I know what you're thinking; a melodramatic title. But what's at stake here is much more urgent and profound than the average quality of discourse on the matter would lead you to believe. An alien from outer space would look at what currently passes for debate about the Iraq war and detect absolutely nothing about the real issues at stake.
Permit me an apologia. I am inevitably read as one who supported this war from the start and will now scramble to do anything to continue to justify it and argue that success is possible. I did support this war from the start, and at this precise moment in time, I do argue for its continuation. But know this: my position is not simple inertia. Had I not possessed a naive faith in the U.S. government's ability to succeed in 2003, I would not have supported this war; my position today is based on what I see now as the consequences of their earlier failures, which we need to confront urgently. Anyone who wants to discuss these consequences needs to be able to refer to what we learnt from our earlier experiences, but also not be too wed to his or her views in 2003, 2004 or 2005. By my frank admission that I was naive and wrong in 2003, 2004 and 2005, I hope you will think seriously about what I have to say now.
This write-up has been occasioned by the release of the White House report on the Iraqi government's progress on benchmarks. The result of this report: eight satisfactory marks, eight unsatisfactory, and two categories not rated. A perfect split, and you would have been foolish to expect anything other. This report was always going to show some good and some bad, and hence was always a terrible indicator of what to do next: as if anyone could reasonably expect the surge to show revolutionary progress in a few short months. Let's just quickly recap all the damage that had been done to Iraq before the Americans even realized what was going on and initiated this new strategy, their first proactive and decisive change of tack.
Saddam Hussein's dictatorship did catastrophic damage to the relations between Sunni and Shi'ite in Iraq and created personal and communal animosities which are well within living memory. Then, the Americans arrived, their leaders convinced that Saddam Hussein was essentially Hitler and they were re-enacting World War II for the MTV generation: the same results with an even cheaper price. The drive to Berlin from Normandy was called Operation Cobra. Guess what the drive to Baghdad was called? Cobra II.
Because Iraq was Germany and Saddam was Hitler, they believed all that was necessary was to get rid of the dictator and the rest would sort itself out, because the only dichotomy that they saw between people in Iraq was the regime (oppresive) and "the Iraqi people" (oppressed). Had these people really been disciplies of Leo Strauss, they might have pondered for a second the close relationship between a regime and the sort of man it feeds off and engenders, and the fact that there is no dictatorship on a countrywide scale without hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of little dictators. Saddam Hussein didn't have a gun to the head of every Iraqi; every Iraqi had a gun, and it was either oriented outward from within the regime, or downward in shame and defeat.
Given this reality, it seemed just about the worst thing one might do was to decapitate the regime and tell everyone to go home, thanks for playing. Because the Iraqis didn't go home to create a magical democratic wonderland, they went home to brood on past injustice and to worry incessantly about the future. It's called a security dilemma: armed groups are constantly insecure about each other's intentions, and they often decide to act first to try and gain the upper hand rather than wait out events and hope that the other group doesn't decide to take the initiative. It's especially operative where groups have already spent decades despising and killing one another.
And what has happened since that glorious day when Saddam was gone? The Iraqis have killed each other in ever increasing numbers, while the Americans largely sat by and watched, afraid that if they interfered they might make themselves even more despised. Let's please abandon this notion of poor, virginal Iraq clamped beneath the corrupting and murderous American jackboot. There has never been more than one American soldier for every ninety Iraqis, and nowadays the figure is more like one for every two hundred. The U.S. military footprint turns out to have been made by a stiletto, not a jackboot; and that's precisely the problem. The Americans aren't directly responsible for the large number of deaths occuring in Iraq every day, the Iraqis are: but the Americans created these conditions and then did nothing to stop the acceleration of the violence. They broke it, and in my moral university that means they ought to do something about fixing it.
Here I'm likely to run into another objection: that the departure of American forces from Iraq will somehow stop the violence, as if death and evil only existed in this world due to the projection of American power. I've got news for you: if you think Iraq is violent now, you wouldn't want to see it after American troops withdrew. Before the surge, armed groups in Baghdad vied to gain advantages against one another which could be exploited when coalition forces withdraw, as they eventually must – one way or another. While the political process is moribund and security is uncertain, armed groups seek these advantages over one another by force. They reason that whoever controls the most of Baghdad when full sovereignty is restored will control the destiny of Iraq; and they conclude correctly. In concrete terms, this would mean the brutal expulsion of the capital's Sunni population to the western part of the country, from where they would proceed to make war against Shia Baghdad.
American forces are, for now, the only available mechanism which stops this process continuing at breakneck speed. The security dilemma will become particularly acute the moment the Americans leave, when there's everything to play for between the sects. There's a reason the Shia militias and death squads don't habitually and constantly target American forces, and it isn't because they want to be best buddies with Uncle Sam for ever and ever. It's because the occupation benefits them by allowing them to be in the best position to realize their goals once American forces eventually leave, which any observer can see is clearly going to happen within the lifetime of the people involved - unless they're so stupid as to get themselves killed by the Americans beforehand, of course.
The reason it's taken so long to make progress in the Sunni Triangle is because the Americans have appeared to be the patrons of the Shia for so long, and only the murderous behavior of al-Qaeda in Iraq has really driven the Sunnis to the Americans in large numbers; it's doubtful they still really trust them, but they can at least hope to attain a relationship with them similar to the Shia. It should be noted that this is an entirely different matter to a genuine healing of the pain and mistrust between the communities themselves, but as I have said, we will not see the true reckoning in this regard until American forces are gone - and I don't see any reason to believe that this latter event happening is going to make Sunni and Shia, ex-Baathist and Sadrist, embrace one another and become paragons of peace, regional stability and moderation. Again, we broke it; leaving won't make it better; what do we do?
I don't know. The surge has led to a decrease in the level of violence and genuine gains in Anbar province and Baghdad. The idea of the surge was that if violence was allowed to decrease for long enough, then the political process might be able to get under way and healing and reconciliation could come about. But if this was going to work, it would clearly require longer than a few months, which brings me back to the clearly premature White House status report. But that report is an indication of the speed at which the wheels of democracy move, and they move especially quickly away from anything which calls upon citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice on an altar made largely of solid uncertainty.
Many people are apt to say that all this considered, the proper thing to do is just to leave, because there's no way that the situation can be resolved. This isn't to mention the horrible consequences that leaving would have for the Iraqi people, as the Americans would then remove the last impediment to massive inter-communal violence, namely themselves. It would also have huge ramifications for regional stability, aid the rise of Iran, and lead to Arab governments and Israel orienting themselves away from the U.S. - not totally, but some. All that stands before this eventuality are the flimsy mechanisms of democracy, the few months that can be snatched here and there from the American political process to try and bring to anything like a satisfactory conclusion what was begun all those years ago.
Yes, you may have opposed the war at the start, and yes, you were right to do so; but countries make mistakes, and when they do they can't just throw it all up in the air and wash their hands of it, because whatever sort of psychological closure you thought that gave you will swiftly seem like a Pyrrhic victory when the consequences come back to get you later. It's an instinct of the old American isolationism to think that just because two great oceans separate you from the events we're discussing, you can dip in and out of them like you do a pool. This idea was discredited - if you'll permit me to employ a cliche, because sometimes they're true - on 9/11, and it's going to be discredited again soon enough.
If I believed that the U.S. was going to abandon Iraq before making a serious, decade-long effort to make things right, then I would advocate withdrawal right now; because there's no point just keeping token forces here and snatching token months there, just like my country is doing in the south now. If this turns out to be what happens, then I will view the American political system with a deep disappointment, a disappointment that has been welling in me for some time now but I keep suppressing with hopes for a better future. The measure of a truly great country is that it sets right what it starts wrongly, and America now stands on the brink of either the highest glory or one of the deepest disgraces. If we predict the future by the usual method of simply extending current trends into the future, things don't look good; and yet world-history is only really made when the unexpected occurs. We stand on the brink of a future which in only a few short years is going to radically redefine a lot of what we think we know about American power, the Middle East, and American politics. I sincerely hope there are some pleasant surprises.