Iraq: A Mixture of Good News and Bad

The Bush administration has made many serious policy errors in Iraq. The two most important have been its unilateralist ways and its excessive confidence that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be relatively easy.

Had the Bush administration avoided these mistakes, it would probably have 20,000 to 40,000 more foreign troops now helping it in Iraq, $5 billion to $20 billion more pledged in foreign financial help and an American public better braced for the long-term challenge of winning a counterinsurgency while simultaneously helping build a new Iraqi nation. As things stand, the United States is likely to continue to provide 75 percent of the foreign troops needed and just as high a fraction of reconstruction aid in 2004 and beyond.

These errors were serious, and the policy performance of the Bush administration has been mediocre, to put it charitably, since the downfall of Saddam in April. But the difficulties faced day to day in Iraq by American and coalition forces are not primarily the result of these errors. Moreover, although counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently difficult to understand and predict given their inherent dependence on a foreign country’s politics, the U.S.-led mission seems likely to succeed over time.

The core reason is that the combined Baathist/jihadist resistance causing so much tragic violence and so many difficulties for coalition forces does not seem likely to elicit much general support from the Iraqi population. It has no compelling ideology, except self-preservation and anti-Americanism. The latter sentiment might be enough to sustain and grow a resistance movement, but only if we show no interest in leaving Iraq and show little or no progress during our stay.

As bad as things are now, and as slow as the going currently appears, things are not that bad. And as tragic as deaths and injuries to coalition military personnel, U.N. officials, and top Iraqi leaders have been, the fact also remains that total American losses in Iraq to date – just over 300 as of this writing – are still less than in Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91. They are also on the lower end of the range of total losses to be expected in overthrowing Saddam.

These arguments are not intended to be especially complimentary or even especially reassuring for the Bush administration, which continues to suffer from a perceptions gap of its own making about Iraq and the likely ease of the mission. But these basic points should help Americans keep the faith during what is clearly by far the U.S. military’s hardest mission since Vietnam.

In addition, it is indisputable that the Bush administration made major unilateralist mistakes last winter, after a remarkable autumn of multilateral accomplishment. Most notably, it failed to pursue the possibility of a final ultimatum for Saddam – an idea many countries ultimately expressed interest in. Such an ultimatum probably would not have changed the likelihood of war very much, and might not even have delayed it.

Whether or not France was ultimately aboard, and thus whether or not we gained explicit United Nations Security Council backing for the overthrow of Saddam, this approach would have surely given the United States and United Kingdom much more legitimacy in the eyes of the world during the eventual invasion – and more help with the aftermath.

That latter issue is my focus here.

How much difference would it have really made if the Bush administration had built a case for war that was ultimately more convincing to much of the rest of the world? How much better would the Iraq mission be going right now?

The answer, in short, is that things would probably still be quite tough, but better. The nature of the problem would not fundamentally change, but we might have to bear only 50 to 60 percent of the total burden instead of 80 percent or more. And it would not be our war in the eyes of the world. Iraqi Baathists and jihadists would probably fight us just as hard, but with somewhat less sympathy from the Iraqi population writ large – and with far less damage accruing to the U.S. image in the eyes of the world.

It is important to begin with the observation that the Iraq operation is extremely demanding. It is a complex peacekeeping and nation building mission superimposed on a counterinsurgency operation. This is fundamentally unlike the recent efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere.

Clearly, the Iraq mission today is encountering difficulties. More Americans have died since May 1, when President Bush landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier to declare major combat operations over, than during the war. Four terribly tragic bombings dominated the August news, killing the U.N.’s top administrator in Iraq and one of the country’s most important moderate political leaders.

Oil outflows remain very modest; economic opportunity in Iraq remains negligible for most; infrastructure continues to function at levels somewhat worse than in the Saddam era; street violence and vigilante justice remain serious problems with little sign of improvement since April.

Yet these negative headlines need to be countered quickly with good news. This is not to whitewash the situation or go so far as to claim that things are generally good, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems to want to argue. Rather, it is to paint a balanced picture and establish a proper bench mark for measuring future progress.

Most of Iraq is now generally stable. Electricity levels are almost comparable to pre-war service. A huge injection of foreign money is about to do for Iraqis what we originally and naively thought oil earnings would quickly do. Most Iraqi towns now have their own indigenous ruling councils; the national Governing Council has been named and in turn chosen a cabinet; the next order of business, a constitutional convention, seems likely to occur in 2004. Attacks on American forces remain numerous but less frequent than early in the summer; many hundreds of Iraqi resistance fighters, and four-fifths of the leaders on the famous deck of cards, are now dead or captured. Iraqi security forces now number more than 50,000 personnel, including police and army and border guards and a civil defense corps – with steady progress expected toward totals near 200,000 within a couple years.

But both the positive spin and the negative spin of what is happening in Iraq are largely anecdotal – compilations of convenient facts with little analytic framework for putting them together. How do we know which news, the good or the bad, is more important? How do we detect trends? And how can we assess the importance of being so exposed internationally, with little help from key friends and allies, in the mission in Iraq?

Of course, many of the individual measures of progress can be tracked over time. Part of why July and August were so disconcerting, for example, is that trends in troop casualties and political assassinations went in the wrong direction. If such problems persist, it will be hard to describe the overall effort as successful regardless of what else is occurring.

Electricity output, water services, school enrollment, oil flows and other individual indicators also can be followed over time. Now that we know the nature of the resistance we are up against, better news can probably be expected in most of these areas – provided that the Bush administration is not too stubborn to do what is needed to elicit more foreign help soon.

But we also need to put all the individual data into a broader story and see what it tells us. So far, we are not doing that inside or outside of government.

In conducting a counterinsurgency, one ultimately needs to defeat dedicated guerrillas while reducing the proclivity of others to join their ranks. In theory, if the insurgent loss rate exceeds its pace of recruiting, time should be on the side of the counterinsurgency. In practice, as we learned in Vietnam, measuring these two respective trends is very hard. Accurate determination of the Viet Cong crossover rate where losses exceeded new recruits was extremely elusive.

But the weight of evidence in Iraq still gives grounds for optimism.

Baathists are a limited lot. Despite a dubious decision by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army and ban even mid-level Baathists from positions of influence, the Bush administration generally has a sound strategy of trying to exonerate most Iraqis who cooperated with the former regime while punishing only the top leadership.

Common criminals are numerous, especially since Saddam opened the prisons last year, but are unorganized and are increasingly meeting their match in coalition troops and a growing Iraqi police force. Jihadists, including members of Ansar al-Islam and possibly al-Qaeda, are a serious problem, and perhaps the greatest reason for long-term worry. But there are means to deal with them, some of which we are employing well already, and some of which we could improve upon by properly soliciting more foreign help – again, the area where the Bush administration has been by far at its weakest.

There is no nationalist ideology likely to appeal to most Iraqis of the type western powers faced in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere. Most Iraqis do not feel openly hostile to the U.S.-led foreign presence according to polls. They are unlikely to if we can make progress on most material measures of success while also starting down the path toward withdrawal from Iraq. Moreover, coalition troops are highly professional and highly discriminating in their use of force. The U.S. military is simply not making the kinds of mistakes that it committed due to a poor concept of counterinsurgency and an infatuation with raw firepower in Vietnam.

Most of the above determinants of success or failure in Iraq are not heavily influenced by the degree of American unilateralism in Iraq. Baathists and jihadists would fight us just as hard if we had more foreign help, it seems; whoever bombed the Jordanian embassy, United Nations headquarters, Shia mosque, and Iraqi police headquarters clearly had more than Americans in their cross hairs. Sabotage would still be a problem for similar reasons. Aid would have taken a while to solicit no matter how much of the world felt ownership in the overall mission. And Iraqi security forces would have had to be reconstituted through a careful process of screening for Saddam loyalists and then retraining new recruits regardless.

But some things are clearly worse as a result of our high level of exposure in Iraq.

First, the risk of a gnawing, growing anti-Americanism metastasizing into a national movement against the U.S.-led presence is presumably greater, albeit by an unmeasurable amount, than it would be otherwise. Again, current evidence does not yet suggest this is happening, but it could. Hatred of America among Islamic extremists everywhere can be more easily stoked to the extent the United States appears to be invading and occupying a major Arab state in a quasi-imperial fashion (not a fair perception but a prevalent one nonetheless).

Second, due to Bush administration policy, the U.S. share of the reconstruction bill in Iraq is likely to be much higher than it would be otherwise. As Lael Brainard and I argued in a recent Financial Times essay, the U.S. share of such costs may wind up more than $50 billion higher than it should be. Normally, we would pay about 20 percent of the costs of an international reconstruction mission, given normal U.N. and international financial institution rules. But here we could foot a bill three to four times as high.

Finally, American troops are a much greater share of the coalition total than they would be if we had been more interested in forging consensus in our Iraq policy. Admittedly, even in a best case, our NATO allies would probably provide no more than 40,000 troops rather than the 20,000 now expected, and other countries perhaps another 20,000 – still leaving the United States to provide some half of the total.

But having several tens of thousands of additional foreign troops available could make a big difference for two reasons. First, we could make the overall mission bigger – adding troops to protect threatened infrastructure and secure borders more effectively without increasing the already-large American force levels in Iraq. Second, over time we could mitigate the strain on U.S. military personnel as they carry out a mission that is sure to be the Army’s hardest since the Vietnam War.

The integrity of the highly professional all-volunteer force could be threatened by back-to-back unescorted combat tours, or two year-long tours in a three-year period, that will surely convince large numbers of soldiers (60 percent of whom are now married) not to re-enlist. Finding an additional 20,000 to 40,000 foreign troops to help could make the Iraq mission merely difficult, rather than back-breaking, for both the active and reserve elements of the U.S. Army.

The U.S.-led mission in Iraq is still quite likely to succeed over a time period of roughly three to five years. The lack of any unifying ideology for the resistance there makes it unlikely we will face a snowballing mass insurgency. Moreover, most of the difficult attributes of the effort are not the result of administration mistakes so much as the inherent challenge of the job.

That said, the Bush administration has made a hard job worse – with potentially catastrophic implications for the U.S. Army, now bearing the brunt of the stabilization and counterinsurgency effort. And the very high bills now facing the American taxpayer are at least a third higher, in dollar terms, than they should be. Unilateralism may not be destroying American foreign policy as some allege. But it does have its price.