The latest issue of London's ECONOMIST carries an article about the current situation in Iraq which begins with the following pithy paragraph:
WHEN General David Petraeus, now America's most celebrated military commander, arrived in Iraq in 2003 at the head of an airborne division, he asked a journalist: "Tell me how this ends?" For years nobody had a good answer. But now, thanks to a military pact between America and Iraq, a conclusion is in sight: America's war in Iraq will end in three years' time, with American troops being shown the door and Iraqi politicians competing to claim credit for getting rid of the foreigners. [Emphasis added.]
I'm afraid this makes it impossible for me to resist throwing at you all, once again, for the umpteenth time, the prediction that I have been repeating at regular intervals over the past six years of studying and commenting about the Iraq war. Even months before the invasion began in March 2003, it was obvious to me that this was a war that the United States could not possibly "win" in any lasting or meaningful sense. Quite the opposite, in fact. As I said in a speech to an organization called The Old Guard of Princeton in October of 2002, it would be a stupid and disastrous mistake to believe that "kicking down the doors of a proudly nationalistic Arab society at the heart of the Muslim world would gain anything for us in the end but the violent resentment of the Iraqi people and the contempt of the entire Islamic world."
(Let me remark very emphatically that I was far from alone in holding this view. I was only one of hundreds, probably thousands, of "old Middle East hands" all over the world who held that very strong conviction. The multitude of our numbers and the depth of our personal experiences in the Arab World for some unaccountable reason failed, however, to give our views any perceptible weight in the councils of policy makers either in America or in Europe.)
Since then, in numerous articles and speeches, and in deliberations of the Iraq Study Group advisory committee, of which I was a member, I have repeated over and over again the following admonition --- to the aggravation, I'm sure, of many of my colleagues and correspondents:
"The leader and his party who will gain control over Iraq when US forces leave the country will have derived legitimacy and popularity from the degree to which he has stood in opposition to the American occupation, not cooperated with it."
This is a point that needed to be understood from the very beginning if the United States was ever to design and implement a plan for managing the invasion and occupation of Iraq at minimum cost in lives and treasure, in a timely and efficient manner, and with a result that was least damaging to our national interests in the Middle East and worldwide. No conception of the sort ever influenced either our strategic planners or our commanders in the field, however. Suggesting otherwise brought nothing but scornful accusations of defeatism. Killing our adversaries and establishing a pro-American democracy were always the dominant objectives, a blueprint for the disorderly and humiliating failure that the entire undertaking will surely become before we finally beat a retreat. (Staying even until the end of 2011 seems increasingly improbable to me, frankly --- even considering the horrendous logistical obstacles that a faster withdrawal schedule would encounter. For all intents and purposes, (particularly in its psychological dimension), the retreat effectively begins on the day after the Iraqi parliament signs the security pact calling for US withdrawal on a fixed timetable. I ask you all: In today's world, how long will the American public continue to fork out billions and billions of dollars in a cause that no longer contains even a faded promise of positive accomplishment --- to say nothing of "Victory".
Present conditions, and those future prospects, are finally putting the famous "surge" into its proper perspective: It was a timely and highly focused military operation of limited scope and duration that contributed significantly to the reduction of violence and radically reduced American and Iraqi casualties at a critical phase. More significantly, however, although it was intended to provide a "breathing space" for political reconciliation to take place between opposing Iraqi factions, the surge in reality only provided additional much-needed time and cover for the Maliki government to deploy larger and better-trained security forces, and to consolidate the prime minister's control over many important levers of national power. (Whether Maliki is recklessly overestimating his own strength, and by his self-aggrandizement condemning Iraq to eventual civil war, as some analysts predict, is a separate and very complex issue that I won't try to address here.)
Similarly, the so-called Sunni Awakening, a separate and unrelated politico-military initiative, was also highly focused and of limited scope and duration. It also yielded some very important gains for the US occupation forces, principally through coopting and thus neutralizing most of those dissident Sunni tribal and former Baathist elements that had formed the nucleus of the original anti-US insurgency. The Awakening had the related favorable effect of isolating the most hostile and dangerous fringe of the Sunni opposition and separating it from a revived traditional Iraqi nationalist movement. In addition, the movement apparently inflicted considerable, hopefully permanent, damage to the hard core of the alien "Al-Qa'ida in Iraq" (AQI) organization. Those have been valuable accomplishments by any measure. In the process, however, the Sunni Awakening inevitably evolved into a vigorous and potent instrument of independent Sunni community power, and as such now poses a well-armed and highly energized challenge to the Shiiite-dominated central government --- the Maliki regime that the U.S. Government has publicly endorsed and supported. The Maliki clique, whether we like it or not, is deeply hostile to this reawakened Sunni threat --- and vice versa. The challenge posed by the Sunni Awakening has also stimulated the xenophobic Shiite radicalism of Muqtada as-Sadr's opposition party, and made a violent Shiite-Shiite showdown as well as a Shiite-Sunni confrontation even more probable in the future.
(Much more could be written in this vein if Iranian interests and ambitions, and the competitive interests of regional Sunni Arab states, Israel and Turkey, are examined, as indeed they should be. One quickly recognizes that the Iraq "problem" consists of endless layers of complexity --- infinitely beyond the capacity of any self-serving American politician to understand, much less manage wisely and competently. Hence the continuing assinine claims from President Bush and John McCain of "victory just around the corner!")
Therefore, the Awakening has very clearly NOT been a completely constructive and successful factor in support of our overriding objective of leaving behind us a unified and stable pro-American democracy in Iraq.
In summary, both the "Surge" and the "Awakening" can be accurately evaluated as "successes" in the temporary and tactical dimension, but neither can be honestly represented as a significant long-term gain for the United States on the strategic level. In fact, as the continuing acrimonious negotiations over a bilateral security agreement have glaringly revealed, the twin "successes" of Surge and Awakening are looking less and less significant and certainly much less decisive as we gain broader perspectives on both of those much-celebrated initiatives.
Princeton, New Jersey
21 November 2008