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No Right Turn: Disengagement


There's a pair of articles in Foreign Affairs this month which advocate US withdrawal from Iraq. The first, "Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War" by James Dobbins, is direct and to the point:

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won--but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States.

Dobbins believes that US tactics are fundamentally counterproductive, because they are solely military and conducted with little regard for the lives of Iraqi civilians. But guerrilla wars are not won by killing insurgents, but by winning over the civilian population and thus drying up their support base. In the end, then,

the success or failure of an offensive such as the November assault on Falluja must be measured not according to body counts or footage of liberated territory, but according to Iraqi public opinion. If the Iraqi public emerges less supportive of its government, and more supportive of the insurgents, then the battle, perhaps even the war, will have been lost... Pulverizing cities to root out insurgents may restore some control to the Iraqi government, but the benefits are unlikely to last long if the damage also alienates the population.

On this measure, the US's efforts so far have been nothing less than a disaster, expanding rather than shrinking the number of people willing to passively or actively support the resistance. And they have been so great a disaster as to permanently taint any government propped up by US forces. While the Americans can counteract this to some degree by "using better-calibrated warfare tactics" - shifting the burden of risk from Iraqi civilians to US soldiers by using less indiscriminate firepower - Iraq's stability ultimately depends on their departure. And this requires the backing both of Iraq's immediate neighbours and the broader international community.

It's here that Dobbins falls down. He suggests a broad dialogue "based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity" - which is likely to be a hard sell in the wake of the US's blatant disregard for those very principles in the lead-up to the invasion. And it's difficult to see why Iran in particular would support such a move. As Dobbins points out,

if Iraq is not stabilized, there can be no prospect of dimming Tehran's nuclear ambitions

Which gives the present Iranian regime a hell of a reason to ensure that Iraq is not stabilised for a good few years yet. And on a broad scale, the same applies to the international community as a whole: as long as the US is tied up and bleeding in Iraq, its capacity to cause further trouble is greatly reduced.

One way of resolving this dilemma is suggested in the second article, "Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement", by Edward Luttwak (subscriber only, but most academic libraries will have an online subscription). Luttwak's piece is unashamedly US-centric, dripping with contempt for Iraqis for their ingratitude towards their occupiers who "have been unselfishly expending their own blood and treasure to help them". This US-centrism leads to a "solution" which gives no regard to the interests of Iraqis, and which turns previous dialogue on how the US can withdraw without sparking a vicious civil war on its head. According to Luttwak, the desire to avoid civil war has been the problem all along; the US has

persisted in futile combat against factions that should be confronting one another instead.

(My emphasis)

The presence of American troops has allowed Iraqis of all sects to unite against the invaders, "without calculating the consequences for themselves of a post-American Iraq". According to Luttwak, the credible threat of an imminent withdrawal will force the occupation's greatest beneficiaries - the Sh'ia - to

confront the equally imminent threat of the Baath loyalist and Sunni fighters the only Iraqis with recent combat experience, and the least likely to accept Shiite clerical rule.

In other words, Luttwak's "solution", despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, is for the US to threaten to unleash anarchy in Iraq in order to blackmail concessions from others. It's the sort of plan which only a sociopath could love - but then "sociopathic" seems to describe US foreign policy in a nutshell, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, Luttwak misses an important point. While the US purports to be concerned with avoiding civil war in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, it also has cynical, foreign policy reasons as well - namely the risk that it would result in a dramatic expansion of Iranian influence, and perhaps even turn Iraq into an Iranian client-state. And it's very difficult to see why the Iranians wouldn't react to this plan by backing a theocratic Sh'ia faction in the hope of gaining exactly that.

So, while both authors agree on the need for disengagement, neither offers a workable way of escaping the Iraq tar-baby. And given the people currently running the US administration, I can't really see them putting in the hard work of diplomacy and humbling themselves before the international community required to get a solution which works. Instead, they're likely to go for something half-arsed and sociopathic, which will leave Iraqis even worse off than when this mess started.


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