Coping with Failure in Iraq

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

June 16, 2007

Thursday, May 24, was a good day for George W. Bush. After four months of trying stare each other down over the Iraq War, Bush got his way when the Democratically controlled Congress passed a war funding bill without a deadline or timetable to begin the withdrawal of American troops. And at hastily called press conference to celebrate Bush’s victory that day, a bird relieved himself on the president’s jacket sleeve—a sign, many believe, of good luck.

President Bush hasn’t had many good days these last few months. Indeed, on the very day Congress blinked, the New York Times reported that public approval for Bush’s Iraq policy was, at 23 percent, the lowest of his presidency. Bush’s victory in Congress is all but certain to be a Pyrrhic one; a change of course later this year is all but inevitable.

The Iraq War represents the sum-total of Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. The war has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, and displaced four million Iraqis. It has cost the United States a half a trillion dollars to date—a bill that increases by $275 million every day. It has made Iraq, the region, the world ? and the U.S. less secure.

How did it get to this point? And how can anything be salvaged from this massive failure? Conventional wisdom has it that this was a neoconservative war—and that a return to a greater sense of realism is the first step out of the mess. In fact, though, it was hard-core realists—those who put their faith in power, especially military power, and ignore history, culture, and local circumstance—who devised and conducted this war, not wooly-headed neocons. And these hardcore realists are still very much in control today—incessantly warning that any alternative to their preferred strategy would constitute failure and insisting that failure in Iraq is not an option. Well, it may not be an option, but it is reality—and the task now is not to avoid failure but to mitigate the negative consequences that come from it.

A Neocon War?

If there is one thing most critics and supporters of the Iraq War agree on. it is that neoconservatives were largely responsible for getting America into the war. “The neoconservatives in this administration are winning,” observed Democratic Senator Joseph Biden in 2003. “They seem to have captured the heart and mind of the President, and they’re controlling the foreign policy agenda.”

But this conventional wisdom is wrong. The Bush administration isn’t a neoconservative administration. Its foreign policy isn’t a neoconservative foreign policy. And the Iraq War isn’t a neoconservative war.

While all neocons are conservative, not all conservatives are neocons—and in the ultra-conservative Bush administration, neocons have always been a distinct minority, and they are now virtually extinct. Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and George Bush are assertive nationalists, not neocons, and it is these four people who bear responsibility for the war and its conduct. (Colin Powell, the fifth member of the Bush national security team at the time America went to war, wasn’t even a conservative, which was one major reason his influence on policy proved to be so minor.)

There are major differences between assertive nationalists and neocons. Assertive nationalists worry about threats to American security and they believe that only American power—especially its overwhelming military might—can defeat these threats. To them, a sound national security policy consists of demonstrating the essential strength of American power, both to vanquish actual foes and to dissuade potential adversaries from challenging America. In other words, assertive nationalists are what my colleague Jim Lindsay calls people who like to bump chests, folks who are eager to show they’re bigger and stronger than everyone else.

Neocons see the world differently. While they care about power and military force in international affairs, neoconservatives believe that what matters most is the nature of states we have to deal with. Like liberals, they believe that the internal character of states determines their external behavior—and that what threatens America most is powerful states run by autocrats who are accountable to no one but themselves. That is why neocons believe that America can only be truly secure in a world of democratic states; and why they want to use America’s overwhelming power to bring about such a world.

There was a clear coincidence of interest between neoconservatives and assertive nationalists in the months between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq. For the neocons, 9/11 presented an opportunity to remake the Middle East in America’s image. The idea was to start with the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, because his was the most odious regime of all. But Iraq would be a means to a larger end, which was to remake the region as a whole.

For the assertive nationalists, the issue wasn’t the region as a whole but Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, which all of them believed he possessed in abundance. After 9/11, the Bush administration adopted what Ron Suskind called “the one-percent doctrine” —if there is a one percent chance of a major threat, such as terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon in an American city, then the U.S. ought to respond as if the threat was a one-hundred percent certainty. Before terrorists struck the American heartland, Saddam Hussein represented a threat Washington could live with. (Indeed, according to Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney didn’t support a direct attack on Iraq prior to September 11.) But afterwards, Saddam’s WMD represented risk that was no longer acceptable. They—and he—had to be removed.

So for both neocons and assertive nationalists, war against Iraq became a choice that could not be avoided. Yet, that’s where the coincidence of interest ended. There was no agreement on what to do in Iraq once Saddam Hussein had been toppled.

The neocons wanted to build a stable, democratic order in Iraq as a means to foster democratic change throughout the region (though they were themselves split between those who believed Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi should lead this effort and those who thought a major nation-building effort was necessary). The assertive nationalists weren’t much interested in what would happen in Iraq after the war. They wanted to topple Saddam, secure his WMD capabilities, and then get out.

It was this assertive nationalist perspective, rather than any neocon dreams, that was reflected in the military plans approved by President Bush. The entire thrust of the military plan was to get in, remove Saddam, and get out. Thus, briefing his generals one week after Baghdad fell on April 9, General Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander, ordered that they “take as much risk coming out as you took coming in.” The plans assumed that 90 days after the start of the war, 50,000 troops would leave be able to leave every month, so that by September 2003 only 30,000 American troops would be left in Iraq.

Or that was the plan. When no weapons of mass destruction were found, and the entire assertive nationalist rationale for the war collapsed, President Bush changed course. All of a sudden, the war wasn’t about confronting an imminent threat of mass destruction, but about defeating terrorism by spreading democracy. For Bush, this was a new rationale; prior to the war he had given only one speech on democracy, in February 2003, before a decidedly neocon audience at the American Enterprise Institute. And from August 2003 onwards, this theme would come to dominate the president’s speeches.

But this late embrace of the neoconservative rationale for the war could not hide the reality that Bush and his administration had failed to plan for the postwar realities that would confront America and its military forces. From day one, the administration had to make up its postwar policy as it went along. And the result is the succession of failures and botched attempts to get on top of the situation that we see playing out today.

The Iraqi Reality

Future doctoral thesis are sure to address one of the great historical questions of our times: whether the situation in Iraq is the result of the decision to invade the country or of the incompetent way the war and its aftermath were subsequently handled? There’s plenty of evidence to support either proposition. What will not be debated is the dire situation Iraq finds itself in today. Three basic realities stand out.

First, Iraqi society is deeply divided along sectarian lines and has for the last two-plus years descended into civil war. There has been a great deal of ethnic cleansing so that most neighborhoods in mixed areas, especially in Baghdad, now are Sunni or Shi’ite, but no longer both. The rate of sectarian killings remains unchanged—with many tens and often as many as one hundred Iraqis dying each and every day, large numbers of whom are killed only after being brutally tortured. One in six Iraqis no longer lives in the home they occupied at the start of the war: two million Iraqis have left the country—mostly people from the professional classes—and another two million have been internally displaced. Within Iraq itself, chaos, crime, and corruption are the order of the day. People are kidnapped and killed at will; there were more than 26,000 non-sectarian murders in 2006 alone.

The terrible violence masks the reality that Iraq lacks a political center—a state—that can hold the country together. The government is isolated, living and working in the American protected and run Green Zone. It cannot fulfill even the first function of government: to protect the citizens. Its institutions, including the army, police, and other security forces, are marked by the same sectarian divisions that characterize the society as a whole. In short, Iraq, today, is a failed state.

The second reality follows from the first—Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the core of jihadist terrorism. Through their outrageous acts, like bombing the Samarrah mosque, terrorist have deliberately fanned the flames of sectarian violence. They have also succeeded in provoking the United States to respond to their violence in disproportionate ways—like the torture at Abu Ghraib and the wanton murders at Haditha—that further undermine the legitimacy of the American presence. And they are now one of the main sources of terrorist recruitment and operations in the Middle East and beyond. The techniques and training learned in Iraq is being transferred abroad, as the hotel bombings in Amman and the suicide bombing in Afghanistan attest.

While President Bush insists that American forces need to fight the terrorists over there so they won’t be able to strike in America, it is become increasingly clear that being over there is what creates the incentive and opportunity for terrorists to strike not only in Iraq, but also throughout the Middle East, in Europe, and ultimately in the United States itself.

The final reality today is that the American military presence in Iraq is unsustainable over the long term. Even as Bush celebrated his legislative victory last week [last month], he was beginning to sound a retreat by embracing the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, which believed American combat forces needed to leave Iraq by March 2008. The reason is clear—public support in Iraq and the United States for keeping American forces in Iraq has disappeared. Seventy-eight percent of Iraqis oppose the American troop presence; 61 percent approve of attacks on U.S. forces. In May, a majority of parliament signed onto a bill demanding a timetable for withdrawal. In the United States, two-thirds of the public thinks the war was a mistake and three-quarters want to see American forces withdraw now or soon. A majority in Congress has voted to set a timetable for withdrawal.

While Bush was able to thwart the majority sentiment in Congress, he won’t be able to do so for much longer. Come September, things will change. Unless there is measurable progress in Iraq, both in terms of substantial reductions in violence and real political reconciliation, a slew of Republicans will join Democrats in voting to begin a drawdown in U.S. forces. And Bush knows it. He has heard it not just from moderates in his own party, but from Republican leaders on the Hill—none of whom wants to fight (and loose) another election over Iraq. “By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn’t, what’s Plan B,” said John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House. His Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, agreed: “The handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall.”

After Withdrawal

Come this fall, American troops are going to withdraw from Iraq in significant numbers—reports indicate that the White House is thinking of cuts on the order of 50 percent, but they are likely to be larger still. The drawdown will be accomplished by ending the U.S. effort to actively suppress the violence. Most troops will move to large, well protected bases before heading home.

After the withdrawal, the situation will get worse, probably much worse. Violence will increase, with deaths likely rising from tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed a year. A million deaths is not inconceivable. In Bosnia, a country one-fifth the size of Iraq, the civil war in the 1990s killed more than 200,000 people. In Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed in a few months in 1994. More than a million people were killed in each of the civil wars in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Congo. There is no reason to believe things will be less bad in Iraq. Finally, an Iraq engulfed by more violence will continue to be a major haven for terrorists—and more and more of them will focus on targets in the region beyond Iraq and other parts of the world.

What, under these circumstances, can Washington do? It likely cannot prevent any of these eventualities; but it must try and mitigate the fall-out to the maximum extent possible. A first, and most immediate step, must be to try to head-off an all-out civil war by pushing for a political settlement, something the Bush administration despite more than four years of active engagement has never really tried to do.

This would involve a Dayton-like conference, which as in the Bosnian case, would bring all the parties to the table in an effort to negotiate a settlement on key political issues within a fixed timetable (of, say, one month). The immediate focus must be on a few key issues—sharing of oil revenues, distributing power between the central government and local political entities, and ensuring a monopoly over the means of violence by abolishing militias. No one can put much hope in such a process, but perhaps the prospect of an American military withdrawal and the reality of all-out civil war may prove to be just enough to bring all the parties around. At the very least, this administration has a responsibility to try—even if it involves an activity, like diplomacy, that it has so far shunned.

If diplomacy works, all options must be on the table—including maintaining a large military presence, composed not only of American but also of European and other forces, to help implement any agreement.

If, as seems more likely, diplomacy does not work, then we have to face the fact that there is nothing anyone can do to avoid civil war. The U.S. can neither stop it nor can it choose sides—nor should it try.

Instead, the focus must be on helping people that are caught in the ensuing violence. American and other international forces still in country should provide security and protection for people on the move. They could establish safe havens inside Iraq to provide security, shelter, and safe transit abroad for those who want to leave. And the world, and especially the United States and those countries that supported this war from start, should open their doors to large numbers of refugees that are already overwhelming Jordan, Syria, and some of Iraq’s other neighbors. It is unconscionable that the United States has done so much to cause such great misery in Iraq and then done so little to help those who have suffered so much to regain a measure of dignity.

Washington should also seek to retain a significant military presence in northern Iraq—to reassure the Kurds (and thus prevent them from declaring independence), dissuade Turkey, Iran, and Syria from intervening, and provide a capacity to intervene in case terrorist training camps or facilities are established inside Iraq. This military capability, combined with the continued U.S. military presence in the Gulf, would also help to serve notice to any of Iraq’s neighbors that they must not intervene militarily in the civil war.

Finally, Washington will need to do what it can to start the long and difficult process of regaining some of its credibility in the region. Withdrawing militarily will help, but it is not enough. America needs to reengage in the Middle East peace process, making clear that while the absence of a viable Palestinian partner is one major problem, so is Israel’s continued occupation of foreign lands. It needs to encourage the opening of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, both because it offers the greatest promise these days and because success would reinforce the vital principle of land for peace.

Washington also needs to engage Iran, which thanks to this disastrous war has emerged as the one clear winner from the conflict. Twenty-eight years after the Islamic Revolution, it should be possible for the two countries to reestablish diplomatic ties. (It took Washington and Moscow only seventeen years after the Bolshevik Revolution.) Unconditional diplomatic engagement won’t guarantee successful negotiations on such difficult issues as Iraq, Israel, terrorism, nuclear programs, or regional security. But without it, success is impossible.

The Iraq War is a strategic blunder of truly historic proportions—the worst foreign policy decision since at least the 1920s, when America’s turn to isolationism helped fan the flames of war around the world. No amount of tinkering or adaptation can or will change that reality. George W. Bush and his dwindling number of supporters may never accept this assessment. But that isn’t the point. What is needed now is a clear focus on how to deal with the consequences of this blunder in order to minimize as much as possible any further damage ahead.

Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, is a visiting professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University in Florence.