - National Review [Emphasis mine]

Let it be noted that Iraq's parliamentary impasse overtook the Netherlands' similar paralysis in 1977 to be the longest such stalemate in history, so "our impatience" - however regrettable - is understandable.

It's also worth pointing out that the Obama administration inherited an Iraq that was violent and politically unstable, with none of the existential issues confronting its future resolved. If that's "winnable" than score one for untempered optimism.

That Iraq is less violent than it was, and its present government more secure, is a good thing, but if the U.S. cannot address the sources of Iraq's political fragility these gains may prove ephemeral. If the administration's critics know how to successfully weave together Iraq's various political factions into a coherent, liberal, non-Iran-leaning whole, by all means let's see the plan (it would be an interesting argument, to say the least, given previously expressed skepticism about the U.S. government's ability to steer, say, the U.S. health care market to beneficial outcomes). Otherwise, it's better to make more modest claims about the president's Iraq inheritance.

October 2, 2010

Iraq's Democracy


Abe Greenwald is unhappy with the new Iraq government:

Let us not tragically lose sight of the following: This is not even close to the inevitable outcome of Iraqi elections. In the March election, the moderate Iraqiya alliance enjoyed a modest victory. What followed was parliamentary horse-trading Middle East style. Now the moderates are being sidelined.

Washington is far from blameless. In Barack Obama’s eagerness to “responsibly” hand over full sovereignty to Iraq and close the curtain on the Bush years, he has very nearly abandoned the fledgling Mesopotamian democracy to the depredations of regional thugs and radicals. Surely, the Kurds, upon whom the solidification of the next Iraqi government may rest, would be less inclined to submit to extremists out of self preservation if they were reassured of America’s continued support. In no sane reckoning, should the U.S. be done with Iraq’s political future. Americans gave their lives to turn a murderous dictatorship into a struggling democracy. Many Iraqis also gave their lives in service of the same. We still have more leverage there than do any of Iraq’s neighbors; yet, the administration is loath to use it.

Where are the critics of the war who told us that mere elections do not ensure democracy? Is it not time they spoke up to demand closer American stewardship of Baghdad’s parliamentary progress and the Kurdish aspiration.

There is a very fine line to walk between intervening in another country's political process to ensure a fair outcome based on established laws, and meddling to engineer a win for your side. Greenwald is somewhat ambiguous about whether the "stewardship" he advocates is the former or latter but after reading Michael Hana's analysis, I'm not even sure it's possible:

The torturous course of this process also should lay to rest the notion of a supine Iraq subject to the predatory designs of its neighbors. Iraq is a weak country and will be for years to come; this inevitably will attract unwanted and meddlesome attention from the region and beyond. While Iran has reaped immense strategic gains from the overthrow of its primary nemesis and its replacement by a friendly government, cheap talk of grand Iranian designs and a defenseless Iraqi puppet no longer should be understood as anything more than political agitprop in connection with the larger and unfolding regional and global conflict over Iran. The variable, and at times conflicting, outside agendas brought to bear on the Iraqis never were able to dictate the course of the government formation process. It should be clear at this juncture that the wishes of its neighbors and other interested parties, primarily the United States, will not be determinative of Iraqi outcomes. While the eventual U.S.-Iranian-Syrian convergence on Maliki's return boasted his stock and eased his path to nomination, regional actors and the United States responded to Iraqi cues throughout this ongoing process. As such, while outside support will play an important role in shaping outcomes and amplifying existing trends, it will not do so in a fashion that contradicts the core perceived interests of Iraqi actors.

September 27, 2010

The State of Play in Iraq

This report on the Iraqi government's decision to strip Anbar Awakening members of their police ranks highlights the difficult position the U.S. is in with respect to Iraq. On the one hand, it's clearly bad news, as it appears to be sectarian score settling by the central government. On the other hand, is it really our role to tell the Iraqi government who can and who can't be a police officer?

September 20, 2010

Donald Rumsfeld

According to Politico, he has a new "tell all" memoir coming out. Rumsfeld always struck me as one of the bigger curiosities of the Bush administration. Here was a person openly skeptical of nation building whose military embarked on two large episodes of just that. According to several accounts of the Iraq war, he played an unhelpful role in the post-war planning precisely because he was dismissive of nation building - which raises the question of why he would stump for a war in the first place.

That aside, I think Rumsfeld has become a convenient scapegoat for what was - and remains - a dubious set of propositions advocated by his critics. Rumsfeld's vision of military transformation was far too parsimonious for neoconservatives, who championed an American Empire and waxed nostalgic for the British Colonial Office. To the military's traditional role of defeating and deterring conventional nation states, Rumsfeld labored to add the ability to quickly locate, target and destroy terrorist cells and facilities around the globe and to accomplish these tasks remotely, minimizing U.S. casualties. Such a vision demanded a lean, agile and networked force. It was not, however, the neocolonial occupation army demanded by his critics.

Rumsfeld was clearly the odd man out in an administration that jettisoned its realist sensibilities in the aftermath of 9/11 in favor of a more ambitious use of American power. His preference to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis quickly stood in stark contrast to the administration's professed aims of constructing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. His desire for a rapid exit undoubtedly hastened Iraq's sectarian fragmentation, but such a fragmentation was inevitable. The U.S simply did not possess enough manpower to accomplish what Rumsfeld's critics wanted to in Iraq.

September 13, 2010

Zakaria: Stay the Course

Fareed Zakaria makes the case for slowing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq:

September 11, 2010

The Myths of 9/11

To add to what Kevin wrote below, David Frum offers to debunk three myths about 9/11 and I think he goes two for three.

I think Frum is correct to argue that the notion that poverty causes terrorism, in addition to the idea that we can't fight terrorism without first solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are myths. It's his third myth, as Kevin notes, that goes horribly off the rails. In Frum's reading, it was a myth that "invading Iraq will lead to a surge of Islamic terrorism worldwide."

But it's not a myth - it's what happened. In 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 there was a sharp increase in terrorist attacks - both inside Iraq and around the world. In 2007 and 2008 those numbers fell, but they were still way above the pre-Iraq war levels.

Frum later tries to caveat his way out of this obvious error by insisting that there wasn't a "surge in rage" against governments that supported the U.S.-led invasion, but this is also wrong. The intelligence services of several allied countries (and the United States' own intelligence agencies) have insisted that the invasion of Iraq was a radicalizing event. And then there was, you know, actual terrorism directed at these governments, including the 7/7 Tube bombings in Britain and the Madrid train bombing in Spain. Neither of which are mentioned by Frum while debunking this "myth."

I would suggest that Frum swap out this erroneous myth with a cherished shibboleth from the neoconservative canon: that democracy is an antidote to terrorism. As we've seen in the profile of recent jihadist arrests, being born and raised in a democratic society does not seem to have any bearing on one's propensity to take up arms against the West.

Mission Re-accomplished?


David Frum, offering some observations on this ninth anniversary of 9/11, believes the links between Iraq and global terrorism have been exaggerated:

Remember how there was supposed to be a surge of rage against the governments who fought the Iraq war? Yet the worst violence occurred in France, which did not join the war. And even in France, Islamic extremist violence has abated since 2005, contained and defeated by effective police work.

Al-Qaeda radicals carried out co-ordinated deadly bombings inside Saudi Arabia in 2005. Not since. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states now co-operate much more closely with the United States than ever before, including sharing financial information relating to terrorist networks. Terrorist incidents inside Iraq have tumbled by 90%, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, as more and more Iraqis have sided with the government and the coalition-backed security forces.

This strikes me as an incredibly simplistic - not to mention shortsighted - analysis of the still to be determined byproducts of the Iraq war. A 90 percent drop in what was once a rather rare and distant occurrence in the lives of most Iraqis must bring little comfort and solace to those whom have lost friends and loved ones over there due to the invasion.

And a decrease in terrorist attacks - which, at one point, numbered in the thousands each month (pdf) - seems like a rather weak metric for success or failure in Iraq. It's difficult to determine, only seven years removed from the invasion, what the full effects of the war in Iraq will be. We do, however, know that many Jihadists honed their skills in Iraq; skills which were only later utilized in actual al-Qaeda havens, such as Yemen.

We also know that President Bush's rationale for the 2003 invasion - an invasion which David Frum helped package and frame for the American public - never actually materialized. The notion that Iraq would serve as a magnet, or "flypaper" for Jihadists, thus drawing them into Iraq and away from other terrorist fronts, proved to be absolutely false.

So while I'm certainly glad to hear that Mr. Frum is reconsidering Iraq's impact on global terrorism, I fear his retroactive caution may be about seven years too late.

(AP Photo)

September 6, 2010

No Korea

I'm not a close student of the U.S. military presence in South Korea following the 1953 armistice, but this doesn't seem similar:

Insurgents mounted a coordinated attack on one of the main military commands in Baghdad on Sunday, briefly drawing fire from American soldiers, an event that underscored the ambiguity of the American military’s role in Iraq.

Debating National Security

Furthermore, pretending that politics and national security don’t mix can lead to very bad policy outcomes. I’m sympathetic to the view that had concerned or reluctant elected officials invested energy in having a political debate over whether or not to invade Iraq, the country might have avoided a national security catastrophe. (Full disclosure: I work for an organization that was essentially founded on that justification). Sadly, we didn’t have that debate, and the country paid a steep price for it. I put that thought to Gulliver, who replied that the Iraq war was largely the result of a motivated administration pulling the wool over the eyes of the bureaucracy. But that’s precisely why you would want a more vigorous public debate – to reduce the likelihood that an agenda-drive clique can just hijack the process. - Patrick Barry

I don't think this is quite right. First of all, as has been demonstrated on a number of occasions, the American public has vague and often ill-informed views on many policy issues - especially national security and foreign policy issues. The idea that a more vigorous public debate will produce beneficial outcomes doesn't strike me as very likely. It's also mostly irrelevant, as the executive branch has tremendous latitude on these issues and can easily act irrespective of public sentiment.

On the specific case of the Iraq war, I think there was a pretty robust public debate on the wisdom of deposing Saddam Hussein. Just because your preferred policy loses, doesn't mean you didn't get a fair hearing.

September 2, 2010

The Iraq War As Seen from China

Evan Osnos observes:

Real or contrived, the Oval Office curtain call on the war in Iraq has drawn ardent interest from the Chinese government and press, which have greeted the occasion with a reaction that veers between mournful and self-righteous. But the most important subtext in the Chinese response, albeit implicit, is a fact that says more about the changes of the last seven years than it does about the war itself: when the war began, America was stronger—and China was far weaker—than either side is now.

China was never fond of the war for both practical and philosophical reasons. It was one of five countries—the others were Russia, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam—that had oil deals in place with Saddam Hussein when the U.S. invaded. It has since recovered its position, and far more, emerging, as the A.P. put it in June, “as one of the biggest economic beneficiaries of the war, snagging five lucrative deals.” While Western oil companies responded coolly to Iraq’s recent oil auctions, Chinese companies shrugged off “the security risks and the country’s political instability for the promise of oil.”

[Hat tip: Patrick Appel]

U.S. Views of a Second Surge

Gallup finds no appetite among the American people for a second round of combat in Iraq should the situation deteriorate once again:


The poll also found that 60 percent of Americans thought Iraq was not worth going to war over while a majority felt that the war had either had no impact on American security (40 percent) or made us less safe (32 percent).

September 1, 2010

Credit for the Surge

I have to admit I find it humorous how some are pushing to have the Iraq troop surge enshrined as The Most Courageous Decision Any President Has Ever and Will Ever Make in the History of America. Because to do so, you have to implicitly acknowledge the incompetence and blunders that necessitated a change of strategy in the first place. And yet, whenever we are enjoined to genuflect before the surge, we are never reminded of the string of policy failures that necessitated it.

Here's Peter Wehner, reflecting on President Obama's Iraq address:

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

The surge was necessary because of a long, and well documented, series of tactical and strategic blunders made by the very same Bush administration that advocated the surge. So yes: they had a hand in tamping down sectarian violence in Iraq. But let us not forget who made the mess in the first place. And if Obama is supposed to own up to the tactical respite brought by the surge, can Wehner acknowledge the tactical and strategic setbacks the war produced? Maybe not:

What was also notable in the speech is how Obama — apart from one perfunctory paragraph (he devoted four to the economy) — failed to appropriately acknowledge many of the estimable things that have been achieved by the Iraq war, including deposing a malevolent and aggressive dictator, helping plant a representative (if imperfect) democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and administering a military defeat to al-Qaeda on the ground of its own choosing.

So how's that imperfect democracy working out? Um:

A leading politician related a recent conversation he had with a top Iraqi general. The politician asked about the possibility of a coup. The general, he said, deeming the talk serious, pulled out a map of the capital and provided a disconcertingly elaborate plan to execute one: overturning trucks to block the route from the main American base to the Green Zone, seizing television stations, besieging Parliament, and so on.

“When you’re president,” he quoted the general as asking, in utter seriousness, “can you make me minister of defense?”

It is possible (and we should all hope) that two years of relative calm have healed all of Iraq's wounds and made any future backsliding into violence or authoritarianism impossible. But it is also possible that the surge brought a temporary calm but was unable to fundamentally set Iraq on a path toward a stable, democratic government - as was its expressed purpose. If the latter is the case, then it will be increasingly difficult to hail the surge as anything other than a final, failed gambit to shore-up post Saddam Iraq in a manner amenable to U.S. interests.

And what of al-Qaeda? Since they had no serious presence inside Iraq before the war (certainly nothing akin to their presence in Afghanistan) it's absurd to hail defeating them inside Iraq as a beneficial consequence of the conflict. Would we congratulate someone who set fire to his own house if he later douses it with a hose? And, incidentally, the house is still smoldering.

Of course, framing Iraq as an element in the broader campaign against al-Qaeda only underscores why invading and occupying the country was the wrong approach to counter-terrorism. Al-Qaeda remains active in a variety of countries and is drawing recruits from Western countries via the Internet. The war in Iraq did not blunt the spread of al-Qaeda into Yemen or Somalia. It is very hard for me to see how even a democratic Iraq would stop radicals like Anwar al-Awlaki from continuing their recruitment, or convince bin Laden to give up his jihad. In other words, whatever counter-terrorism gains Iraq did produce appear insufficient next to the human, financial and opportunity costs of the war.

Obama's Iraq Muddle


To amplify some of the good points Ben made below, and as expected, President Obama punted on the two major issues of U.S. Iraq policy in his address last night: how the U.S. will respond to a major outbreak in violence and what role U.S. forces will play in the country after 2011, when they are obligated by the Status of Forces Agreement to leave.

In fact, the speech was downright schizophrenic in places. In one graf, the president declared that the U.S. will have a "long term partnership" with Iraq based on civilian assistance, ensuring that America remains yoked to the country for the foreseeable future. And then in the next, he declares that America has already "met our responsibility" and will "turn the page" on the Iraq war. But what of the civilians inside Iraq and their protection? What if Iraq unravels?

Addressing these questions isn't easy, but ducking them strikes me as an abdication of leadership. In doing so, President Obama is making many of the same mistakes that the Bush administration made in Iraq: assume the best and be unprepared for the worst.

(AP Photo)

August 31, 2010

A Few Forgettable Points from Obama's Speech

President Obama's speech last night will not be quoted anywhere. It was neither memorable nor newsworthy, it made no grand point, and it was constructed in such a way as to be dismissed by both the right and the left. In fact, it's a reminder that the statements Obama has made in his first term have thus far been, on the whole, completely forgettable to the average American. For a man so lauded for his speaking ability and the craft of his writers, the memorable lines are few and far between: his oft-repeated stump-speech on health care probably contains the lines most Americans know, since they included a raft of promises. Looking back, it is his speech in Cairo and his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize which most commenters would probably consider the critical remarks from this term.

Yet in taking the opportunity to share a few thoughts with us on Iraq - to "turn the page" as he said - the president left us wanting. For the right, he highlighted his insistent wrongness on the tactical response to the Iraq War during his brief tenure in the Senate; for the left, he highlighted what they believe to be his insistent wrongness in applying a similar tactical response to the war in Afghanistan. So both sides complain, no one cherishes, and a key foreign policy moment is passed by - the big news story from the White House today was all about the president speaking from an Oval Office with a fresh coat of beige, not the remarks. It is, in my view, a missed opportunity.

The way the White House presented the speech was schizophrenic to begin with - another communications failure in a long stream of misread optics and poorly chosen words. Robert Gibbs provides an example of how to fail to properly represent the Commander in Chief - clearly the weakest member of Obama's internal team, and one I fully expect to be gone in the aftermath of the midterm elections, Gibbs flailed mightily today, misquoting his boss's views from 2007 and ignoring questions about Obama's shift in opinion on strategy. He urged reporters to check out the facts about what Obama had said in the past, perhaps without checking them himself (Obama in January 2007: "I don't know any expert [who believes surge] is going to make a substantial difference." Obama in June 2007: "Here's what we know: the surge has not worked.") -- or if he did check, it was blatant incompetence to make such a claim of consistency.

Politicians never like to say they're wrong about anything, and never like to admit they've changed their views. But when that mistake is so apparent and evident, it's silly to be stubborn about it. Obama's perspective on foreign policy has clearly shifted over the past two years, and he should readily admit that fact. Because he refuses to, it creates scenarios like this, a year and a half ago:

Q: If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you support the surge?

Obama: No. Because, keep in mind that —

Q: You wouldn’t?

Obama: Keep in mind, these kind of hypotheticals are very difficult. You know hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is at that time we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one I just disagreed with.

President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been better than many on the right expected, and has improved in several areas since he made those remarks. Great leaders recognize their own errors as they come, and respond to them by learning and adapting, not fighting the battles of the past. Obama had been a senator for barely 12 months when he spoke out so forcefully against the surge - in his role now, and going forward, Americans need to be confident he has learned from the experiences of the recent past, and takes that knowledge with him as he faces challenging decisions. They need to know he approaches policy with a clear vision about what he wants to achieve -- that he is not just, as Greg put it, hedging his bets.

It is one thing to be wrong about a strategic policy when you are just one senator out of a hundred. It is another when you are the one man who matters, and the lives of a great many American soldiers hang in the balance.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

Why Isn't It a "Mission Accomplished" Speech?


It seems that the spin from the Obama administration is that tonight's Iraq address won't be akin to President Bush's now infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech delivered a few months after the Iraq war began. While it's understandable why the president would want to distance himself from that bit of botched political theater, I'm not clear why the administration is making this instance. (Actually, I know why they're doing it, to please a constituency, but I don't see the logic in it.)

Without knowing the full text of the address, you can say for certain that the president is not making good on his campaign pledge to "end the war." The troops being left behind in Iraq to "advise and assist" will take casualties. If the president insists that he will withdraw all "advise and assist" forces after 2011, irrespective of conditions on the ground, then you could say that the administration is making good on its pledges. But during the campaign, Obama insisted that the U.S. would be as careful leaving Iraq as we were careless getting in - and indication, to me at least, that he's hedging his bets.

So I have a hard time believing that the president is going to truly withdraw forces from Iraq in 2011 "come what may" which makes tonight's speech, if not dishonest, than less-than-forthright. But I could be wrong, and President Obama could insist that no matter what, U.S. forces will be removed from Iraq in 2011. Such a stance wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea (that's a debate for another day), but it would mark a sharp departure from conventional thinking with respect to U.S. interests in the Middle East. And the president hasn't really demonstrated that he's truly "thinking outside the box" when it comes to those strategic issues.

(AP Photo)

Iraqi View of their Government

Gallup asked Iraqis how they feel about their leaders, and America's:


The survey was taken in March, before the Iraq elections and the ensuing deadlock.

The Iraq Gamble


Nearly everyone who had a hand in championing the Iraq war is urging the administration to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement so that U.S. forces can remain inside Iraq past 2011. This appears to be the new conventional wisdom in Washington: that whatever you thought about the war in Iraq, you should be able to see the strategic necessity of keeping large numbers of U.S. troops inside the country for decades to come.

There are any number of ways such a long-term presence could play out. The best-case scenario is the one Paul Wolfowitz suggested: that, much like in Korea, the U.S. presence will be a stabilizing force that helps keeps the peace and improves America's geopolitical position.

There are, however, ample reasons to question the Korea analogy. The most obvious, of course, is that U.S. forces in Korea were designed to defend the country from an external enemy across a clear border. That's not the case in Iraq, where the major threats are internal. Despite the reduction in violence, the surge failed to fully route al-Qaeda in Iraq and the sectarian fault lines that spurred the country to bloodshed still exist. And unlike North Korea, America's internal enemies in Iraq have no qualms about attacking the U.S. troop presence there.

The other scenarios for a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq are less than ideal, including a resumption of violence. In such an instance, U.S. troops would almost certainly be called in to stamp out the fighting. But there will be far fewer of them in 2011 and beyond than in 2007. So any decision to renegotiate a U.S. troop withdrawal is potentially a decision to continue a counter-insurgency war in the country en-perpetuity.

Few of the analysts stumping for a long-term troop presence seem to want to grapple with the possibility of a resumption of large-scale violence - it's a specter they invoke to justify why troops should stay but not something they appear to think will actually happen on any large scale. Which is curious, frankly. It's worth remembering that 130,000 U.S. troops could not stop Iraqis from slaughtering each other in a brutal wave of sectarian violence. It stands to reason that 50,000 U.S. troops, along with Iraqi forces, would similarly be unable to stop a determined upswing in insurgent violence.

(AP Photo)

August 30, 2010

Help Is on the Way

Alas, any renegotiation of that December 31, 2011 date requires a new Iraqi government—and there is no sign of one emerging. That is the second and bigger serious problem. Much of the challenge is due to a constitutional conundrum that we helped create. Iraq’s presidency is too weak, and is also up for grabs right now. Because it is weak, neither Mr. Allawi nor Mr. Maliki sees it as an acceptable consolation prize in their pursuits of the prime ministership. Because it is up for grabs, the Iraqi president cannot discipline the political process as parties seek to form a governing coalition. For example, he cannot give each major party two to three weeks to form a coalition, before retracting the offer and sequentially moving to the next party in the queue—as might happen in a different type of parliamentary system.

My colleague Ken Pollack recommends making the Iraqi president commander in chief of the security forces by constitutional review. That makes sense to me. If the constitution could be revised in the same voting process that codified a new coalition government, and accorded the presidency to whichever top Iraqi leader did not become prime minister, we might have a solution. Another approach, if the above proves too ambitious, is to create a “friends of Iraq” contact group that could temporarily (perhaps under UN auspices) play the role of referee in the coalition formation process temporarily—not because Iraqis are inherently incapable of doing so, but because we saddled them with an electoral system that is in need of emergency repair to get through this current growing crisis. - Michael O'Hanlon [Emphasis mine]

Does anyone else find this less than reassuring? We're in a mess of our own design, but no worries, the same people who engineered the mess know just how to fix it. What could possibly go wrong?

The War Over the War in Iraq


Michael Young thinks critics of the Iraq war are acting in bad faith:

The withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq last week brought muted reactions from those who had opposed the invasion of the country in 2003. This was partly understandable, since the United States will continue to exert considerable influence in Baghdad. But there was also discernible bad faith in the critics’ refusal to acknowledge that Iraq had entered a fundamentally new phase.

Perhaps that was because the template of disapproval when it comes to American behaviour in Iraq has for so long been framed in the narrowest of terms: that George W Bush’s administration organised an imperial war on Iraq (not “with” Iraq or “over” Iraq, or heaven forbid “for” Iraq), and this war had as its overriding objective the imposition of American domination of the Middle East – with Iraq and its natural resources as the cornerstone of the grand scheme.

And indeed, as Young documents, there was plenty of boorish and absurd criticisms of the Iraq war along "anti-imperial" lines. Of course, many supporters of the war framed pro-war arguments in terms of the importance of Iraq's oil, strategic position and sustaining American preeminence of the Middle East. But these war supporters didn't march around, wear goofy costumes or draw ridiculous and offensive posters so perhaps we shouldn't demand mea-culpas of them.

But beyond that, there were objections to the Iraq war which weren't grounded in a crude Chomksyism but on more pragmatic concerns: that such an endeavor was unnecessary and would prove to too costly. And lo and behold:

A $40 million prison sits in the desert north of , empty. A $165 million children's hospital goes unused in the south. A $100 million waste water treatment system in has cost three times more than projected, yet sewage still runs through the streets.

As the U.S. draws down in, it is leaving behind hundreds of abandoned or incomplete projects. More than $5 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds has been wasted on these projects — more than 10 percent of the $53.7 billion the US has spent on reconstruction in Iraq, according to audits from a U.S. watchdog agency.

Empire or not, a boondoggle is a boondoggle.

(AP Photo)

August 25, 2010

Malaysia and the Allure of Bridge-building

In a post on The Compass last week, I mentioned Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim as an example of a politician whose anti-Semitic views are all too quickly glossed over, when they actually deserve further attention. The aside provoked a few comments, so I think a followup is in order.

Ibrahim has a roster of politically significant defenders in America - particularly Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz, who have lauded him on numerous occasions to the U.S. media - mostly stemming from what was fairly obviously a politically motivated series of legal attacks waged against him under the auspices of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was, as commenters noted, both anti-American and anti-Semitic - and those weren't even his worst qualities. By comparison, Ibrahim is a charming fellow with a gift for gab, exactly the kind of personality the Western media adores.

Yet Ibrahim is also an example of the kind of political personality who displays magnificent ability to manipulate situations to his advantage, and to say one thing to one audience, and another to another. The game Ibrahim engages in is not new.

As Marco Vincenzino recently noted, Ibrahim is cut very much from the cloth of Ahmed Chalabi, whose name you might recognize as another would-be leader who wooed editorial writers and intelligence agencies with false promises and grand proclamations. As Vincenzino writes:

[Chalabi] also raised millions of dollars from American taxpayers for his Iraqi National Congress. Now back in his native-Iraq, this Machiavellian political survivor has re-invented himself as a staunch Shiite advocate and close ally of Iran. A sense of betrayal overwhelms many of his original supporters in Washington.

I recall seeing Chalabi circulating in the halls of Congress and courting powerful right-wingers months before the Iraq invasion - besides the fact that it was a policy decision I opposed at the time, I found him to be a slick and untrustworthy operator to a disturbing degree (though I am curious what his daughter's new book will reveal). Chalabi was fool's gold and, however you come down on his actions, American leaders were clearly wrong to embrace him as closely as they did.

Yet America's political leadership tends to repeat this mistake over and over again - they fall in love with the idea of bridge-building to the Muslim world, of finding moderates who maintain that they can act as go-betweens to factions many of our policymakers barely understand. This idea leads policymakers to sometimes embrace potentially disastrous figures who know how to manipulate these circumstances and desires - men like Ibrahim, who can intone about the vile influence of "the Jewish lobby" in their own countries and in their own language, but in English, charm former vice presidents and respected foreign policy leaders.

George Washington never actually warned Americans to "beware of foreign entanglements" in his often misquoted farewell address. But he did say that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other." If you replace "nation" with "bridge-builder," you'll find it's still accurate in today's Washington.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

August 20, 2010

U.S. View on Iraq War


Gallup released its latest findings on U.S. views of the Iraq war:

Americans are not optimistic that Iraqi security forces are up to their new task. By 61% to 34%, the public believes Iraqi security forces will be unable to limit insurgent attacks and generally maintain peace and security in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Americans prefer that the U.S. stick to its timetable for withdrawing all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Fifty-three percent say U.S. withdrawal should proceed regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time, while 43% think the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq beyond the deadline if Iraqi security forces cannot maintain order in Iraq.

August 12, 2010

Iraq Revisionism


Reading the Guardian report on the defection of the Sons of Iraq, Marc Thiessen writes:

The rise of the Sons of Iraq is one of the great success stories in the war on terror—and thanks to America’s success in encouraging and nurturing this movement, President Obama inherited a strong hand in Iraq. It would be a tragedy if, in his eagerness to withdraw, Obama squandered that success through a policy of neglect.

I suspect this an argument we're unfortunately going to be seeing a lot more of in the coming weeks and months. The notion that President Obama "inherited a strong hand" in Iraq is questionable, to say the least. The Bush administration set fire to Iraq and was able to tamp down what was, by 2006, a raging inferno into something resembling simmering kindling when it came time to hand off the problem they created to another administration. This is not the kind of achievement I'd be particularly eager to brandish.

(AP Photo)

August 11, 2010

The Sons of Iraq Turn Again?


A disturbing report in the Guardian:

Al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback in Iraq by enticing scores of former Sunni allies to rejoin the terrorist group by paying them more than the monthly salary they currently receive from the government, two key US-backed militia leaders have told the Guardian.

They said al-Qaida leaders were exploiting the imminent departure of US fighting troops to ramp up a membership drive, in an attempt to show that they are still a powerful force in the country after seven years of war.

Al-Qaida is also thought to be moving to take advantage of a power vacuum created by continuing political instability in Iraq, which remains without a functional government more than five months after a general election.

Sheikh Sabah al-Janabi, a leader of the Awakening Council – also known as the Sons of Iraq – based in Hila, 60 miles south of Baghdad, told the Guardian that 100 out of 1,800 rank-and-file members had not collected their salaries for the last two months: a clear sign, he believes, that they are now taking money from their former enemies.

Is it me, or is there an odd disconnect between stories like the above and this one, where we're already discussing the "payoff" of the war in the form of an Iraq that is a democratic ally in the Mideast giving us access to its vast oil reserves. Are we really out of the woods in Iraq?

(AP Photo)

August 9, 2010

The Iraq Conversation We're Not Having

Daniel Serwer and Sean Kane offer some advice on how to manage Iraq:

For the time being, the 50,000 U.S. troops still provide some check on Iran's influence in Iraq as well as insurance against the unlikely events of a military coup or the outbreak of Arab-Kurdish conflict in Iraq's volatile north. But with these troops scheduled to withdraw, the U.S. should focus on putting substance in the new paradigm of a civilian-led mission by looking for complementary diplomatic tools to guarantee the continuation of Iraq's nascent democracy. It is far more important to get this right than to get a government right away.

The United States has in the past extended implicit guarantees to help end conflicts and maintain stability in other countries. Washington witnessed the signing of the Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia and joined the Peace Implementation Council, thus underwriting the Dayton constitution. In order not to arouse understandable Iraqi concerns on sovereignty, the approach in Iraq would necessarily be more subtle. Instead, ways have to be found to condition things Iraqis want from the U.S. on Iraqi maintenance of a representative democracy that satisfies the existential concerns of all the major communities.

There is such a mechanism available. It is based on a bi-lateral U.S.-Iraqi agreement which was an Iraqi idea and which Iraqis requested of the U.S. during the 2008 troop drawdown negotiations. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) aims to lay the foundation for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship in the economic, cultural, political, and security arenas. Iraqis value the SFA as a means for attracting badly needed U.S. private investment and know-how.

The authors believe that the SFA can be leveraged to build a stable Iraq without obligating the U.S. to pick specific political winners and losers or mediate between Maliki and Allawi, but what's worrisome is the nagging question of what the U.S. does if this doesn't work.

Despite our best laid plans, violence could once again convulse Iraq. As the Commander of U.S. Special Forces told the Washington Post, extremists groups, while not as potent, are still alive and kicking in Iraq. So what is the Obama administration's view of Iraq's importance to U.S. security? Is the country so vital that we will not, under any circumstances, allow it to descend back into a violent maelstrom? Or is it more important to remove U.S. troops from the country, come what may?

August 5, 2010

Obama's No-Win Iraq Policy


Peter Feaver writes that President Obama churlishly denied giving credit to Bush for the surge. Obama, writes Feaver, "could have shown real statesmanship by acknowledging he was wrong about the surge." Then he writes this:

Adverse developments in Iraq will be (and will look to be) increasingly a function of the Obama Team taking their eye off of the ball and rushing to declare mission accomplished. Yes, in such a scenario the Iraqis should bear most of the blame, but the part that is due to U.S. action or inaction will be Obama's responsibility.

In other words, when it becomes undeniable that the surge has failed to produce anything other than momentary calm in Iraq, it will become Obama's fault. Convenient, isn't it?

(AP Photo)

August 2, 2010

Obama & Iraq


The news out of Iraq of late has certainly been troubling: July was the most violent month in the country since 2008 (although the U.S. disputes this claim), the country's electrical system is still a shambles, and there's no government in sight.

This is, in other words, not exactly the time to take a victory lap. And yet, that's what President Obama appears to be doing with a speech planned for today:

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” Mr. Obama says in remarks prepared for delivery Monday to the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta. “Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised, on schedule.”

None of this would be problematic except for the decision to leave 50,000 U.S. troops behind to "advise and assist" Iraq's security forces. But what happens if things go south? It's not like the situation in Iraq can't deterioate right under our noses. That makes the current "hands-off" approach taken by the administration all the more confounding: if you're going to keep U.S. troops inside the country, shouldn't you at least devote more diplomatic capital to moving Iraq's parties into forming a government? And if the U.S., with tens of thousands of troops inside the country, has no leverage over the political parties - why, exactly, are we keeping our troops around to "advise and assist" them?

UPDATE: You can view the State Department's latest Iraq Status Report here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

July 21, 2010

Unintended Consequences

The former director of MI5 testified at Britain's Chilcot Committee investigating the Iraq war:

“Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam,” said the former official, Baroness Manningham-Buller.

Whether the Iraq war radicalized Western Muslims who would otherwise have avoided terrorism or whether it simply served as a useful cause celeb isn't clear, what is clear is that the war turned Iraq itself into a huge training ground for terrorists where before it was not. The U.S. waged war ostensibly on the grounds of safeguarding itself against terror but instead inadvertently created a serious terror enclave in the heart of the Middle East. It took an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure to patch that self-inflicted wound and it's still not clear if that wound is completely closed yet.

This record of unintended consequences is worth considering in light of the continued arguments for a new U.S. war in the Middle East. We have a decidedly poor track record in this regard. I'm not sure why the third time would be the charm.

July 15, 2010

The U.S. in Iraq

Jackson Diehl asks if the U.S. is playing a large enough role in Iraq. The New York Times reports that the U.S. has indeed been busy:

As America winds down its war effort in Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad is among a growing list of former American diplomats and military officials now chasing business opportunities in the oil-rich Kurdish region or acting as advisers to its government. Some visit regularly, while others call the region and its booming capital, Erbil, home. Kurds treat them like dignitaries.

The Kurdish region may be the only place in Iraq where Americans are still embraced as liberators. The authorities boast that no Americans have ever been attacked in a place that has enjoyed relative security.

Granted, this is engagement is of the unofficial variety. Diehl's point is that the Obama administration needs to be more hands on as Iraq tries to form a government:

But retaining U.S. influence, and preventing Iraq’s destabilization, may require a stepped-up effort by Washington in the next few weeks. The month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins Aug. 11; if Iraq does not have a government by then, the political and security situation could start to unravel. Though it can’t impose a solution, the United States retains the power of convocation. It can call all the main players together, perhaps in cooperation with UN mediators.

The outcome that would most benefit the U.S. as well as Iraq is fairly clear: a unity coalition that includes the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties and balances their interests -- as well as those of their regional backers.

Is the problem in Iraq that the major stakeholders can't all sit around a room and hash it out? That's seems too easy.

July 12, 2010

Biden's Mouth and Iraq


Not for the first time, Vice President Biden's mouth may be getting him (and by extension, the U.S.) in trouble. Peter Feaver:

The situation in Iraq is quite fragile and knowledgeable insiders are worried that it might be unraveling. Biden, however, gave an exceptionally upbeat assessment. This is not the first time he has been so bullish on Iraq; he gave many of the same sound-bites back in February, of course that was before the intervening five months of political stalemate in Baghdad. I wanted to believe him then and I want to believe him now.

The Obama administration inherited a bad situation in Iraq (that it was undoubtedly improved from a significantly worse situation doesn't make it good) and a tricky one politically at home - one that the vice president, with his boasts, appears intent on making worse. If Iraq collapses, the blame will fall squarely and mostly unjustly, on the Obama administration. If Iraq continues to stabilize, how much credit can the Obama administration really claim?

(AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda Eyes Iraqi Green Zone

The National reports that al Qaeda has leveled a fresh threat against the government in Baghdad:

Al Qa’eda is planning to attack the Green Zone in Baghdad, in a move it believes will cripple the government as US troops prepare to draw back this summer, Iraqi security officials and analysts have warned.

Islamist militants have successfully carried out a series of deadly strikes in the Iraqi capital recently, including a prolonged raid on the heavily defended central bank last month.

Apparently the attack on the central bank has bolstered al-Qaeda in Iraq's view of what it can accomplish by striking the seat of power in Iraq.

July 6, 2010

Americans See Long Combat Role in Iraq

The Pentagon may call them "stability operations" but Americans apparently understand what's up:

only 33% of U.S. voters think that is even somewhat likely to happen as planned. Fifty-nine percent (59%) say an end to the U.S. combat role there is unlikely by then, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

These findings include 10% who say it is Very Likely the combat mission in Iraq will be over by the end of August and 20% who say it is Not At All Likely.

Voters are closely divided over whether the seven-year-old war in Iraq will be regarded in the long term as a success or a failure. Thirty-three percent (33%) say America’s mission in Iraq will be judged a success, but 36% believe it will be viewed as a failure. Thirty-one percent (31%) are not sure.

Strategic Patience

The New York Times reports on America's transitioning role in Iraq - which still involves U.S. soldiers hunting and killing insurgents and engaging in combat operations while employing some artful spin about the U.S. role in those actions. Part of the idea, it seems, is to make the U.S. presence more palatable to both Iraqi and American audiences by being somewhat vague about what that role is.

Which leads us to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's article in the National Interest. Crocker argues that the U.S. needs to maintain a hands-on approach with respect to Iraq's political development. While I think there's a very strong case to be made for continued diplomatic engagement with Iraq as the country struggles to regain its footing, there's a problem with Crocker's conceptual framework:

Iran and Syria have had a bad few years in Iraq, but they are willing to wait. Patience is not our strong suit. Over the years, in the broader Middle East, our allies have come to fear our strategic impatience, and our adversaries to count on it. Our disengagement from Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat in 1989 ultimately gave al-Qaeda the space to plan the 9/11 attacks. Now we are back; but in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, I found many who wondered when we would head for the exits again.

Iran and Syria are "willing to wait" because they live there. They don't have a choice. The United States, fortunately, does have a choice. Another way of stating Crocker's strategic patience argument is to simply state that countries with a deeper interest in a given situation will do more than a country that does not. Rather than acknowledge this, we're enjoined to display "strategic patience" by persisting in a given engagement simply to demonstrate to other regional actors that we have "staying power."

But in a world of limited resources, you have to make choices based on a hierarchy of priorities. In Crocker's piece he singles out two countries as evidence of American strategic impatience - Lebanon and Afghanistan - without ever arguing why they would demand pride of place among other competing interests.

The problem with this "strategic patience" argument is that the U.S. - as Crocker admits in the piece - frequently looks before it leaps with respect to its far-too-numerous military interventions. After having committed a blunder, we're then enjoined to continue our investment lest regional bad actors press their advantage.

But take the Afghanistan example above, can Crocker, or anyone, offer a remotely plausible scenario which sees the U.S. "engaged" in Afghanistan in the 1980s that prevents the rise of al Qaeda internationally? Bin Laden wasn't even in Afghanistan until 1996. As we're learning now, the problem in Afghanistan isn't American engagement or lack thereof, it's Pakistan's regional interests. Maybe there was a magical formula available to the U.S. in the 1980s that changes Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan so that it didn't use the country as a dumping ground for the ISI's fundamentalists. But I doubt it.

I think there's a great case to be made for strategic patience as a general concept, but in the Crocker formulation it seems to be a case of persisting with a military endeavor long after it's become obvious to most people that the costs have outweighed the benefits. Indeed, the time to demonstrate strategic patience is before the U.S. reaches for the military tool, not after, especially when it comes to places, like Lebanon and Afghanistan, of limited strategic value to the United States.

July 1, 2010

Suicidal Iran


If you believe, such as I do, that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, then you essentially have two optional schools of thought for assessing the regime's motives. One theory is that the regime is seeking the bomb in order to guarantee its own security; while, perhaps, advancing its own hegemonic desires in the Middle East.

The second, arguably less prevalent school of thought takes it a step further. This theory assumes that Iran has a demonstrated history of suicidal, nihilistic behavior, and that a nuclear-armed Iran may actually use such a weapon (possibly against Israel) in a global display of Death By Cop. Proponents of the "Suicidal Iran" theory will often cite anti-Israel comments made by President Ahmadinejad, or even older Ayatollah Khomeini lines rejecting the nation-state; others will note that martyrdom and sacrifice play a prominent role in Shiism - especially in Iran.

Which camp you fall in likely affects whether or not you believe Iran can be a nuclear 'good citizen' should it attain a nuclear weapon. Bret Stephens, entrenched, I'm assuming, in the second camp, makes the predictable argument against containment:

A credible case can be made that Communism is no less a faith than Islam and that Iran’s current leadership, like Soviet leaders of yore, knows how to temper true belief with pragmatic considerations. But Communism was also a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.

That is not the case with Shiism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests.

Japan is indeed a more appropriate comparison than the Soviet Union, but I think Stephens misses the more optimistic lesson in the U.S.-Japanese relationship. The Mutual Cooperation and Security treaty signed by both nations in 1960 came just fifteen years after the peak of Kamikaze attacks on American naval vessels. Japan went on to become a close U.S. ally, and today a military base in Okinawa constitutes as a "row" between the two governments.

Iranian wave attacks, while obviously senseless, wicked and inhumane, were carried out by a regime drunk with revolution, and they were carried out in reaction to Iraqi invasion. Stephens should keep in mind that it was Iraq that suffered at the hands of Iran's suicidal tendencies during that war - not Israel or the United States.

Yet today, Iran's inability to supply Basra with a sufficient amount of electricity constitutes as a "row." The two countries enjoy warmer relations, and Iranian goods flood Iraqi markets.

My point: even history's most suicidal of states can - and have - changed. Iran is already one of them. So if Iraqis can trust a once suicidal Iran, why can't Americans and Israelis?

UPDATE: My comparison has received some push back in the comments section; also worth a read.

(AP Photo)

Good Work if You Can Get It (and Live)


Michael Rubin passes on a report detailing the salary of some Iraqi officials:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani pulls down a salary of approximately $12 million per year, and that doesn't include the money that is channeled through the Nokan Corporation, the company that handles his party's business interests. Masud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan -- which comprises Iraq's three northern provinces -- pulls in a salary of approximately $400,000 per month, and that doesn't include his extensive business holdings, the mountaintop resort he confiscated as a family compound, the public money he has absorbed from the treasury, or payments he receives from some neighboring states.

That said, being an Iraqi politician isn't all mountaintop resorts and multi-million dollar paychecks:

Some 150 politicians, civil servants, tribal chiefs, police officers, Sunni clerics and members of Awakening Councils have been assassinated throughout Iraq since the election — bloodshed apparently aimed at heightening turmoil in the power vacuum created by more than three months without a national government.

Freedom sure is untidy.

(AP Photo)

June 15, 2010

The Most (and Least) Peaceful Countries in the World

The 2010 Global Peace Index has been released. The most peaceful country in the world - New Zealand, followed by Iceland. The U.S. is ranked 85th out of 149.

The least peaceful country, for the fourth year in a row, was Iraq. Somalia came in second to last and Afghanistan placed third from the bottom.

The survey is a product of the Australian-based Institute for Economics and Peace.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

June 10, 2010

The Powers of Imagination

Jennifer Rubin notes approvingly analysis from John Bolton and Elliott Abrams and laments: "In the category of “elections have consequences,” imagine if a Republican were in the White House taking advice from these two."

Hmmmm. Would it look something like this?

U.S., UK Still Oppose Iraq War

A new poll from Angus Reid shows little support for the Iraq war:

In the online survey of representative national samples of 2,003 British adults and 1,007 American adults, three-in-five Britons (61%, -7) and more than half of Americans (55%, -3) say they currently oppose the war in Iraq.

Two-in-five Americans (44%, -4) believe the U.S. government made a mistake in launching military action against Iraq in 2003. This view is shared by 57 per cent of Britons (-5)....

The public is almost evenly divided on whether the war will be seen as a defeat for the U.S. and its allies (19% in Britain, 17% in the U.S.) or as a victory (17% in Britain, 18% in the U.S.). The vast majority of respondents are undecided, or think the verdict of history will be ambiguous.

Full results here. (pdf)

June 9, 2010

Kurdistan and the Freedom Agenda

Michael Rubin responds to my take on President Obama's freedom agenda in Kurdistan:

Policy should be not merely reactive, but proactive: The core of the democracy debate is about how to change the character of other countries to the point where our decisions become easier and our final policy more advantageous to U.S. policy and security.

Fair enough, but policy proposals and suggestions abound (see: Washington, DC). The American executive can only do so much, and freedoms backsliding in Kurdistan - again, a region often touted as a model worth protecting - probably can't be too high on the president's priority list. Indeed, it may not even be the the biggest problem facing the United States in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Perhaps there's much to criticize about Obama's so-called freedom agenda, but I don't know that Kurdistan is the best example with which to do that.

UPDATE: Michael has responded with a handful of fair points:

Should we excuse the traditional myopia that afflicts both Democratic and Republican administrations, or should a multi-billion-dollar national-security apparatus be able to handle multiple events in multiple countries at the same time? If we can only handle two or three international issues at a time, why not just hire ten smart people to manage foreign policy and save taxpayers billions?

Or, to reverse Kevin’s argument, why not use our leverage over a Kurdish government that takes our support for granted to demand an end to the murder of journalists and an end to behind-our-backs deal-making with the Islamic Republic, and eliminate an irritant to our regional credibility? Or should we settle for a Barzani dictatorship because that’s the path of least resistance?

Let me, for the sake of clarity, repeat that the politically motivated targeting of journalists is obviously a terrible, terrible thing. President Obama, as Michael argues, absolutely should pressure Iraqi officials to address this. But beyond that, what more should be done? Kurdistan is a relatively stable region in a country where suicide attacks upon American servicemen and women are still commonplace, and the central government's own political stability remains in question. Put it in the proper context, and Kurdistan begins to look better and better.

My point, again, was not that Obama is beyond reproach on democracy promotion, but that Iraqi Kurdistan seems like a rather odd cudgel for that reproach. Of course a president should be able to multitask, but I'd say a two-front war, a global economic crisis, a confrontation with Tehran, a row with Jerusalem, a standoff on the Korean peninsula and a litany of unmentioned domestic items should probably be enough to fill a calendar up, no?

And Michael kids, but which is actually more comical: the unlikely scenario of just ten experts running American foreign policy, or tens of thousands, spread across multiple continents, attempting to "change the character of other countries to the point where our decisions become easier and our final policy more advantageous to U.S. policy and security"? Both are unrealistic, but only one has been the actual foreign policy of the United States in the 21st Century.

June 5, 2010

Let the Eagle Choose

Looking back on the anniversary of President Obama's Cairo speech, Michael Rubin is troubled by the administration's freedom agenda - or lack thereof:

On this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, the silence of the Obama administration in the face of backsliding on rights, freedom, and liberty in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Arab states such as Egypt and Yemen, is deafening. In recent weeks, independent journalists in Kurdistan have begun to receive cell phone death threats (as Sardasht did before his murder). When they have gone to security to lodge complaints, the journalists are harassed. It is now only a matter of time until more journalists are whacked. The victims are not insurgents nor violent Islamists, but rather liberals and the best of the new generation. Obama’s inaction is dangerous because, when administration officials like assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman or U.S. congressmen on a junket take their photos with Barzani, cynicism grows about perceived U.S. endorsement dictators; this in turn encourages anti-Americanism.

Many visitors describe their experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan as positive; my twenty-plus trips were. Certainly, Kurdistan shines compared to Baghdad if not, increasingly, Basra. The problem is that, on human rights, stability, and liberty, the trajectory in Iraqi Kurdistan is backwards. [Emphasis my own - KS]

To which Matt Duss retorts:

I don’t disagree with Michael here on the Obama administration’s lack of follow-through on the promise of the Cairo speech, which I’ve found deeply disappointing, or with his concern about the increasing oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor do I disagree that cuddling up to dictators encourages cynicism and anti-Americanism (though isn’t it interesting how conservatives can make such claims without being accused of “blaming America”?) As you can see from the photo at right (Bush shaking hands with Barzani), Bush himself knew quite a bit about cuddling up to dictators.

I do disagree, however, with his use of “backsliding” here, as if George W. Bush left the region on a pro-democracy trajectory, which he most certainly didn’t.

How about we cut both presidents some slack, and accept the fact that American officials are going to do the occasional photo-op with thugs, dictators and generally bad people? This strikes me as yet another example of American interests and rhetoric being in conflict. The potential to look foolish and hypocritical will always exist so long as the United States is in the business of everyone else's business.

The United States decided back in 2003 that the overall stability of Iraq was a long-term strategic interest in the War on Terrorism, and we've lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in securing that supposed interest. Indeed, the very idea behind the strategic recalibration known as "The Surge" was to give all of Iraq the breathing room it required in order to become more like Kurdistan.

Can Washington rightfully turn around then and demand that Iraqi Kurdistan be freer-er? Is that consistent with the overall, long-term investment the United States has made in Iraq?

Even setting aside the freedom agenda, at what point must the United States decide that the business of global trade and commerce permits only a limited amount of rhetoric regarding freedom and democracy? Were all of the world's resources conveniently positioned under the world's democracies this wouldn't be so difficult. Sadly, this isn't the case. (Setting aside China's economic growth as compared to our more democratic allies in Europe.)

Take a step back and look at what, where and who the United States is in bed with around the globe, and then tell me that it's the American president's job to prevent journalists from receiving death threats in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is of course a terrible situation, but doesn't our executive have more pressing matters to attend to?

Dictatorships and otherwise isolated regimes have the luxury of rhetorical rigidity. America does not. Interests and rhetoric are colliding, and one may eventually have to give. So which will it be?

UPDATE: Evan Feigenbaum points out how China has its own problems in this area.

May 19, 2010

A Kurdish Model for Iraq

Max Boot has a good piece on CBS about the success of Iraq's Kurdish region relative to the rest of the country. He writes:

The Kurdish model suggests what Iraq can become in a few years-but only if it continues to improve in fighting crime and terrorism, reducing corruption, and developing the rule of law. Much of this is outside American control, but we can have a major impact on the security situation.

I wonder about this. Haven't the Kurds been successful because they're governing over fellow Kurds, who had a high degree of solidarity even before U.S. troops deposed Saddam? The Kurdish region isn't a miniature Iraq, populated with large numbers of Shiites and Sunni Arabs. As Boot himself writes, there have been problems with respect to non-Kurds:

The record is hardly perfect. Heavy-handed Kurdish attempts to extend their influence across northern Iraq have caused a backlash among Arabs and created an opening for extremist groups. In some areas they have been guilty of anti-Arab ethnic cleansing in an attempt to make up for anti-Kurdish campaigns under Saddam Hussein.

This would seem to suggest the opposite of what Boot contends, that Iraq can't become one big Kurdistan, because the heterogeneity of ethnic and sectarian groups would put too many strains on the government.

May 10, 2010

Plan B: Freedom?


Looking back on President Obama's Cairo speech, George Packer wonders if the so-called freedom agenda has become too cynically applied:

this Administration will devote its energy to repairing relations with foreign governments, and will not risk them for the sake of human rights. Where the stakes are low, as in the West African nation of Guinea, the Administration speaks out against atrocities, with positive effect; but where there’s a strategic interest, as in Ethiopia, which has jailed dozens of journalists and opposition politicians, the policy is mainly accommodation.
What if people around the world want more than a humble adjustment in America’s tone and behavior? What if American overtures to nasty regimes fail, because those regimes have a different view of their own survival? Then the President will have to devise a fallback strategy—preferably one that answers the desires of the people who applauded in Cairo, and doesn’t leave another generation cynical about American promises. [Emphasis added. - KS]

But isn't part of the problem that the so-called freedom agenda has become a de facto, as Packer puts it, "fallback strategy"? If the United States should learn anything from the previous administration, shouldn't it be that using the rhetoric of freedom as window dressing or, even worse, a "fallback" for policy failures only corrupts and sullies the very word itself?

For want of an actual freedom agenda, the American president is often asked to speak out against every petty despot and dictatorship around the world. But the United States cannot, I hope it goes without saying, invade and occupy every undemocratic country allegedly in need of liberation. Were it even effective - which, even in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, would be a rather untenable claim - it's simply not sustainable.

I believe a big part of the problem is the way in which we measure success and failure in American foreign policy. If, getting back to Packer, it's the American president's job to combat global cynicism, then we are in a lot of trouble. I think sequence matters, and if the United States wants to address freedom it should first start with basic human needs such as health. George W. Bush - for everything he got wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan - seemed to understand this in the case of Africa.

It might also be helpful to retain the moral high ground while discussing a sustainable freedom agenda. Which, for example, is more likely to engender global cynicism: the American president's failure to speak out against Ethiopia, or Americans publicly debating whether or not a U.S. citizen deserves his Miranda rights simply because he's a Muslim?

(AP Photo)

April 28, 2010

Paging Peter Wehner

The Washington Post reports on post-election Iraqi politics:

Sunnis, who won meager representation in the 2005 parliamentary election, voted in droves this year, contributing to Iraqiya's narrow lead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's slate won two fewer seats, but could conceivably come up on top as a result of the manual recount of 2.4 million votes in Baghdad and the disqualification of elected Iraqiya candidates.

That would almost certainly spark widespread anger in Sunni communities, where many view Maliki as a sectarian, and an increasingly authoritarian statesman.

The prime minister and other Shiite leaders have called the recent challenges to the election results lawful processes that must run their course. Allawi said Wednesday's statement would be Iraqiya's final appeal for fairness. He ominously warned that the party would henceforth "revert to the Iraqi people to implement their will."

Adding to the political tension, Human Rights Watch released a report late Tuesday saying that members of a military unit under Maliki's command systemically tortured and sexually abused hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners.

The report, drawn from interviews this week with 42 men who were formally held at the Muthana Airport military base, says guards beat, shocked and sodomized inmates in an effort to get them to confess to crimes.

Part of me thinks that we've entered into a period similar to 2004-2005, where brewing trouble inside Iraq is either dismissed or ignored. Just as conservatives and the Bush administration pooh-poohed the insurgency right up until the point that it exploded, now (if they're even paying attention) they're dismissing the political violence and declaring President Bush a world-historical figure for the Surge. Liberals, who had an incentive during the Bush years to sound the alarm, have mostly fallen silent (except for Robert Dreyfuss, who thinks Iran has already won). I sure hope I'm wrong. But sectarian torture camps don't bode well for the future of a democratic Iraq.

April 7, 2010

Did Obama Lose Iraq?


Up till now, I understood the conservative line on Iraq to be that we won. But Frank Gaffney argues that the recent violence in Iraq, coupled with the surge in Afghanistan, actually augur an American defeat in Iraq. And, naturally, it's Obama's fault:

An unmistakable vacuum of power is being created by Mr. Obama's determination to withdraw U.S. "combat" forces no matter what, starting with the cities a few months ago and in short order from the rest of the country.

Increasingly, that vacuum is being filled by Iran and its proxies on the one hand and, on the other, insurgent Sunni forces, both those aligned with al Qaeda and those who have, at least until recently, been suppressing the AQI. On what might be called the third hand, Iraqi Kurds are experiencing their own internal problems as well as an increasingly ill-concealed inclination to assert their independence from the rest of the country.

Surprisingly, Gaffney writes the entire column with not a single reference to the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush which required the U.S. to leave Iraq. Obviously, you could fault Obama for not trying to renege, subvert, ignore or renegotiate that agreement - but to not mention in the context of the current troop draw down in Iraq seems odd.

Although to be fair, Frank Gaffney is the font of many interesting ideas, including one, voiced recently, that the new logo of the Missile Defense Agency is actually an Islamic crescent that reflected the Obama administration's submission to Islam.

(AP Photo)

Map of Iraq's Elections

Radio Free Europe has put together a nice interactive map of Iraq's election results: you can sort by provinces, gender, party, parliament seats and turnout.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Matt Duss reports on the Foreign Policy Initiative's Iran: Prospects for Regime Change panel:

During the second panel of the day, which focused on U.S. policy options toward Iran, panelists Elliott Abrams, currently of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute both lamented the fact that the Obama administration seemed so disinclined to threaten — let alone take — preventive military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Abrams was particularly incensed that top military leaders like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have been downplaying the possibility of military action against Iran. “Israelis I speak to can’t believe how stupid the U.S. is to take a military strike off the table,” Abrams said.

Left unmentioned, however, was the single most important factor acting to constrain U.S. policy options on Iran, specifically in regard to military force: Iraq. In numerous ways — stress on our military, regional destabilization and unrest, demonstration of the limits of U.S. power and influence, the need to shore up Iraq’s fragile government — the U.S. intervention in Iraq has made the idea of U.S. military action against Iran basically a non-starter for U.S. policymakers.

This is true, but I'd also suggest the Obama administration has foreclosed the option with a surge into Afghanistan and the elevation of nation building in that country as a key U.S. priority. If the U.S. took a blase attitude about political stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could pull back its troops and strike Iran with much less danger to U.S. forces and without much concern for the impact on Afghanistan or Iraq's political stability (not that I think a military strike would be prudent).

April 6, 2010

Geostrategic Goalposts and Iran

I fear Andrew may have misunderstood my point on Iran-Iraq rapprochement. Perhaps Larison can clarify for me:

We could also draw another lesson from the growth of Iranian influence and power following the invasion of Iraq, and this is that policies that are supposed to increase and advance American power can be short-sighted and counterproductive. Indeed, these policies can ultimately produce the opposite result. More than that, we could conclude from this experience that the people most intent on securing and perpetuating U.S. hegemony are often the worst judges of how to do this.

Right, and as I argued yesterday, were Iranian influence in Iraq not marred by the ever-nebulous and changing concept of "American interests," we'd likely be cheering and gushing over such short order rapprochement between two bitter enemies.

And it should go without saying that there indeed are negative consequences for the United States should Iran exerts too much influence in Baghdad - especially if those interests are anything close to what we were told they'd be in 2003 and onward. Indeed, if keeping Iran isolated in its own neighborhood was imperative for American interests and security, then we basically acted in direct contradiction to that specific interest (there's a reason Iran rolled out the red carpet for the invasion of Afghanistan, after all).

And I believe the problem, as Larison notes, isn't just the policy, but the policymakers. The goalposts are constantly being moved on American interests in the Middle East, as wonks and writers jump from one bogeyman to the next. But this isn't strategy, it's just reaction; a bouncy ball of central front-ery.

April 5, 2010

Baghdad's Geographic Freedom


Addressing Iran's neighborly dalliances, Matthew Yglesias writes:

We were never going to be able to keep 100,000 soliders in Iraq forever. And by the same token, Iran can’t just leave the region and go be somewhere else. Some degree of Iranian influence is simply inevitable and always was.

Moreover, the fact that these two countries - both, just a quarter of a century ago, having been engaged in arguably the nastiest, bloodiest war in modern Mideast history - have come this far would normally be the stuff of historical praise; something akin to Europe's rise from warring rivals to peaceful partners. Their economic and religious ties have been well documented, and despite newly-elected Iraqi President and likely-PM-to-be Ayad Allawi's rhetoric, it's highly unlikely he'll do too much to shake the boat on Iraq-Iran relations.

This is why the horse race handicapping of which Shia factions are up or down in Iraq on any given day makes very little sense to me. One needn't know who the president of Iraq is, or whether or not "pro-Iran" political parties are influencing elections and government decisions, in order to measure Iranian influence inside Iraq. A globe or a good map should do the trick.

The problem with our thinking on Iranian influence in Iraq is we assume it to all be nefarious and cabal-esque, when in truth much of it is just geographic destiny. Iranian influence in Iraq is inevitable and - thanks in part to the United States - now expedited. There's no horse race to handicap in this case; that race was lost in 2003.

Iraq is indeed free now to choose its allies, and that's a good thing, right?

March 31, 2010

Iraq's Refugees


Roland Flamini highlights the persistent problem of Iraq refugees:

Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, with the phased American military withdrawal already underway and following elections this month that the Obama administration hopes will mark the closing chapter of U.S. involvement in Iraq, there are still more Iraqi refugees leaving their country than returning to it. According to the latest report from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, released last week, 24,000 Iraqi refugees sought asylum in the industrialized nations in 2009. But that's not counting those who crossed into Syria or Jordan, who have in the past tended to be more numerous but are not covered in the U.N. surveys. According to a Brookings Institution ongoing Iraq watch, there are now 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and around 450,000 in Jordan.

But the number of Iraqi returnees -- a standard gauge of whether the refugee population believes official assurances that life is returning to normal -- was low last year, and remains so now. The U.N. says 20,000 Iraqis returned last year from across the border in Syria. But only 2,000 made the reverse trip from Sweden, one of the major host countries in the West.

I'm not sure how much we can read into these numbers, but if they're accurate it does suggest that a good deal of uncertainty and fear remain. Now perhaps Iraq's refugees have found a better life in their host countries, or maybe they're still waiting for a political deal at the top and a few more months of relative calm before making the trip back. Or maybe they know something that Peter Wehner and company don't.

(AP Photo)

March 29, 2010

Surge Wars: Obama vs. Bush


Stephen Walt hopes that Obama is going to follow Bush's Iraq surge script in Afghanistan:

First, announce an escalation of the U.S. effort (aka a "surge"), but set a rough deadline for it and quietly put new emphasis on "political reconciliation." (Done). Next, bombard the media with lots of evidence of progress, such as Taliban "strongholds" seized, al Qaeda leaders killed or captured, Taliban leaders arrested in Pakistan, etc., so that people think the surge is working. (Now underway). Third, arrange a diplomatic settlement that requires the phased withdrawal of U.S./ISAF troops, even if their departure is on a rather lengthy timetable. The Iraqi equivalent was the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in the fall of 2008; in Afghanistan, it would probably entail some sort of negotiation between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and various other warlords (whether by a loya jirga) or some other device (Maybe underway too?). Finally, start removing the "surged" forces more-or-less on schedule-and ahead of the 2012 election cycle-so that you can claim to have avoided the quagmire that critics warned about back in 2009 (Remains to be seen).

I think this overlooks a critical component that distinguishes an Obama surge from Bush's Iraq surge. In the latter, there was an entire corps of pundits and former administration officials heavily invested in portraying the Iraq surge as a victory. Even before President Bush left office, they were proclaiming the early security gains of the Iraq surge as a historic victory. Since the gains have held, they've gone into overdrive.

In Afghanistan, there's no one to declare victory for Obama. Conservative supporters of the president's Afghan surge are on record opposing a 2011 draw-down. It's safe to assume that the country will remain violent and unstable enough in 2011 for them to renew and strengthen their opposition to any large-scale draw-down, especially since it will dovetail with the larger election-year critique of Obama as craven appeaser. And Obama doesn't have much, if any, support for an Afghan surge to his left. That leaves the administration to make the case that they've "won" in Afghanistan by their lonesome.

And 2012 works against Obama in another way. One reason I suspect that Iraq war supporters proclaimed victory with such reckless abandon was the calculation that any ensuing violence could be dumped in Obama's lap. The bigger the proclaimed victory, the harder the partisan hit Obama would take if Iraq's sectarian tensions once again erupted. At the next election cycle, the Obama administration has no one to "hand off" Afghanistan to but (it hopes) itself.

(AP Photo)

March 22, 2010

Lessons Learned


Rand's James Dobbins wades into the whither the Powell Doctrine debate:

Transformation, as pursued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon, had among its objectives the reduction of the size of the deployed force needed to accomplish any given task—by trading manpower for firepower, mobility, and precision. The resultant Rumsfeld Doctrine, if it may be so called, was quite effective in standup battles against less well-equipped and less well-trained adversaries in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the slimmed-down, high-tech forces initially deployed there proved grossly inadequate to deter the subsequent emergence of violent resistance movements and to defeating the resultant insurgencies.

Both the Powell and Mullen doctrines provide guidelines of enduring value for the deployment and employment of the American military. Mullen certainly has not been arguing for the Vietnam-style incrementalism against which Powell was reacting 18 years ago; nor, one expects, would Powell argue today against the discriminate application of firepower that Mullen is advocating.

And both Mullen and Powell likely recognize that the American forces originally deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq were both too underwhelming in size and too indiscriminate in their application of firepower to achieve decisive results. From failed doctrines, at least there are lessons to be learned.

I would agree with the last line, but notice the lesson that is being learned here: that the U.S. failed in Iraq and Afghanistan because of a failed military doctrine.

But is there a military doctrine in existence that can create democratic governance and institutions in countries where none presently exist? Is there a military doctrine that can meet the ambitious state-building dreams of civilian policy-makers?

Even assuming the U.S. poured enough troops into Iraq to ensure security and keep a lid on any nascent Sunni insurgency, would civilian policy-makers have been able to construct the democratic Iraq they desired? I'm doubtful.

The lesson Washington seems to be learning from Iraq and Afghanistan is not that civilian policy-makers should set more modest goals and keep a higher-threshold on the use of military force but that next time, the military really should do a better job meeting the expansive vision of their civilian masters. And, if Admiral Mullen's speech is any indication, it seems the military agrees.

(AP Photo)

March 16, 2010

Irony Alert

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast applauds the "soundness of the Iraqi elections."

March 14, 2010

George Bush FTW?


Is it time for George W. Bush's victory lap? Not so fast, writes Carlos Lozada:

So, is it time to declare victory and start putting Iraq behind us? Not quite, says Dominic Tierney, the author of "Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics." In Iraq, victory won't become evident with a surrender document, a key battle or a symbolic moment, like an election, but through a series of "incremental gains," much like a war on poverty, said Tierney, a Swarthmore political scientist. "It would take years of Iraq as a stable ally in the Middle East before we can look back and say it was all worth it," he said.

Today's triumphalism could easily dissipate, Tierney fears, if U.S. casualties jump or violence rises as Iraq puts together a new government. But as the United States struggles with wars abroad and political gridlock at home, even temporary public indifference to Iraq may feel like a strange sort of victory.

I think this is basically right, however the public indifference mentioned by Lozada is really the most troubling aspect of the current Iraq debate. A very small and insulated bubble of think tankery and media continues to debate 'victory' in Iraq; meanwhile, the American people have essentially moved on to bigger issues. And while one could argue that indifference is one of the many products of victory, I'd argue that the 2008 election suggests otherwise; the last candidate standing, after all, was the one who could legitimately wash his hands of the Iraq War vote.

But there's a far bigger problem in judging Iraq 'victory' or 'defeat' by the fluctuation of violence or the frequency of peaceful and orderly elections. Joshua Keating explains:

While few are shedding tears for Saddam Hussein, there's not much evidence to suggest that his removal made the world safer -- or that ousting him in this manner was worth the exorbitant cost in blood and treasure. The other two charter members of the axis of evil -- Iran and North Korea -- are still ruled by anti-American autocrats with fast-developing nuclear programs, and Iran, if anything, has been strengthened by the replacement of its archenemy with a reasonably friendly Shiite-dominated government.
The bottom line is that thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars were spent to turn one admittedly barbaric dictatorship into a semidemocracy addled by sectarianism and extremist violence. Doesn't seem worth it.

Moreover, the metric is all wrong, and it's imperative that we continue to evaluate and judge the Iraq War not by the success of the so-called Surge or this month's elections, but by the decision to go to war in the first place. Americans might want to revisit that decision with care, because Iraq is now the great project of a generation. It is the Moon landing of the oughts; America's global contribution. You don't, as I've argued, get multiple Iraqs. Rarely is a state handed the global capital to unilaterally re-engineer an entire society based on dubious intelligence and assertions.

In other words - to tweak the Pottery Barn rule - we shouldn't judge success or failure in Iraq by how well we glued the vase back together, but why it was broken to begin with.

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2010

Democracy, WMD, Iraq

Peter Feaver has an important acknowledgment on the subject:

There were good reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it. But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq in 2002 hinged on Iraq's WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited) and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush administration, the president's national security team would have pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004 presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more widely in the international community, the argument with our allies would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over the best strategy for dealing with it.

I think Feaver's acknowledgment is important because it also casts the post-hoc rationalizing and exculpating that has accompanied Iraq's current stability in the proper light. None of the national security objectives of the invasion were realized, minus the "regime change" so prized by the war's most fervent supporters.

But there's a problem with Feaver's argument as well, and that is the notion that the existence of WMD would have justified a war. Here, obviously, opinions differ widely, but a large part of the WMD argument didn't simply hinge on the mere existence of weapons, but on what Saddam would do with them. We were led to believe, principally by neoconservatives analysts who didn't have much to say about al Qaeda before 9/11, that Saddam would take the unprecedented step of transferring weapons to al Qaeda for use against the U.S.

In other words, we were led into the war on the basis of a hypothetical. World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan - these were military actions taken in response to concrete events. The second Iraq war was not. Many people were not troubled by this use of military power at the time - indeed, they pushed for war precisely because it would be a demonstration of America's willingness to use force outside of traditional norms. And I think this view informs a lot of the cries of "victory" surrounding Iraq - it's not just a rear-guard effort to rehabilitate careers and legacies. It's an effort to resuscitate the idea that military power can and should be used in this fashion.

March 11, 2010



Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2010

What Next for Iraq?


By Kirk H. Sowell

Now that Iraq has made it through another round of parliamentary elections, what next? The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has announced that it will release vote counts in thirds, will all votes to be officially certified by March 18, although such deadlines have been delayed in the past. Originally, the first announcement was set for this Thursday, March 11, but IHEC officials are now saying that they will try to release the first round of results tomorrow. The accelerated schedule no doubt has been influenced by the rampant leaking of partial and sometimes contradictory vote results by Iraqi websites linked to the parties. Credible reports indicate that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has won a plurality, although by how much is not yet clear.

Once IHEC has certified the results, President Jalal Talabani will have 15 days to call the new parliament into session. It then has 30 days to elect parliamentary leaders and a new president. Once the new president is sworn in, he will have 15 days to designate the candidate of the largest bloc as the prime minister-designate, and the PM-designate will have 30 days to form a government. If he cannot, then he may ask for an extension, or the president may designate another bloc leader, and the second bloc chosen does not have to be the largest. For a more detailed explanation of the process, see a recent paper by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. You may also want to check out IHEC’s website (although they don’t usually keep the English version updated very well).

Bear in mind that the parties which make up the electoral blocs are not required to vote with the leadership of their bloc. While party discipline in the last parliament was pretty strong it was quite common for parties to take positions against the blocs through which they were elected, or leave them entirely. Once the parties are seated, I expect them to realign into five groups which do not necessarily correspond to their blocs.

The first will be Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Maliki’s bloc is the most internally cohesive, and it would be surprising of any of the parties running on it were to abandon him.

The second will be the Kurds and the most Iranian-aligned parties of the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance (INA). The success of the opposition Kurdish Gorran Party will likely make them more fragmented than before, but the Kurds’ ties to the INA’s leading party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), are longstanding and welded together by a common opposition to Maliki’s centralizing drive and the Sunni Arabs and secular Shia who make up the current opposition. While this Kurd-ISCI tandem would like to replace Maliki, I don’t expect them to have the seats to do so, and they will probably negotiate a government with him.

The third will be the Sadrist parties of the INA, the Sadr Current led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and the smaller Fadhila Party of the Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqubi. They joined ISCI in the INA only to check Maliki, and given their long mutual enmity it would be surprising if they stayed together. Like ISCI, both Sadr and Fadhila have had past conflict with Maliki. The difference between the Sadrists and ISCI is that the Sadrists have made genuine efforts to form coalitions with Sunni Arabs. I know the Sadrists would love to exclude their Shia Islamist rivals from power, but I doubt there will be enough seats for that. They will probably end up negotiating a deal with Maliki.

The fourth group is made up of Sunni Arabs and secular Shia parties, and seem certain to be dominated by Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement. I view recent media coverage of Allawi’s success as overblown, however. Allawi’s bloc has done well in the Sunni provinces, akin to an American presidential candidate running up votes in a state his party always wins anyway. Credible estimates I’ve seen from multiple sources in the Iraqi press give Allawi only somewhat better results in Shia areas than in the past, which is not enough. They will likely end up in the opposition.

A possible fifth group might form from Sunni Arab and secular Shia groups outside of Allawi’s bloc who could end up being a kind of swing vote in parliament. The most prominent is that of Ahmad Abu Risha, whose Anbar-based party played a key role in fighting al-Qaeda during the so-called Surge. This group could also include Sunni and secular Shia elements of the INA which aren’t satisfied with whatever deal seals the new government.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

March 9, 2010

Can Democracy Take Hold in Iraq?


Daniel Larison takes note of Iraq's one million men under arms and writes: of the last things fledgling democracies in countries with a history of authoritarianism need is a massively oversized military and security apparatus. It is often the case in developing countries that the military can serve as an institution that unites and integrates the nation. This will tend to make it the one institution most of the population trusts and respects. However, with greater prestige and respect comes a willingness to intervene in politics when the elected civilians prove themselves to be incapable of governing effectively and/or relatively honestly. When experiments in liberalism, democratization and privatization go awry or are associated with extremely negative economic conditions, public confidence in these things disappears. If democratization is followed by dysfunction, corruption, misrule and lack of basic services, military or authoritarian government becomes very attractive. Given the extent of the sectarian politicization of Iraq’s military and police that already exists, and considering the harsh and arbitrary practices of security forces right now, the differences between an authoritarian and a democratic Iraq are not nearly as great as they are supposed to be.

This is true but here's the tricky part: we need to set the bar for Iraq low because it's unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the emergence of a truly liberal, westernized market democracy to spring forth from the ruins of Saddam's bloody tyranny so quickly (with time, hopefully). As galling as a lot of the crowing about "victory" is, it is, to my mind, a good thing that Washington is going to content itself with "good enough" in Iraq.

Pointing out that Iraq is at present not very democratic, that Freedom House presently ranks it as unfree or that Transparency International ranked Iraq as the fourth most corrupt country in the world - these things could easily be turned on their head as a reason to stay in the country for an even longer stretch until we've brought it up to our standard. I think James Dobbins is right when he said the standard of any state-building exercise must be a relative one. A countries progress must be pegged to the status of its neighbors, not some absolute standard of perfection. That this nuance will be lost amidst the crowing is unfortunate, but it's the price we have to pay to reset our strategic position following the war.

(AP Photo)

March 8, 2010

Iraq Coverage

Just a reminder, in addition to the blog coverage we're offering on the Iraq elections, be sure to check out our Iraq hub page for a roundup of all the latest commentary, headlines and video on this week's vote.

Discipline of the Sword as Foreign Policy


There isn't a whole lot I can add to Greg's excellent critique of Jonah Goldberg's latest NRO piece on the current situation in Iraq. I concur with just about everything he had to say, although I'd take said criticism a tad further and ask what I believe to be a fundamental - and often neglected - question in American foreign policy: what do we expect of government when it adventures abroad?

Aside from, as Greg already noted, the many lives lost and the trillions likely to be spent when all is said and done, there is an overarching question about the responsibility of government to do as it says it will do, and no more, while exerting American power abroad. Were this a matter of domestic spending I suspect Goldberg would agree, yet as soon as the United States leaves its own shores these principles seem to become null and void. After all, it's certainly noble to suggest that politics end at the water's edge, but should American principles as well?

I don't intend for this to be an anti-Republican, anti-Bush or even an anti-Jonah Goldberg screed. I actually read Jonah's book, Liberal Fascism, and while I disagree with several of his conclusions, I enjoyed the read overall. I especially liked the chapter on President Wilson and the Progressives, in which he writes:

Today we unreflectively associate fascism with militarism. But it should be remembered that fascism was militaristic because militarism was "progressive" at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The idea that war was the source of moral values had been pioneered by German intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the influence of these intellectuals on the American mind was enormous. When America entered the war in 1917, progressive intellectuals, versed in the same doctrines and philosophies popular on the European continent, leaped at the opportunity to remake society through the discipline of the sword.

Now, I'm in no way suggesting that Jonah Goldberg is using the Iraq War to reengineer American society, nor am I calling him a conservative fascist. I am, however, concerned that this messaging whitewash we're now witnessing only serves to further confuse the purpose of American military might.

That Iraq could possibly grow into a freer, more pluralistic and even prosperous Mideast democracy is a wonderful prospect. But it is not the reason the United States invaded Iraq, and if we don't keep that in mind every time someone such as Goldberg decides to see silver linings in the policy clouds we will only make similar mistakes over, and over and over again.

And if the purpose of American foreign policy is to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world, I would then ask, at what cost? Freedom isn't free; indeed, it apparently, as Greg noted, costs tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Is this sustainable? I would think not. U.S. military supremacy can either be a single tier in American foreign policy, or it can be the entirety of that foreign policy. I fear that both political parties often confuse the latter, be it deliberately or not, in order to score cheap points against the sitting president. They do this because it apparently works. Goldberg writes that the mad dash for Iraq credit "shows that America’s victories aren’t Republican or Democratic victories, but American victories. The same goes for its losses." This would be true, if ever a loss or failure abroad were admitted in Washington. But to be that introspective would equal political suicide, and thus, the victory parade must go on.

That's all well and good for legacy building and the campaigns to come, but is such a lack in retrospective criticism healthy for the country as a whole?

Analyzing the South


By Kirk H. Sowell

Earlier today I posted a brief guide to understanding Iraq's election results along with links to a couple of Arabic websites publishing partial results, the Iraqi equivalent of exit polls. Right now the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) is publishing partial results as they come in, and while the source is partisan, the numbers seem credible and by and large indicate that they are losing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. If you read Arabic, this is the page in which they are publishing rolling updates: Iraqi Citizens. Note that mainstream Iraqi and pan-Arab sources have only published very broad predictions, if at all, and are not publishing specific numbers yet, as the votes are counted.

This is a basic summary of the reports they are giving, last updated at 5:50 p.m. Iraq time. These provinces are all Shia provinces in southern Iraq, where the swing vote is located:

Karbala: Maliki wins seven of ten seats, the INA three.

Basra: Maliki with a huge early lead over the INA, 6,001 to 2,603, with Allawi's bloc a distant third. A later update did not give numbers, but confirmed that Maliki was ahead with the INA second.

Najaf: Maliki with "small lead" over INA. No specific numbers.

Wasit: The INA is publishing specific numbers for its own candidates by name, saying they are doing well, but says that overall results are "about equivalent" for Maliki and themselves, without giving numbers for Maliki.

Dhi Qar: The INA is publishing some specific numbers by district, but none overall for the province. The numbers cited give the INA a slight edge over Maliki, but probably within the margin of error.

The results in the ten Shia-majority provinces is key because they constitute the only real "swing voters" in Iraqi politics. The Kurds vote for Kurdish parties, the Sunni Arabs for Sunni Arab parties, but the Shia might vote for one of the competing Shia Islamist blocs or the secular Shia such as Iyad Allawi, who are running on joint slates with the Sunni Arabs. The election will thus be determined there. Not counting Baghdad, which is mixed but now predominately Shia, these five provinces account for a clear majority of the Shia seats.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

Understanding Iraq's Poll Results


By Kirk H. Sowell

While partial results of Iraq's parliamentary election are now trickling out into Arabic media, they are not of sufficient reliability to make seat projections, but I have provided links to these “exit polls” below.

Iraq’s new parliament will have 325 members. Bearing in mind the ethno-sectarian breakdown of parliamentary seats is necessary to understand the country’s balance of power:

Shia: 175-180
Sunni Arab: 75-80
Kurdish: 60
Minorities (Christians, etc.): 8

I derive these figures from the provincial seat allocations set by Iraq’s electoral commission. For mixed provinces, I derived a total by using the results of the January 2009 provincial elections as a baseline. In Baghdad, for example, Shia parties won 44 of 57 seats in 2009. With 68 seats for the parliamentary elections, my estimate of Shia seats up for grabs includes about 54 from Baghdad.

Below are the major blocs and political parties. Iraq’s electoral system requires parties to have a certain threshold in order to receive any seats - depending on the number of seats in the province - but allows parties to form blocs which add up their votes in order to ensure that they meet the threshold, and then divide the seats according to party agreement. Under the “open list” system, voters are allowed to vote for individual candidates in addition to a list, but otherwise a bloc’s seats are divided according to that agreement.

State of Law Coalition (Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki)
Maliki is a Shia Islamist and his coalition is dominated by his Islamic Dawa Party, although it contains some Sunni Arab participation. Although State of Law contains about 40 parties, and has a number of prominent individuals running on it – including Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani – it is dominated by Maliki as an individual. Maliki’s political platform emphasizes Iraqi nationalism; a strong, centralized state with Shia Islamist ideology played down.

Iraq National Alliance (INA)
The INA, the formation of which was openly negotiated by Iran in 2009, is Shia Islamist and Maliki’s primary Shia rival. It is much less cohesive, with a number of important parties. The two most important are long-time rivals: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadrist faction of Muqtada al-Sadr. ISCI was created by Iran and retains close ties to its progenitor, while the Sadrists have more nationalist roots but have accepted support from Iran in their fight against the United States. The nominal chairman of the INA is former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who split from the Dawa Party after an unsuccessful party coup attempt against Maliki in 2007. He appears to have decided to throw his lot with Iran in a bid to get back into power.

The Kurds are irrelevant in the contest between the Shia Islamists and Sunni Arabs and secular Shia during the election itself; Arabs vote for Arabs, Kurds for Kurds. But their approximately 60 seats will be important in forming a new government. The Kurds are closest to ISCI and thus the INA, and have had problems with Maliki, but their primary conflict is with Sunni Arabs.

Arab Opposition
What we may broadly refer to as the “Arab Opposition” contains an array of political blocs which contain almost all Sunni Arabs plus several secular Shia parties. As the ethno-sectarian breakdown described above makes clear, Sunnis cannot play a meaningful role in Iraq’s national government without allies who can win seats in Shia provinces. The most important of these blocs is the Iraqi National Movement led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. While Allawi is secular Shia, his bloc is largely Sunni.

One obstacle Allawi faces is that while the Shia Islamists are divided into just two blocs, the opposition Shia parties are spread across four (including his). If Allawi fails to achieve the breakthrough in the Shia provinces he needs, this will be one of the reasons. And the Sunni Arab-Kurd conflict means that he needs to do quite well in Shia areas in order to form a government or even force Shia Islamists into a power-sharing agreement.

I will publish seat projections as data from independent sources becomes available. Reports currently published in Arab media suggest that Maliki is ahead overall and that Allawi’s bloc dominated in the Sunni provinces, but provide contradictory results from the Shia provinces. Arabic-proficient readers who want to read the partial results as they are published by partisan sources may refer to this Maliki website or ISCI’s Buratha News. I emphasize that independent sources have not yet published such precise results.

Kirk H. Sowell is an independent consultant based in the Washington D.C. area.

(AP Photo)

March 7, 2010

President Obama's Statement on Iraq Elections

Speaking in the Rose Garden, President Obama offered up a note of praise for the Iraqi elections:

Continue reading "President Obama's Statement on Iraq Elections" »

Iraq Debate: Ricks vs. Sullivan


Thomas Ricks and Andrew Sullivan have gone back-and-forth over the issue of retaining additional troops inside Iraq to keep the peace following the 2011 withdrawal date established by the Status of Forces Agreement. Ricks believes such forces are essential to maintain stability in the country and asks: "What could be more imperialistic than invading a country pre-emptively on false premises and then leaving many years later in a selfish, callous and clumsy manner?"

Sullivan counters: "Staying forever, while your own country goes bankrupt."

I ultimately believe that Ricks' argument is going to win the day, not because it's terribly persuasive on the merits, but because it operates within the conventional wisdom about how the U.S. should interface in the Middle East. As I wrote during the campaign:

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may. The only way to convincingly argue on behalf of ending the war is to mount an argument in favor of fundamentally redefining America's interests in the region. Short of that, any proposal for withdrawal will be hostage to the persistent specter of regional instability.

And so it goes.

The trouble with Ricks' argument, and the course Washington appears to be on, is that it is predicated on best-case scenarios. It is, fundamentally, a gamble that nothing major will go wrong inside Iraq that 50,000 U.S. troops cannot contain. If we bet wrong, there is absolutely no rationale for not sending in even more American troops. A commitment of 50,000 troops is essentially a commitment of 150,000, to be stationed in the country indefinitely.

This argument is also predicated on what I view to be a fairly hubristic reading of Washington's capacity to micro-manage events inside Iraq to our liking. As I've said before, if we had such skills, why did we not employ them in the years 2003-2007? That the surge succeed in quelling violence is no guarantee that Washington can hit the next curve ball Iraq throws at us.

(AP Photo)

March 5, 2010

Taking Credit for Iraq

Jonah Goldberg observes that America's view, or at least the elite view, of the Iraq war is changing:

Indeed, that’s what’s so interesting about the strange turn in the zeitgeist. Many of the war’s most ardent opponents claimed that Americans didn’t like the war for the same reasons the hard Left didn’t. But all that talk about “imperialism,” “neoconservatism,” “Cheney-Halliburton blood for oil,” and the rest was not at the core of the war’s unpopularity. What most Americans didn’t like was that we were losing militarily and costing the precious lives of our troops.

I think this is half-right. Reading this, you'd think the only objections to invading Iraq concerned the leftist critique about Halliburton, etc. And sure, there was plenty of that. But the most powerful objection, made by Scowcroft and others, was the one that centered on necessity. This argument did not win the day at the time, but as the war dragged on and the costs became clearer, Americans began to reassess the fundamental question of necessity. Yes, Goldberg is right, Americans want short and victorious wars. Who doesn't? But why wasn't the Iraq war short? After all, we deposed Saddam in a matter of weeks. Why didn't the Bush administration begin a rapid draw-down of American troops after "Mission Accomplished?" Why, ultimately, did concerns for the stability of post-war Iraq keep the U.S. mired in the place for years after the initial victory over Saddam was achieved?

Part of it was clearly an egregious lack in post-war planning. But perhaps a more important issue was the war's lack of legitimacy (i.e. its lack of necessity). The failure to find WMD knocked the legs out of the national security rationale for the invasion. If the administration had nevertheless packed up and left quickly, leaving Iraq in a shambles, it would have been damned twice. So the only possible redemption for the effort lay in an attempt to rebuild the country into a pro-Western democracy.

Goldberg, in his own way, acknowledges this:

First and foremost, it’s a sign that the war in Iraq, while costly and deservedly controversial, was not for nothing. Putting Iraq on a path to democracy and decency is a noble accomplishment of which Americans — of all parties — should be proud. Even if you think the war wasn’t worth it or that it was unjustified, only the truly blinkered or black-hearted can be vexed by the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone and the country is on the path to better days.

Should this occur, it is indeed a noble accomplishment, but what of the road to get there? The path from Saddam to self-government is piled high with Iraqi dead. The rough estimates for the numbers of Iraqis killed since the invasion reaches into the tens of thousands, and possibly over 100,000.

Obviously we don't know what might have been in Iraq. Maybe Saddam and his brutal minions would have killed an equal number of Iraqis before they gave way to a new government - which may have been even worse. Maybe the country would have come apart after Saddam's death and led to an equal number killed. Maybe all possible roads that diverged from America's decision to invade involved considerably more dead Iraqis than the one we took. All of that is very plausible. But you can't ignore the fact that the road we took resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis. If Goldberg and other war supporters want to make the omelet/egg argument about their lives and the creation of a new democracy, fine. But I think it's difficult to try to take credit for the emergence of a democratic government in Iraq without simultaneously taking "credit" (or rather, responsibility) for the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed to get there.

March 4, 2010

What Matters in Iraq?


Peter Wehner has an interesting perspective on events in Iraq. He writes:

With the passage of time, President Bush’s decision to champion a new counterinsurgency strategy, including sending 30,000 additional troops to Iraq when most Americans were bone-weary of the war, will be seen as one of the most impressive and important acts of political courage in our lifetime. And those who fiercely opposed the so-called surge were not only wrong in their judgment; in some instances their actions were shameful.

To reframe Wehner's argument: President Bush was unhappy with his house. He had some legitimate questions about how secure the structure was and whether it was in need of some improvements. So he decided to set it on fire. He watched it burn almost to the ground (killing tens of thousands of innocent people in the process) and then decided to grab a hose and douse the flames. Despite the hosing, there are still embers everywhere that could potentially reignite. And in the process of burning down his home, his more aggressive and more powerful neighbor now has a better chance of taking over the entire block.

Wehner would have us believe not only that there are no embers (because if they reignite it's Obama's fault now) but that we should pay no mind to the fact that the "most impressive and important political acts of our lifetime" was occasioned by a much larger strategic failure that made such an act of courage necessary in the first place. Don't worry that he burned the place down, just celebrate the fact that President Bush had the wisdom to eventually decide to grab a hose.

This is an extraordinary act of revisionism. But Wehner goes further:

What America has done for Iraq, which had been brutalized for so long, may not be the noblest act in our history. But it ranks quite high. The Iraq war was, in fact, a war of liberation. And the liberation appears to be working. Nothing is guaranteed; “Everything in Iraq is hard,” Ambassador Crocker once said. But regardless of where one stood on the war and the surge, what we see unfolding in Iraq today is something to be grateful for, and to take pride in.

The emergence of a democratic government in Iraq is a good thing and indeed, we should be grateful that the Iraqis are out from under Saddam's yoke. But it's important to distinguish between things that are good, and things that are worth spending 3 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives on. The invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be justified solely on the basis of our love for democracy. The costs must be justified by gains to the security of Americans.

I would be interested in hearing Wehner defend the proposition that elections in Iraq are moderating the Pakistani Taliban's desire to attack American troops or provide aid and comfort to al Qaeda. Or that Iraq's democracy is undermining the radicalization of Islamist militants worldwide. I would also be interested in hearing why Wehner believes that the regional empowerment of Iran and the placement of a government in Iraq that it is sympathetic (to put it mildly) to Tehran is a strategic boon to the United States. I would like to know why having tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq as a hostage to the country's potential instability positions America well against the emergence of potential great power rivals.

Again, it's not that the surge wasn't successful in tamping down violence and giving America the chance to leave Iraq in a more stable condition. It's not that the democratic process unfolding in Iraq isn't a good thing for the Iraqis (although they had to endure tremendous suffering to get there thanks in large measure to extraordinarily poor post-war planning on the part of Wehner's administration). It's that these things in and of themselves are not the determinants of success or failure in Iraq. The metric is American security and whether the gains there (if any) are commensurate with the costs.

(AP Photo)

March 1, 2010

China's Mideast Security Detail


Tom Barnett explains how China could reap the long-term benefits of the Iraq War:

Will the Chinese begin to assume the same kind of security role that the U.S. has historically played in the region anytime soon? Hardly. And yet China's increasing presence throughout the region already alters the correlation of forces. China's national oil company, Sinopec, is the only foreign firm to date to win oil access in both Iraq's Kurdish region and the south. Given Baghdad's ambition and Beijing's unquenchable thirst, the two are a match made in Big Oil heaven -- with Washington's blessing.

And more importantly, with Washington's security. China gets another energy source, minus the nasty byproducts and backlash that come with regional hegemony. Meanwhile, we will have spent approximately $2 Trillion to give China more markets in which they will attempt to supplant the dollar.

(AP Photo)

Locker Room Antics


Michael Kamber critiques The Hurt Locker:

I’ve covered a number of conflicts and Iraq was the least romantic, the one that looked the least like the war movies I grew up on. Yet Ms. Bigelow pulls one out for Hollywood. While many have praised the movie as anti-war, I believe — in a counter-intuitive way — that it glamorizes war. The Steely-Nerved-Protagonist Who Has Seen Too Much kills the bad guys in an action-packed setting and eventually signs up for more. His hard-drinking, P.T.S.D.-ravaged character becomes that much more romantic for his flaws.

I understand the argument that Ms. Bigelow and her team should be applauded for tackling certain issues and bringing the war home to Americans. Yet with so many scenes and details untrue, the actual war in Iraq becomes merely a dramatic jumping off point for the filmmakers.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2010

Ahmed Chalabi, Ctd

Max Boot semi-defends my imputation that Ahmed Chalabi played a significant role in luring neoconservatives into believing things about Iraq that turned out to be disastrously wrong but were nonetheless convenient in selling the Iraq war to the American people.

For the record, here is my post in its entirety:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

Then Boot writes:

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful.

First, yes, obviously the Green Movement is real. Second, I don't know if Chalabi was on Tehran's payroll in 2002 but I do think Boot's take rings true. That does not change the basic premise of my post, which was admittedly not spelled out very clearly in those three sentences. To wit: there is a tendency, especially among those prone to foreign policy activism, to assume the best.

My interview with Robert Kagan was illustrative of this mindset I think. Kagan admitted he wasn't quite sure where we'd end up with Iran's Green Movement but that we should just "press all the buttons" with Iran and see what happens. The default assumption, as it was with Iraq in 2002, is that it is preferable to plunge ahead even when it is honestly acknowledged that we do not know what we're doing or where we're going because doing anything is better than doing nothing.

We see a protest movement in Iran demanding democracy and assume that should it take power, things would be better. This assertion is rife throughout Contentions. But what's the basis for this assumption? The only comprehensive study of Iranian attitudes, that I'm aware, shows that the Green Movement is a lot less influential than we'd like it to be. Nor is there any data, that I'm aware, that indicates that if the Green Movement or its representatives were to take power, that there would be a monumental shift in Iran's appetite for nuclear development, regional stature, or any systemic changes in its foreign policy interests. Maybe this is analysis is way off the mark, and if there's data that contradict it, I'd gladly post it and acknowledge it.

The broader point is that foreign policy activists spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about the hypothetical danger of inaction and almost no time contemplating the possible negative consequences of their proposed solutions. (See Heritage's James Phillips for Exhibit A). With Iraq, they pooh-poohed those who warned of the consequences of an invasion and drew erroneous conclusions about the capacity of Iraq's middle class to reconstitute itself and for oil wealth to pay the way during reconstruction, because such a theory helped sell a desired activism.

And so we turn to Iran's Green Movement, upon whose backs our hopes for regime change now rest. We hear endless calls for throwing the full weight of American support behind her based on assumptions that such a course can't do much harm and could possibly redound to our benefit. We're even told that they'd welcome a bombing campaign!

To my mind, the burden of proof should no longer be on those advising a "wait and see" attitude toward issues like Iran and on those who make grandiose claims on behalf of the potential of the Green Movement or America's ability to shape events in Iran to our liking. Especially after the manifold failures of prediction and analysis that marked the run-up to the Iraq war.

February 24, 2010

Douglas Feith Responds

In response to this post, Douglas Feith writes:

Like so much that has been written on the subject, your February 17 RealClearWorld blog post entitled "Paging Douglas Feith" was far off base.

Ahmad Chalabi's role in Bush administration Iraq policy is discussed extensively in my book, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Interested readers may want to read, in particular, pages 254-257, 242, and 383.

A mythology has developed about how administration officials, especially in the Pentagon, related to Chalabi and to the Iraqi National Congress, which he headed. Part of that mythology is an overblown notion of their importance as a source of intelligence about Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Another part is the allegation that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or "anoint" Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam.

It is clear that that mythology was believed by many journalists and various officials within the Bush administration saw benefit in propagating it. But it is false.

Chalabi and the INC provided information to the U.S. government about Iraq before and after Saddam's overthrow. They were among numerous sources of such information. Like the other sources, they provided some information that was accurate and some that was not accurate. That is typical with intelligence sources. Readers interested in the details of Chalabi's role in providing intelligence to the U.S. government about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (biological weapons, in particular) may want to read the Silberman-Robb Commission report (March 31, 2005), available at

There was no "anoint Chalabi" policy. As I said in my book, there is no memo, strategy briefing or other piece of paper that I know of that supports the "anoint Chalabi" charge. And the two people who would have had to implement the plan, if there were such a plan - General Jay Garner and Ambassador Jerry Bremer - have both clarified publicly that they were never asked to favor, let alone anoint or appoint, Chalabi as the leader of Iraq.

My book challenged anyone who had actual evidence that contradicts me to bring it forward. In the almost two years since my book was published, no one has produced any such evidence.

Facts matter, and I hope you'll run a correction. I would appreciate your helping to set the record straight.

And if Iraq Unravels?


Thomas Ricks argues that prolonging America's stay in Iraq may be the best possible remedy to a return to civil war:

But I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.

These troops’ missions would be far narrower than during the surge era; their primary goal would be to train and advise Iraqi security forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. (It is actually hard to get below 30,000 and still have an effective force; many troops are needed for logistics, maintenance, medical, intelligence, communications and headquarters jobs, and additional infantry units are then needed to protect the people performing those tasks.)

Such a relatively small, tailored force would not be big enough to wage a war, but it might be enough to deter a new one from breaking out. An Iraqi civil war would likely be a three- or four-sided affair, with the Shiites breaking into pro- and anti-Iranian factions. It could also easily metastasize into a regional war. Neighboring powers like Turkey and Iran are already involved in Iraqi affairs, and the Sunni Arab states would be unlikely to stand by and watch a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad slaughter the Sunni minority. A regional war in the middle of the world’s oil patch could shake the global economy to its foundations and make the current recession look mild.

Ricks is perceptive critic of the Iraq war and knows much more about Iraq than I do, but I think he's suffering here from the same bit of hubris that swayed Washington before and in the immediate aftermath of the war - the idea that we can fine tune Iraq's development with a dollop of military power here, a dash of diplomacy there. Yes, maybe. Hopefully! But what if it doesn't work? What if the small force is not enough to "deter" a civil war from breaking out?

When the U.S. left forces behind in South Korea, they were a "down payment" on a much larger force which was to come to their aid in the event of a North Korean invasion. It was a signal of a much more significant American commitment - it was not the entirety of the commitment. So what are these 30,000-50,000 troops we're supposed to leave in Iraq? Ricks is a bit vague here but it's really the whole ball game - are these forces supposed to do what they can and not expect reinforcements if the situation in Iraq really gets bumpy again? Or do they signify an American commitment to send in even more troops should Iraq unravel?

If it's the later, than we are poised to seriously and in my view dangerously tie our hand to an unstable government.

In Ricks world - as in Obama's - if Iraq backslides, we're still on the hook. We're still living in Pottery Barn, red faced and guiltily holding the broken shards of Iraq for 60 or 70 more years. Resources which could be far more productively engaged elsewhere will be expended for the sake of policing a centuries long sectarian rivalry, settling tribal blood feuds and political squabbling.

The U.S. had close to 140,000 troops in the country and couldn't stop a civil war from breaking out. Why would 30,000 deter a civil war this time? It's true that Iraq's security forces are more developed, but if the war starts to pull ethnic and sectarian groups together, will the Iraqi forces not splinter as well?

The fact is we're dealing with too many variables to confidently predict Iraq's trajectory, as Ricks acknowledges, and in any event it's the wrong frame of reference. The question is what's in the best interest of the United States. America's policy in Korea worked because American forces deterred a rival state against a clearly delineated border. A similar trip wire inside Iraq seems much more likely to be tripped than not. Do we really want to tie ourselves to Iraq en-perpetuity?

(AP Photo)

February 23, 2010

The Reason for Foreign Policy Minimalism


It's an oft-recounted story but one that appears to need frequent retelling. In the immediate aftermath of the worst terrorist massacre in this country's history, U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan and quickly pushed the Taliban and al Qaeda into neighboring Pakistan. Having failed to kill the leader of either the Taliban or al Qaeda, and unsure about the relative strength of the group following initial combat, the Bush administration nonetheless shifted its focus, intelligence assets and diplomatic attention to launching a war against Saddam Hussein.

Throughout the years of that conflict, the Bush administration spent most of its energy and attention trying to fix the mess it had made in Baghdad, all the while the Taliban crept back into Afghanistan, ramping up its insurgency. It's not that the Bush administration wanted an insurgency in Afghanistan to rear its head - but it had a much more pressing problem (entirely of its own making) in Iraq.

Now the Obama administration faces the opposite problem. Iraq is relatively stable, Afghanistan is a mess. So naturally, the administration is focusing on Afghanistan. But it's not like things in Iraq are on a sure-fire path to success and we're hearing an increasing number of warnings that the Obama administration is "ignoring" Iraq. Some of this is just partisan positioning - so that if Iraq falls apart, the surge advocates who spent so much time trumpeting victory have an easy scapegoat when the wheels come off. But some of it, like Peter Feaver's post here, seems born of a genuine desire not to see a hard fought stability vanish in Iraq.

And it is a legitimate and important question: what should America's relationship be with Iraq? But implicit in many of the voices raising this question is the assumption that America must take an active role in shaping Iraq's political evolution.

Unfortunately, the government has only so many hands on deck and not many of them possess the unique skills and ability to micro-manage the political evolution of Iraq to our liking. If such a capacity was available in the United States, one wonders why it was not pressed into service in the years circa 2003 - 2008. But more importantly, this underscores a very important and what I took to be conservative maxim that the government should not endeavor to do too much.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2010

Live Stream: Iraq's Elections & Iraq's Future

The Carnegie Endowment will be hosting Ad Melkert, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, to discuss Iraq's upcoming elections and the outlook on the country's political future.

The event will run from 12:15-2:00 EST and will be live-streamed below.

This text will be replaced

February 17, 2010

Iraq in the Balance

With eyes turning to China and the potential for increased great power tensions in Asia, it's important to remember how weak the U.S. will be in such a circumstance if we can't disentangle ourselves from playing referee inside Iraq. To that end, Leila Fadel's report in the Washington Post is worrisome:

A senior U.S. military official who has spent years in Iraq said he fears that as the drawdown begins, American forces are leaving behind many of the same conditions that preceded the sectarian war.

"All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a stark assessment. "The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we're sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing."

If violence begins to ramp up, what will the Obama administration do?

February 10, 2010

Hanson vs. Bacevich

A few weeks ago Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the American Conservative arguing that the U.S. hasn't had a stellar track record when it comes to winning wars since 1945. Today in the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson argues that, to the contrary, the U.S. has succeeded in winning the same wars Bacevich dubbed defeats and is in fact winning the war on terrorism. You can read both and decide which is the more persuasive take, but I part company with Hanson as he edges toward drawing parallels with contemporary experience:

In other words, while particular wars in any age may not end in victory or defeat for either side, the concept of such finality is very much possible for either, given their shared human nature. In short, if a war is stalemated, it is usually because both sides, wisely or stupidly, come to believe victory is not worth the commensurate costs in blood and treasure — not because victory itself is an anachronism.

Hanson believes our goals are sufficiently modest that we can win in Iraq and Afghanistan:

In the latter two instances, we are fighting second wars in which victory is defined as ensuring the survival of successive consensual systems under the countries’ elected governments.

So far, we are winning both. Victory is definable: when these states are able to stay autonomous largely through their own efforts — with the understanding that Europe, for 65 years, and South Korea, for 60, have both required American military support to ensure their independence.

There are a few things wrong with this assertion. The first is that the goal of sustaining consensual governments is ancillary to the core purpose of both wars: which is to safeguard the U.S. from acts of Islamic terrorism. If we "won" by Hanson's definition in either country, but suffered further assaults from terrorists based elsewhere or saw no significant diminution of the terrorist threat worldwide, it would be difficult to justify the enormous expenditures in either theater. (Hanson later says as much.)

But notice what else is wrong here. In both the cases of South Korea and Europe, the U.S. role was to provide defense against external enemies, not internal ones. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is laboring to defend countries from mostly indigenous insurgencies, not external, nation state enemies. That transforms the role the U.S. is expected to play in both countries significantly. Given this difference, the lessons from past conventional wars don't offer much guidance. And you can see how it leads one astray:

That there was no visible German opposition to Hitler in 1939 and no visible support for him in April 1945 was due both to overwhelming Allied power and to the knowledge that a magnanimous reconstruction was possible. That we will be unmerciful to radical Islam and quite benevolent to those who reject it — that is the proper message.

The U.S. and its allies killed an estimated 6-to-8 million Germans (of which perhaps as many as 2 million were civilians) and completely, purposefully devastated entire cities in a campaign of total war to break the will of the German state. I would love to know why Hanson thinks this is a proper prescription for "radical Islam" which consists of scattered cells of terrorists throughout the globe, in possession of no country to speak of (except Iran, only we're not at war with Iran and not even those commentators who think we are at war with Iran wouldn't - I hope - advocate the wholesale slaughter of Iranian civilians to collapse the regime). We can indeed be "unmerciful" toward these terror cells, killing them wherever we find them, but that is only one element in a successful strategy.

Consider what has just occurred in Pakistan over the past few months. In August, the U.S. killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. A few weeks ago, we killed his successor. Now the AP reports that there's a mad scramble among the Pakastani Taliban as people vie to take his place.

I don't know about you, but if my previous bosses kept getting whacked, angling for the job wouldn't be a top priority, and yet there is no apparently no shortage of people who want the job. (Ditto Hamas, which, while not as visible after Israeli assassinations still manages to fill its leadership ranks.) I think it's necessary to kill these people, but it's not sufficient, as insurgencies are fueled by a number of factors and overwhelming military force isn't enough to bring them to heel. And it would be positively insane and counter-productive to embrace a "total war" ethos with respect to an insurgency (especially a global one).

UPDATE: To see what metrics would be appropriate in judging a counter-insurgency see Tom Ricks and David Kilcullen.

February 9, 2010

U.S., UK Views on the Iraq War

As Britain's Chilcot Inquiry examines the country's participation in the Iraq war, Angus Reid surveyed opinion on both sides of the Atlantic on the conflict (full results here, pdf). Some of the key findings:

62% of Britons and 48% of Americans think the U.S. government made a mistake in launching military action against Iraq in 2003

55% of Britons and 69% of Americans think removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right thing to do, even if his regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction

One-in-four Britons (24%) believe that the world will look back on the war in Iraq in twenty years and brand it as a defeat for the U.S. and its allies, while 11 per cent claim it will be regarded as a victory. Americans are almost evenly divided in their assessment (18% defeat, 19% victory).

Another interesting finding is people's recollection of where they stood on the war when it began. Angus Reid asked if they supported the war at the time and found that on net, a majority of Americans now claim they were opposed to the war. That certainly doesn't jibe with how I recall public sentiment at the time.

The poll also found that while Americans claim that it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power, 48 % of respondents told pollsters the war was a mistake vs. 35 % who thought it was not. That seems just a bit contradictory to me.

February 3, 2010

Influence in Iraq, But At What Price?


Henry Kissinger's op-ed on Iraq argues that the U.S. must retain influence in Iraq even as it withdraws its troops. Sounds reasonable enough. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite say how, outside of a hinted suggestion regarding a special envoy, more high-level visits and the formulation of a strategic vision for Iraq. Nor does he say toward what end U.S. diplomacy and leverage in Iraq should be put to use, except for a vague reference to Iran's nuclear program.

I think it's clear that the U.S. is going to retain some leverage over Iraq for the next few years and there's no reason why the U.S. shouldn't work overtime to keep relations with Iraq friendly. But the situation inside Iraq is very fluid at the moment: the government has been preoccupied with domestic affairs and shoring up its own, very fragile, institutions. No clear picture has emerged yet on where the country sees itself geopolitically in the Middle East.

But Kissinger's piece is also a harbinger of Washington's worst tendencies. In its zeal to get Iraq onto the right side of the geopolitical scorecard, it could push the Obama administration into an even deeper role in Iraq's domestic politics with potentially disastrous results (ironically some of the same people who think the administration should govern Iraq have no faith in the administration's ability to govern America). Even before Kissinger's piece we have heard calls for the Obama administration to get more involved in micro-managing Iraq's political evolution - as if we have a long history of success in such matters, or even the wherewithal to produce an outcome to our liking, especially if we remain committed to a democratic Iraq.

Indeed, the administration's seemingly ad-hoc diplomacy toward the country may actually produce the best results. Proclaiming that we have a strategic blueprint for Iraq's development would likely set off groups inside Iraq that resent American influence and would put American-friendly leaders on the defensive politically.

(AP Photo)

January 30, 2010

Iraq the Irrelevant

Before the invasion of Iraq, we were told by Fouad Ajami and others that the Arab world suffered from certain pathologies that could only be cleansed by deposing a secular dictator who flouted our will and installing a democratic polity in his place. The net effect, we were promised, would "transform" the autocratic structures of the Middle East, giving its people more democratic channels for dissent and thus reducing the threat of jihadist terror directed at the United States.

So how's that going? Max Boot hails the progress thus far in Iraq:

A fragile but working democracy, an increase in foreign investment, a steep decline in attacks over the past several years—all these are signs that Iraq is hardly unraveling. That doesn’t mean that it is on a one-way flight to Nirvana. American vigilance and involvement remain essential. But an awful lot has gone right recently—more than I would have predicted back in 2007, when the surge was just beginning. Perhaps, just once in the Middle East, the pessimists will be proven wrong.

Here's hoping.

But notice what has not happened as a result of the progress to date in Iraq: a diminution of the al Qaeda threat. Instead, that threat is where it always was, tied to a Taliban insurgency in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and creeping out into Yemen and Somalia.

The net result of the Iraq war from a counter-terrorism perspective has been to give Arab terrorists a first hand seminar in urban warfare, skills they are now delivering to the Taliban to sow death against U.S. and NATO forces. There is not much in the way of evidence that I'm aware of to suggest that progress in creating a democratic regime in Iraq is having any influence over the global terrorist movement. And at the end of the day, wasn't that the point of the endeavor?

January 29, 2010

Tony Blair's 9/11 Defense


Appearing before the Chilcot Inquiry, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

Looking greyer than when he was in office, Blair told the inquiry that the British and American view changed "dramatically" after 9/11.

"Here's what changed for me: the whole calculus of risk," he said. "The point about this terrorist act was over 3,000 people had been killed, an absolutely horrific event. But if these people, inspired by this religious fanaticism, could have killed 30,000, they would have [done].

Blair went on to argue that Saddam's WMD program was an intolerable risk after 9/11. This is a fairly common line of argument regarding Iraq but it doesn't hold up logically. What 9/11 demonstrated was precisely the opposite - that no state would dare run the risk of attacking the United States directly, or providing aid to a terrorist group with the purpose of striking such a blow. The only government al Qaeda could count on for any official support was the Taliban and to call them a government is a fairly charitable description.

Al Qaeda proved to be such a lethal menace precisely because it had no state sponsor and no territorial vulnerability. The idea that 9/11 proved that deterrence was futile is erroneous, if anything, 9/11 confirmed that deterrence is still a viable concept, at least when dealing with states.

But there is also an element of the absurd in pointing to Iraq as a potential source of WMD for al Qaeda. Shortly after 9/11, we learned that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with bin Laden. We learned further that Pakistan's chief nuclear engineer had created an extensive black market peddling nuclear material and blueprints for constructing nuclear weapons. We knew for a fact that Pakistan was a nuclear weapons state, while no one seriously believed that Saddam had a nascent, let alone functional, nuclear program.

If there was any state where one could make a plausible claim about the potential for WMD to be slipped to al Qaeda, it would have been Pakistan, not Iraq.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2010

Video of the Day

Vice President Biden seems to think he knows something about Middle Eastern politics. Iraqi's apparently disagree:

Some will view this as another rejection of the Obama administration, but primarily it is a demonstration of the fierce independence that most Arabs and Iraqis have with regards to their own affairs. It is possible that this disagreement could devolve into violence, but there does not seem to be much that the U.S. could do to stop it. It's disingenuous however to represent the Iraqi government as currently divided with "pro-" and "anti-" U.S. branches. Clearly there are going to be factions within any democratic government, but since Iraq is a partial parliamentary system, the parliament chooses the president, and therefore minimizes the differences across branches.

For more video on Iraq check out the RCW Videos page.

January 18, 2010

Iraq: Another Mess on Obama's Plate


It's been clear since the campaign that President Obama has tried to have it both ways with Iraq. He campaigned on a pledge to see the Bush-era Status of Forces Agreement through to a full U.S. withdrawal in 2011, but has also sprinkled enough caveats into his Iraq rhetoric as to leave open the possibility that the U.S. will stay behind in the event of an emergency. In other words, the decision to leave Iraq remains a hostage to events in Iraq.

It's too soon to tell if the election spat inside Iraq has the makings of such an emergency, but it's definitely unsettling:

More than a week after Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission first announced that it had disqualified at least 15 parties to run for Parliament, it remained unclear how many candidates out of more than 6,000 who have registered would be excluded — and which ones had been..

On Thursday, Iraq’s election commission announced that 499 were disqualified, but it postponed the publication of a list on Sunday, saying that still more names would be added Monday.

Far from dissipating, the political turmoil caused by the accountability commission — a little-known government agency headed by an official who until August was in an American prison on charges of orchestrating a 2008 bombing in Baghdad that killed two American embassy workers, two American soldiers and six Iraqis — only worsened over the weekend.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of Parliament from Mr. Bolani’s bloc, compared the swirl of events to watching a Bollywood movie from India — in Hindi, without subtitles.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” Ms. Damlouji said.

The disqualification of so many candidates threatened to undermine a national election that has widely been cast as another test of Iraq’s nascent democracy. According to many lawmakers and experts, Iraq appears to be failing, raising fears of violence rather than political reconciliation as American troops steadily withdraw, nearly seven years after the American-led invasion that toppled Mr. Hussein.

Among those known to be disqualified is Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni leader of a broad secular coalition that also includes a former Shiite prime minister, Ayad Allawi. The coalition, known in Arabic as Iraqiya, is widely seen as the most formidable challenger to Mr. Maliki’s bloc and a second, largely Shiite alliance.

Given the raft of international challenges facing the administration, the absolute last thing it needs is for Iraq to fall apart. Again.

Update: Marc Lynch offers his take:

How significant is all this? I don't think that it shows a military "unraveling" as chronicled in Tom Rick's eponymous never-ending series, but rather the political problems which the "surge" never really resolved. And those go deep, and should not be a surprise. Major political legislation intended to overcome sectarian and institutional complaints has been stalled or ineffective. Crucial Arab-Kurd issues remain unresolved. Tensions between centralizers and federalists remain unresolved. The Awakenings remain largely unintegrated into the state. Last year's provincial elections generated excitement at the time and some political fluidity but have had only a limited impact on the wider environment and many of the new councils have proven disappointing. The Iraqi refugees and internally displaced remain a persistent, gaping hole in the state. Now the upcoming elections, along with the occasional bursts of horrific violence and rumours of coup attempts and foiled plots of various kinds, has generated a feverish political environment and ramped up uncertainty about the future.... which this move only feeds.

That said, even if the ban on Mutlak and the others stands, I doubt it will lead to an across the board 2005-style Sunni boycott. Iraqi Sunni politics remain intensely fragmented and wracked by internal competition, as they have been for years. The same fragmentation and divisions which make it difficult for the Sunnis either to form a workable electoral coalition or to rekindle the insurgency will probably make it impossible for them to coordinate or enforce a "Sunni" boycott. Mutlak's list has plenty of ambitious Sunni rivals who will be only too happy to take advantage of its boycott to grab some extra power for themselves.

(AP Photos)

January 9, 2010

The Path to Tehran


I think Daniel Larison does a fine job of addressing one of Andrew Sullivan's readers regarding the Iranian Green Movement's future, so I would rather address some of the other points made by Sullivan in the same post. He writes:

It's a funny thing. Some neocons seem almost ambivalent about a revolution in Iran because it might lead to a nuclear-armed Iran not led by theo-fascists - which would complicate Israel's diplomatic and military position in the region. And many realists don't see a revolution because they remain wedded to the idea of the Iranian red staters rallying to their fundies the way Southerners rally to Cheney and Palin. Or perhaps because there's some kind of realist super-frisson in negotiating with the likes of Khamenei. I don't know. Skepticism is totally valid; but the measure of assurance that nothing has changed strikes me as off-base. tells me that frisson means "a sudden, passing sensation of excitement." I don't know that this is how I would describe the cold reality of negotiating with a regime's obvious leader -- much as we do with every other undemocratic or outright oppressive regime -- but how others get their kicks is really none of my business.

Moreover, is it a "realist super-frisson" when the United States does business with and/or engages China, Egypt, Russia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Georgia and so on?

And who exactly are these neoconservatives doubting the spirit and efficacy of the Green Movement? Name names, please. As far as I can tell, most if not all of the leading neoconservative intellectuals and opinion makers have at the very least listed the unrest in Iran as one of several reasons for not engaging the Iranian regime. Their rhetoric sounds very similar to Andrew's, only we know what the former's intentions are: Regime change, be it through the support of revolution or outright attack.

But what does Sullivan hope to see in Iran? He goes on:

For what it's worth,I believe that a democratic revolution in Iran is both possible and would be the single most transformative event in global politics since the end of the Cold War. Especially for the US. I sure don't believe we should take it for granted; but I also see what is in front of us.

I happen to agree, but unlike Sullivan, I don't believe American policy toward Iran should be dramatically affected by the ebbs and flows of Iranian unrest. I've made the case before, so I'll keep it shorter here: if Iran gets the bomb I believe it will enable the regime to crackdown on dissidents with never before seen impunity. Thus, to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and hope for the best, as Andrew seems resigned to doing, strikes me as wrongheaded and harmful for everyone invested in a better Iran--both inside and outside of the country.

Meanwhile, we get a lot of pomp and punditry on Iran's pending Prague Spring, but few substantive policy suggestions for the United States. And I fear what we are seeing here is a repeat of the kind of rhetorical buildup that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many well-intentioned analysts and foreign policy wonks made strange bedfellows at the time with a longstanding neoconservative agenda to topple Saddam Hussein, thus providing cover for Democrats and otherwise skeptical officials to support the invasion.

I think what The Daily Dish has done to educate its many, many readers on Iran's rich history, culture and politics is an overall good thing (this, in part, is also why I believe it makes sense to engage him on the topic so often--if you care about Iran, Andrew Sullivan matters). My hope though is that they can temper some of that enthusiasm in 2010 with a more sober debate on American policy alternatives, and not, as Laura Rozen recently noted, enable a war policy concocted in part by those with the best of intentions.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Central


Max Boot discusses Yemen and its place in the greater War on Terror:

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.[emphasis added]

The point on the Bush strategy in Afghanistan is simply inaccurate. What Boot calls a "small-footprint strategy" was in fact a rather ambitious, rhetoric-laden, albeit poorly resourced nation building agenda (we all remember the purple and blue fingers, right?). The goals didn't match the muscle, requiring a "reduction in objectives" by the Obama administration, as Richard Haass put it. In other words, President Bush spoke boisterously while carrying a tiny, tiny stick.

But Boot never explains why Afghanistan is such a vital front in the War on Terrorism, nor does he explain what Iraq has to do with that war at all. And why the Taliban--along with roughly 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the Af-Pak region--require a heavier troop presence than other threats (such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, for example) remains unclear to me.

I agree with Boot that the "good war, bad war" stuff is no good, and migrating the designation from one front to the next for political expedience is irresponsible. The real question--one I feel Boot never properly addresses--is why we even need a central front in order to conduct this war.

He writes that "one of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan." But presence and escalation are clearly two different things, and targeting said "lairs" does not require the latter--as was demonstrated two weeks ago in Yemen.

(AP Photo)

December 22, 2009

Could We Lose Iraq?


Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute is worried we might:

The mistake we are in danger of making in Iraq is that as our military steps back, our civilians are not always stepping up. Over the past six to nine months, our embassy has been inconsistent at best, and has panicked many Iraqis and many Iraqi leaders into believing that the Obama administration does not care about Iraq and is simply running for the exit as fast as they can. This isn’t true, and the President’s lieutenants have said so time and again, as has Vice President Biden, both in private and in public. But by failing to remain actively engaged with the Iraqi political process at all levels, by disdaining any further involvement in guiding Iraq’s domestic politics, and in abandoning aid programs willy-nilly, many embassy personnel have convinced a great many Iraqis of exactly the opposite. And therein lies the seeds of renewed civil war and a disaster for American interests.

I'm wondering why Pollack believes we can guide Iraq's domestic politics to a destination we find acceptable. If our bureaucrats possessed such a capability, wouldn't it have been in evidence in, say, the period between 2003-2007? That's not to say we should disengage willy-nilly, but I think the presumption here has to be that we really don't know what we're doing and that we should err on the side of minimizing U.S. exposure to Iraq's internal violence should the country implode again.

The other question that's not addressed here but is really central to Pollack's argument is the degree to which Iraq's politicians see their geopolitical interests as closely aligned with the United States. We know Iraqi society is riven with various ethnic and religious divisions which naturally pull at the country's geopolitical orientation, but is there a critical mass of Iraqis (and not just the political elite who depend upon the U.S. for their security) that sees Iraq's interests as largely overlapping America's?

And it's worth repeating again that the only reason Iraq matters to the U.S. at all is oil. If we used less oil, Iraq would matter less. (Pollack himself admits this in his book, A Path Out of the Desert.) Oil consumption is a technical problem, and America has proven time and again that it can solve technical problems (atomic bombs, moon launches, etc.). America has proven far less adept at long-distance nation building, especially in the Middle East. Why not play to our strengths?

(AP Photos)

December 21, 2009


While ascribing some gushing praise to the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush in my most recent NY Daily News column, one word kept running over and over again through my head: Panama. More specifically, how does one reconcile this unilateral action with what I believe and argue was one of the more sensible and multilateral presidencies in American history?

Well apparently, according at least to Jordan Michael Smith over at Foreign Policy, Amb. Thomas Pickering has in retrospect expressed similar reservations over the precedent set by Panama:

Like Panama, Iraq was a war of choice. The light American footprint that had achieved results in the small Central American country convinced figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the same strategy would work in Iraq. Furthermore, the ability of the United States to depose Noriega and then swiftly withdraw from Panama contributed to the belief that nation-building was unnecessary in Iraq. "Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades," concluded Pickering. "After all, the defense secretary said we didn't want anybody else's help, we didn't need anybody's help -- we were going to do it all ourselves."

That sounds just like the strategy that worked in Panama, 20 years ago.

I find this argument a tad bit unpersuasive. While Washington's relationship with Noriega was certainly less than angelic or innocent, one of the primary justifications for the Panama invasion was to uphold the Torrijos-Carter treaties and maintain the blueprint for an eventual handover.

In other words, a timetable for an end to America's presence in the country had already been agreed upon prior to any military action. We went to war over an agreement, rather than agreeing to a war with no clear direction or endgame in mind. I believe the two to be different.

And we did, by the way--much to the chagrin of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher--stick to that timetable, as President Clinton handed over control of the canal in 1999. Contrast that with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the very mention of a timetable for withdrawal was considered tantamount to surrender.

December 18, 2009

What's the Deal with Iraq's Oil?


Victor Davis Hanson speculates:

Perceptions of the war in Iraq have also changed in unforeseen ways.

"No blood for oil," for example, was once a common anti-war cry. But Iraq's auctioning of its oil leases has gone mostly to Europeans, Russians and Chinese - not Americans.

The U.S., it turned out, did not go to Iraq to steal its natural resources. Apparently, we instead ensured a fair auction by a constitutional government that preferred non-American companies to pump its oil. In the end, we were more idealistic - or naive -than conspiratorial.

I don't know if this really the right way to frame the issue. America's position in the Middle East was never to straight up expropriate oil but to keep oil moving into the world market, which is what these deals obviously facilitate. We use the lion's share of the world's oil, and so it's better if there's more of it washing around.

On the other hand, I wouldn't characterize American corporations losing out on an initial oil deal as being the result of naivete. Just the opposite, it would have been naive to think that we could have coerced Iraqi officials into awarding a U.S. firm a contract. The revelation of such a deal would likely have dealt our position in Iraq a pretty serious blow.

(AP Photos)

December 17, 2009

Box Cutters and SkyGrabbers


The WSJ has an embarrassing report today on how Iraqi insurgents have been hacking America's multi-million dollar Predator drones--and for under $26:

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes' systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber -- available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet -- to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.


The militants use programs such as SkyGrabber, from Russian company SkySoftware. Andrew Solonikov, one of the software's developers, said he was unaware that his software could be used to intercept drone feeds. "It was developed to intercept music, photos, video, programs and other content that other users download from the Internet -- no military data or other commercial data, only free legal content," he said by email from Russia.

My sense is that this will get exaggerated and blown out of reasonable proportion by some, but setting aside the painfully foolish system security--no encryption???--this screw up reveals a more salient point, and brings to mind an old cliche: where there's a will there's a way.

Whether it's box cutters or file "intercepting" software, this, in my view, once again challenges the notion that a preponderance of troops and treasure exhausted in one part of the world is the right way to fight an allegedly global war on terrorism. There will always be fringe elements who hate the United States and wish us harm, but trying to pick them off continent-by-continent makes far less sense to me than diverting resources toward cyber-security, not to mention biological weapons security and regulation.

(AP Photos)

December 14, 2009

Tony Blair on Iraq War


British Prime Minister Tony Blair is defending his decision to join the American invasion of Iraq:

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he would have found a justification for invading Iraq even without the now-discredited evidence that Saddam Hussein was trying to produce weapons of mass destruction.

"I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean, obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat," Blair told the BBC in an interview to be broadcast this morning.

This isn't all that shocking. Paul Wolfowitz admitted much the same thing to Vanity Fair, saying that WMD was the rationale that the bureaucracy could agree on. But it is worth noting that the conception of the Iraq threat had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq's actual capacity to harm America. Yes, there was a lot of talk about Saddam "possibly" transferring WMD to a terrorist group, but that was always dubious and never figured in the original case for war made during the 1990s.

Instead, Saddam was viewed as a "threat" because he had once made a play for Middle East hegemony. That he lost badly and was subsequently crippled as a result didn't seem to matter.

See also: Shadi Hamid has some interesting thoughts on the matter as well.

(AP Photos)

December 8, 2009

Winning Iraq


The news from Iraq is both encouraging (an election law has been passed) and disturbing (118 people have been killed by a car bombing).

Many advocates of the Iraq surge have taken to calling the current outcome in Iraq a "victory." As far as victories go, this one is certainly not an unalloyed boon for the United States. We have invested a substantial amount of blood and treasure into Iraq and while it's true that the country is more permissive with its oil contracts than Saddam Hussein was, there have not been correspondingly high geopolitical returns. Maybe those are still to come. We'll see.

But the fact that many in Washington feel content to call Iraq a victory is a good thing in my mind. It means they're willing to define success down.

(AP Photos)

November 30, 2009

The British Iraq War Inquiry


The British are knee deep into their look-back on the Iraq war. The Guardian reports:

George Bush tried to make a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida in a conversation with Tony Blair three days after the 9/11 attacks, according to Blair's foreign policy adviser of the time.

Sir David Manning told the official inquiry into the war that Bush, speaking to Blair by phone on 14 September 2001, "said that he thought there might be evidence that there was some connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida."The prime minister's response to this was that the evidence would have to be very compelling indeed to justify taking any action against Iraq," Manning said.

Blair followed up the conversation with a letter stressing the need to focus on the situation in Afghanistan, where the attacks originated.

Outside of the administration, it was much the same story, as neoconservatives leaped immediately past Afghanistan toward Iraq. Here's a look at some neoconservative writings circa 2001. I don't see much in the way of prioritizing the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Which brings us to the present debate. If you consider that neoconservatives were willing to essentially breeze past Afghanistan in September 2001, I find it a little difficult to countenance their arguments for why there is absolutely no other choice but to commit 100,000 troops to the pacification of the country in 2009.

(AP Photos)

November 23, 2009

Damaging the U.S.-British Relationship


Ever since President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the White House, commentators have worried about an erosion in the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. But a British inquiry into the Iraq war is casting new light on those ties under the Bush administration:

The end of “major combat operations” in May 2003 set the stage for two different kinds of conflict. There was the nascent insurgency in US-controlled central Iraq – though not, initially, in the four southern provinces occupied by Britain. And, quite unknown at the time, there was the growing battle between the UK and America, whose relations appear to have been far worse than anyone suspected.

The entire piece is worth a read. The upshot seems to be the British favored a lighter hand in Iraq and the Americans didn't. The rest, as they say, is history.

(AP Photos)

October 28, 2009

Iraq: An Asset or Burden?


Former aide to Vice President Cheney, John Hannah writes:

During his campaign, as well as during the first months of his administration, the president's default position was to talk Iraq down, and to leave the impression that America's only stake in the country was to wash our hands of it as soon as possible. That now seems to be changing, as the administration begins to realize that America's strategic interests could in fact be reasonably well served by having a potentially very prosperous, very powerful democratic friend in what historically has been one of the Arab/Muslim world's most influential countries. Moreover, this can be achieved through a relatively modest dedication of additional political, economic, and security resources -- even as U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Iraq and America's combat role dramatically diminishes.

It's very much an open question just how friendly Iraq is going to be, especially if they are increasingly capable of standing on their own two feet, without our "modest" (whatever that means) assistance. And what exactly do we expect from a friendly Iraq anyway? Help with Iran? Pressure on other Arab states to make peace with Israel? Preferential oil deals? Prolonged basing agreements? All of the above? Which "strategic interests" get served, and how?

And please, define "modest."

(AP Photos)

October 27, 2009

Putting Iraq in Context

Max Boot says that we shouldn't be overly concerned that 155 Iraqis were killed earlier this week:

This reminds me of what I learned long ago in Iraq: acts of violence that occur a few blocks away might as well be a world away. Once again, I learned the details from CNN, just as observers back in the U.S. did. I did not feel the roar of the explosion, nor see the smoke. Nor, I should add, did the vast majority of Baghdadis, much less of Iraqis. That is not meant to minimize the horror of what happened or to downplay its significance. It is simply to place it in some context and urge readers not to lose sight of the big picture: Attacks are still down to their lowest level since 2003-2004. Life has returned to a semblance of normality in Baghdad and other areas. A few high-profile attacks — this one or the one in August — do not change the fundamental, day-to-day reality of life getting better.

Iraq's population is currently 29 million. A bombing that kills 155 Iraqis is the proportional equivalent of a bombing that kills 1,600 Americans. I wonder, in the wake of such an attack, if Boot would issue similar calls for context and urge us to recognize that America remains overwhelmingly safe and secure despite the occasional terrorist atrocity.

(AP Photos)

October 22, 2009

About that Iraq Troop Withdrawal


While surge Afghan advocates such as Max Boot take to op-ed pages urging an ever-larger influx of troops for Afghanistan, the draw down in Iraq seems slightly less assured:

U.S. commanders may have to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq if Baghdad delays national elections scheduled for Jan. 16 or if other political instability develops, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

A more protracted drawdown of the 120,000 troops now in Iraq would not prevent President Obama from boosting the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it could increase stress on American ground forces, Vice Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

One rarely, if ever, hears mention of the very large American troop presence in Iraq when discussing Afghan strategy. But these troops will ultimately have to leave Iraq if we are to sustain a larger footprint in Afghanistan without putting massive strains on the Army.

(AP Photos)

October 13, 2009

Is Iraq a Natural U.S. Ally?


In the course of teeing off on Joe Klein's gloss on Charles Krauthammer's article on America's supposed decline, Peter Wehner ventures into some interesting territory regarding the foreign policy preferences of a sovereign Iraq. Klein took issue with Krauthammer's assertion that:

In Iraq, a determination to end the war according to rigid timetables, with almost no interest in garnering the fruits of a very costly and very bloody success--namely, using our Strategic Framework Agreement to turn the new Iraq into a strategic partner and anchor for U.S. influence in the most volatile area of the world. Iraq is a prize--we can debate endlessly whether it was worth the cost--of great strategic significance that the administration seems to have no intention of exploiting in its determination to execute a full and final exit.

Klein finds such a sentiment redolent with neo-colonial hubris:

A prize! Sounds sort of like Churchill in his most demented colonial moments: India, the jewel in the crown! (The fact that a duly elected Iraqi government wants us to leave is ignored.) Krauthammer’s sort of imperialism–a brutal and patronizing neo-colonialism–has never sat well with the American people.

Then along comes Wehner with this rather interesting argument:

What Krauthammer is championing is not some kind of imperial exploitation; rather, he is in favor of the elected government of Iraq cooperating with the United States in order to fight terrorism and counteract the disorders in the Middle East. (Only a simpleton would believe that withdrawing troops means an end to bilateral relations. Lots of nations work cooperatively with each other even when they do not have combat troops deployed in each-other’s territories.)

Now, unlike Wehner, I don't pretend to know what the geostrategic preferences of a truly sovereign and independent Iraq would be. There's an obvious incentive for Iraq to maintain friendly relations with the U.S., particularly while its governing institutions and security services are still weak. But there are also countervailing factors, such as its strong and friendly ties to Iran and whatever lingering hostility there is among the country's Sunnis toward the United States.

None of this is terribly difficult to understand - even for the simpletons of the world. Nor is it difficult to understand that Krauthammer is basing his "Iraq-as-strategic-prize" argument not simply on a free trade pact between the U.S. and Iraq but on the hope that the U.S. can maintain military installations in the country. And who knows, perhaps being a forward leaning regional ally of the United States is what a sovereign Iraq really desires. My reading of the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Bush administration and the reports of how that agreement came to fruition, certainly do not lend credence to such an idea. But maybe Wehner knows something about Iraq's strategic thinking that I don't.

More likely, I suspect that Krauthammer means what Klein took him to mean - that the U.S. forge a "cooperative" Iraq by continuing to wade into Iraq's politics, make an end run around the SOFA and bolster factions which support America's regional ambitions and marginalize those that don't. That's not full blown, British Empire-style colonialism, but it isn't a business-as-usual bilateral relationship either (at least, not outside the Middle East).

(AP Photos)

August 17, 2009

Odierno's Troop Request


General Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, wants to send U.S. troops to Northern Iraq to shore up gaps in security created by the lack of cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi army forces.

On the face of it, it seems like a sensible move. As the New York Times reports, these areas were not policed by either Kurdish or Iraqi forces and have thus been subject to a number of attacks by al Qaeda. Odierno positioned the use of American forces as a stop-gap that would allow the Kurds and Iraqi army to come to terms with one another:

“Once they get used to working with each other, it becomes very easy,” General Odierno said. He said the United States’ role would be one of oversight and encouraging the two sides to get along, rather than peacemaking. “I think there’s room to work this out.”

Hopefully, that will indeed be the case. But what if it's not? Stepping back, this development seems to underscore one of the key problems that the Obama administration is going to face in Iraq - what will they do if violence spikes? Max Boot seems concerned that the president will stay true to his campaign pledge and leave Iraq, then adds that the president been more "moderate" on Iraq than his campaign rhetoric so maybe the U.S. will indeed police the country forever.

It's going to be very difficult for the administration to make good on its promise to leave Iraq without formulating a very clear argument for why any resulting instability or violence is not America's problem. So far, the administration has tried to straddle a line that does not repudiate America's traditional custodial role for the region while promising to remove our forces. But what happens if push comes to shove?

(AP Photos)

August 12, 2009

The Shiites Restraint

Rod Nordland reports on the remarkable restraint shown by Iraqi's Shiite population as it suffers continued violence at the hands of Sunni terrorists.

Certainly an encouraging sign for the future stability of Iraq even if the persistence of anti-Shiite violence is disturbing.

July 30, 2009

Iraq Moves on MEK


The recent move by the Iraqi government to uproot the anti-Iranian terror group People’s Mujahedeen underscores one of the looming challenges with the Obama administration's nascent Iranian containment scheme, and that it is America's relations with Iraq.

By virtue of geography and history, Iran is going to exercise some degree of influence inside Iraq. To the extent that we are going to define our Middle East policy around the containment of Iran, it seems inevitable that tensions between Baghdad and Washington are going to flare.

Photo credit: AP Photos

July 27, 2009

Iraq as Korea


Matthew Yglesias flags the Philippines analogy in this Ross Douthat column but I actually think the reference to the Korean war is more apt:

These twists and turns make Iraq look less like either Vietnam or World War II -- the analogies that politicians and pundits keep closest at hand -- and more like an amalgamation of the Korean War and America’s McKinley-era counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Like Iraq, those were murky, bloody conflicts that generated long-term benefits but enormous short-term costs. Like Iraq, they were wars that Americans were eager to forget about as soon as they were finished.

And like Iraq, the war in Korea never formally ended and the U.S. never left. To this day North Korea remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world despite a formidable American military presence in Japan and South Korea. Many decades after the end of the Korean War, it still falls mainly to the United States to take the lead in cajoling the North Koreans to stop acting crazy.

All of which is to say that even an ideal long term outcome will still be messy.

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Photo credit: AP Photos.

July 10, 2009

The Future of Iraq

So much of the public discussion of Iraq is backward-looking. Who was wrong about what, when. And since no one party to the Iraq debate has covered themselves with glory, there are ample opportunities for point scoring.

Unfortunately, while the U.S. begins to remove itself from the front line, there are still some vexing issues in the country which could lead to renewed violence and, potentially, renewed American involvement. Exhibit A, as the New York Times reports, is Kurdistan:

With little notice and almost no public debate, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are pushing ahead with a new constitution for their semiautonomous region, a step that has alarmed Iraqi and American officials who fear that the move poses a new threat to the country’s unity.

The new constitution, approved by Kurdistan’s parliament two weeks ago and scheduled for a referendum this year, underscores the level of mistrust and bad faith between the region and the central government in Baghdad. And it raises the question of whether a peaceful resolution of disputes between the two is possible, despite intensive cajoling by the United States.

What is America's role in Iraq if this issue comes to a violent head?

July 3, 2009

The Iraq Blame Game

Even if Iraq falls back to the level of political mediocrity that surrounds it, the situation has changed from two years ago. If America had retreated then, it would have been a failure of our will and a failure of our military. But we did not fail. Our military adapted. Our leaders and country persevered. We have given the Iraqis what we owed them -- a decent chance at success, the only gift a liberator can give. Now, a failure would be sad and challenging -- but it would be their own. - Michael Gerson.

We'll see if this line really holds if security deteriorates and President Obama refuses to send in the cavalry.

July 1, 2009

The Cost of Iraq


Over in Commentary, former Bush administration official Peter Wehner offers up an interesting piece of moral asymmetry:

The ultimate wisdom in initiating the Iraq war is still to be validated by contingent events still to unfold. What is happening today is a transition, not a final triumph....

Still, it is worth pointing out that those who wrote off the war as unwinnable and a miserable failure, who made confident, sweeping arguments that have been overturned by events, and who had grown so weary of the conflict that they were willing to consign Iraqis to mass slaughters and America to a historically consequential defeat -- they were thankfully, blessedly wrong.

I find this line of defense for the troop surge frankly bewildering. Wehner claims that those who wanted to wind down the war in 2006 and 2007 would have been responsible for "mass slaughters." I don't necessarily accept the logic that the U.S. is implicated in one Iraqi's decision to kill another. After all, many Iraqis were being killed by their fellow citizens long before the U.S. entered the picture.

That said, if Wehner wants to pin prospective "mass slaughters" on the conscience of those who wanted to wind down the war, it's fair to ask whether he feels any guilt about the actual mass slaughters that occurred as a consequence of the invasion. If withdrawal advocates were willing to consign Iraqis to their deaths, what can be said of the architects and champions of the Iraq war?

Photo credit: AP Photos

June 30, 2009

Iraq: Obama's First Test


I'm skeptical of claims that anytime any event happens overseas it's a "test" of the president. That strikes as a rather Washington-centric view of the world. Nevertheless, there are "tests" and then there are tests. And the U.S. pullback from Iraqi cities today strikes me as the latter.

At issue is a basic question: is the U.S. military an Iraqi police force, or do we let the country go its own way, even it entails renewed bloodshed?

The American pullback will test both the durability of the surge/Awakening's security gains and the Obama administration's pledge to end the war. It could very well end up in a political win-win: the Obama administration can take credit for fulfilling its campaign pledge to end the war, and the Bush administration can take credit for preventing Iraq's slide into chaos. This is the ideal, and we should all be hoping it comes to pass.

But things could go awry. Today's car bombing hints at a future of renewed violence. In such an environment, there will be a fair number of analysts, pundits and politicians who will pressure the Obama administration to slow, or even reverse, the drawn down. Then, the administration will have to choose not just between the political question of keeping faith with its pledge, but between a basic strategic issue of whether it is in America's interest to police Iraq indefinitely or whether it's time for us to leave.

Photo credit: AP Photos

June 14, 2009

More to Worry About

While the world is gripped by Iran's post-election chaos, Kori Schake reminds us that there's a little issue called Iraq:

According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, enemy initiated attacks are around 150 per month now, down ten-fold from 1,600 at their height. Iraqi casualties are still staggeringly high at 500 per month, but that is 3,500 fewer Iraqis losing their lives each month from when violence was at its height. By a substantial margin, those victims are Iraqi, civilian, and Shi’ia.

Politically, Iraq has made progress on about half the “benchmarks” demanded by Congress of the Bush administration. Worryingly, those Brookings grades as unmet are: the amnesty law, de-Baathification, federal funding to the provinces, the hydrocarbons law, resolving the status of Kirkuk, and the government absorbing Sons of Iraq into the security forces. To give a measure of the Maliki government’s resistance, of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq who helped break the back of the insurgency, only 5,200 have been integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Each of these issues could be flashpoints for violence as the United States disengages. And add to these troubles an Iraqi budget crunch that is slowing the pace of Iraq’s security force expansion.

But other than that, we've won.

May 19, 2009

Goldfarb's Google Gotcha on Richard Haass

Michael Goldfarb, on CFR President Richard N. Haass' "vociferous" opposition to the Iraq war:

It's amazing what Google turns up these days. Here is Haass on the Charlie Rose show in September 2003, two months after he left the administration to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Presumably free to speak his mind, and at a time when the war in Iraq was already going badly, Haass somehow does not take the opportunity to explain how he had opposed the war.


But ask him now and he'll tell you he "believed in diplomacy, I believe in multilateralism, I believe in institutions...I did not believe in the Iraq war." It's amazing what six years and a shift in elite opinion can do to a man's memory.

This strikes me as a somewhat peculiar gripe. Haass has never publicly claimed to have been a "vociferous" war critic, as Goldfarb argues. Haass has written - and repeated in recent interviews - that his war stance was a modest 60/40 opposition based off of logistical policy concerns. These policy concerns are a documented matter of record.

Continue reading "Goldfarb's Google Gotcha on Richard Haass" »