What It Will Take To Truly Win the War

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

March 27, 2003

View the complete index of Brookings Daily War Reports

In the coming days, the eyes of the world will be focused on the battle for Baghdad. It is impossible at this juncture to predict the duration and the intensity of the battle, but its outcome is certain—ultimately the United States and its small group of military coalition partners will prevail. But success depends on a great deal more than the result of that military engagement. For the United States to achieve a meaningful, sustainable victory, one that justifies the loss of blood and treasure, we must now turn our attention to four key tasks.

1) We must make a long-term commitment to achieving a stable, representative, prosperous and just Iraq. The stated justification for our military action is to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction; but the Administration has all along expressed wider hopes for the benefits of regime change.

Now that the war has begun, it is essential that we fully embrace that more ambitious goal, while recognizing that it will be difficult to achieve, and will take a long-term commitment. Democracy in Iraq will not come about overnight. Decades of repression and violence that have pitted ethnic, religious and tribal groups against one another in fear will be hard to overcome. This will require a sustained military presence to provide the secure conditions that permit humanitarian assistance and reconstruction to go forward, and a willingness to provide political and economic assistance to help indigenous democratic forces build a society that can offer the Iraqi people the possibility of a brighter future.

The temptation will be to cut and run or to shift the burden to others. But we have too much at stake to let Iraq descend into chaos. The long-term credibility of our strategy requires us to be—and to be seen as—a superpower that acts to vindicate interests broader than our own. We cannot afford the half-hearted measures that have characterized our approach to Afghanistan.

2) We must fashion a sustainable policy toward the wider Middle East and the Islamic World. Over the past two years, America’s standing in the Arab and Islamic world has fallen to the point that even natural allies—the educated, middle classes who share our ideals and aspirations—have come to doubt our purpose. We are seen as pursuing policies that target tyrannical regimes in Iraq and Iran while condoning anti-democratic practices by our friends. We are viewed as indifferent to the social and economic needs of hundreds of millions that globalization has left behind. We seem unwilling to risk our prestige to help more actively in the search for peace between Israel and its neighbors, or to address pressing ecological and social challenges such as water and a growing population of young people with little hope or knowledge of a wider world.

The war in Iraq risks exacerbating these perceptions, creating a dangerous environment that can lead to further radicalization, destabilization of friendly governments and their replacement with Islamist regimes, as well as deepening the reservoir of support for anti-American and anti-Western terrorism.

The Administration’s belated recognition—on the eve of the war—that it must step up its efforts on the peace process is welcome, but it is only one element of a strategy that would focus first on pushing economic reform and liberalization in the Arab world to provide greater economic opportunity and a growing civil society—an essential first step on the road to greater political freedom and democracy.

3) We must develop a comprehensive approach to halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The war in Iraq illustrates the centerpiece of the Administration’s non-proliferation strategy—military preemption to deny dangerous regimes the ability to pursue WMD programs. In some cases, resort to preemption may be justified, particularly in cases like Iraq where the regime has flouted an unequivocal demand by the Security Council for disarmament, and where a decade in which lesser measures (economic sanctions, political isolation, limited military strikes) has not produced a positive response. Preemption may also be justified against terrorist groups which are prepared to sacrifice themselves to acquire weapons of mass terror.

But preemption cannot be the exclusive, or even primary tool in our strategy to halt the spread of WMD. It is deeply destabilizing, both because it increases the likelihood that we will resort to war and encourages others to do so as well. And in most cases it is likely to be ineffective, as proliferators will either hide or disperse their programs, or worse yet, accelerate their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and thus raise the risk that preemption will be met with a nuclear response. We can see evidence of this unintended consequence of the Iraq war in both North Korea and Iran.

Instead, we must make sure that preemption is truly a last resort, and move to strengthen other tools, such as more intrusive inspections under the Non-proliferation Treaty, a strengthened verification and enforcement mechanism under the Biological Weapons Convention and renewed efforts to prevent dangerous materials in Russia and elsewhere from falling into the hands of dangerous regimes and terrorists. The Administration’s deep hostility to treaties and international organizations as part of the non-proliferation strategy is profoundly misplaced. These arrangements obviously are not fool-proof, but they can be effective in many cases, and the US commitment to try to work with the international community will strengthen the legitimacy of our actions, if despite good faith efforts, these multilateral approaches fail. Critics of these treaties claim that they lull us into false complacency. But that is not a flaw with the treaties, but rather with our own determination.

4) We must repair the rifts with our democratic allies, whose cooperation is essential to achieve all of these long-term goals. None of the tasks outlined above can be achieved by the United States acting alone. The burdens are too great, and in many cases, such as halting the spread of WMD, we need the active cooperation of others in intelligence, law enforcement and political communities.

The Administration acknowledges the need for help, but seems to believe that this can be achieved through ad hoc coalitions of the willing. This approach is short-sighted and doomed to failure. Our longstanding democratic alliances in Europe and Asia offer more than can be provided by partners who support us only as a result of the opportunistic coincidence of interests. Allies are more likely to rally to each other’s cause even when their own interests may not be directly at stake.

Today, much of the debate in America is focused on the non-support of Germany and France, but far more telling is the willingness of most of our allies in Europe and Asia to support us even though the vast majority of their publics strongly object. Moreover, allies who share our values are more likely to be partners across a wide range of challenges, and these broad-ranging ties make our cooperation all the more effective. We fight better militarily with countries like our NATO allies and Australia because we have trained and planned together for decades. We meet economic and political challenges better because our officials have long experience of working together, and know that compromise is important because we will need each other for new challenges in the future. Some criticize alliances like NATO, and our military commitments to South Korea as outdated holdovers from the Cold War and point to the long list of coalition partners for Operation Iraqi freedom. Do we really want to depend on Angola and the Marshall Islands to help us build a sustainable, peaceful democratic world?