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Out of Iraq


The war in Iraq has become a costly trap from which the United States should extricate itself soon. With the election only a few weeks away, the Republican administration insists on “staying the course,” on denouncing all the different insurgents as desperadoes, and on reassuring the public that things are improving just as more than one thousand American soldiers have died and attacks are sharply increasing. Those who have put their hopes in a change of administration have several reasons for being frustrated and disappointed.

First, the Democratic team has seemed anxious not to upset voters who have been persuaded by the administration that the “War on Terror” depends on the American “liberation” of Iraq and do not want to hear about the limits of American power. John Edwards has talked of ultimate victory, and John Kerry has crippled his campaign by his all-too-calculated contradictions, especially when he stated that he would have voted for the congressional resolution that granted power to initiate war to the President even if he had known in October 2002 what is known now. He should simply have observed instead, as Senator Hillary Clinton did, that had we known then what we know now, there would have been no resolution and no vote.

The two Democratic candidates have been critical of the ways in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq and bungled the occupation. But they could have put forward much earlier arguments that Kerry was only beginning to make in late September.

(1) Saddam’s regime did not present a clear and present danger to the United States;

(2) no proof of collusion against the US between Saddam and al-Qaeda has ever been shown;

(3) the switch from the war on terrorism, which led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the war in Iraq was a highly imprudent diversion of resources, and a contribution to—indeed a godsend for—terrorists, a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy;

(4) the lofty goal of liberating the Iraqis cannot be achieved by imposing a regime of exiles through military force, in circumstances drastically different from those of 1945 Germany and Japan;

(5) the awarding of lucrative contracts exclusively to American companies has thrown a deep shadow over the idealistic language of the administration;

(6) the willful decision to limit the size of American forces in Iraq (for reasons that were never made entirely clear) was an unexpected boon to insurgents, since the US forces could not deal with the acute problems that were inevitable in a partly devastated country;

(7) American expectations that the occupation would be popular were based on a mixture of ignorance, hubris, and misinformation provided by exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi;

(8) a genuine concern with liberation would have required close US collaboration with internal factions, restraint in the use of destructive tactics, prevention of looting, and scrupulous respect for international obligations, especially toward prisoners;

(9) during most of the period between the summer of 2002 and the summer of 2004, the Bush administration, and especially the civilians in charge of the Pentagon, treated Congress as a minor nuisance, and evidently thought the public could easily be deceived. It is still doing its best to fool the voters.

Instead of presenting a convincing argument, the positions of the Kerry campaign on Iraq suffer from a variety of flaws and unconfronted questions:

(1) Kerry has repeatedly claimed that he would do a better job than Bush in rallying other countries to a genuine coalition that would ensure security in Iraq. This is wishful thinking. Muslim countries have shown no enthusiasm for helping Iraqi authorities as long as the Coalition is still under US control. The NATO countries that favored the Coalition are already in it (or, in Spain’s case, were), and, except for the UK, they provide very little by way of military force. France and Germany are unlikely to join. The French don’t want to give the Muslim world the impression that the “West” is opposed to “Islam.” Aware of the insurgents’ attacks on the US and its protégés, most states are not likely to share the human and financial costs of a counterinsurgency war, certainly not as long as it is waged under American command. Whether NATO will show any eagerness for training Iraqi security forces or guarding Iraq’s borders is still not clear. No doubt, many governments would be better disposed toward President Kerry than toward President Bush. But decisions touching on war and peace tend to be based on realities on the ground and at home, not on whether one leader is more agreeable than another.

(2) Kerry has been largely silent about the relations between American-led forces in Iraq and the interim government headed by Iyad Allawi, and also the transitional government that will emerge from the assembly that is supposed to be elected before the end of January 2005. Will the American-led forces continue to decide on military operations by themselves, even if one or both of these governments object to them?

(3) The hope that Iraqi security forces can be recruited and trained effectively so far has turned out to be illusory. Training is not all; training and a good salary may be better, but ultimately motivation is essential, and the fear of being killed or wounded by insurgents and only tepidly supported by the population may well cause newly trained police and troops to fade away, as many have already done.

(4) What does Kerry believe will happen if American forces either are increased during his first term or remain at their present levels for several more years? In contrast to American policy during the spring of 2003, should there not be planning for a worst-case situation?

The facts are that the number of attacks on American and other forces and installations has multiplied by five since Bush stood under a sign announcing “Mission Accomplished” and proclaimed the “end of major combat operations” in Iraq; that a number of cities in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere are not under the control of the “Coalition” or of the Iraqi interim government; and that the US and Prime Minister Allawi now face a deep dilemma. If they leave insurgents in control, whether in Sunni territory or in Sadr City in Baghdad, more Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis will flock to these places, some with increasingly potent weapons. If attempts are made to regain control of the cities and districts now held by hostile forces, the number of Iraqi dead and wounded will rise, fewer Iraqi civilians will side with the Americans, and more will resent their heavy weapons and their air strikes against fellow Iraqis (even if they might dislike the insurgents or wish that the latter had chosen other places to fight). To dismantle and disarm private militias would require either a large-scale American military operation or willingness on the part of Iraqi authorities to appear as the submissive clients of the American occupiers. This seems likely to encourage the rebellions. Isn’t this what has happened in cases as diverse as French Indochina, Vietnam, and Algeria?


Raymond Aron’s advice to the Prince’s would-be counselor was that he should put himself in the Prince’s place, and should not look at things from the perspective of the radical critic, the idealist, the perfectionist, or the enemy. Fine, as long as one remembers that Aron himself, a columnist for the conservative daily Le Figaro, had early concluded (and wrote accordingly, but not in Le Figaro) that the only way for the French to deal with Algeria was to grant it independence—a notion that neither the right nor most of the left found palatable at the time. Aron’s lesson was that there are times when tendencies to temporize and hope for incremental improvements can lead to disaster.

At present, there are many who believe that the US has to “stay the course.” Its credibility is thought to be at stake, especially after it failed to support the insurrections against Saddam Hussein that the US itself encouraged the Kurds and the Shiites to undertake in 1991. Moreover, civilian supporters of the war in the Pentagon continue to hold out hopes for building a democracy in Iraq that would somehow serve as a model for other governments in the Middle East. They therefore believe that the US must not only help the interim government to defeat the insurgents but stay in Iraq as long as any new government needs protection.

Such hopes are being demolished by the realities of Iraqi hostility to the US and its protégés. The spread of terrorism makes it difficult to distinguish either the jihadists from outside the country or the postwar followers of bin Laden in Iraq from other Iraqis opposed to the occupation. Thus the administration’s “war on terror” is achieving the very connections between the Iraqis and members of al-Qaeda that Bush falsely told the public justified the war. As a recent study convincingly argues, the prolonged occupation is “an open invitation for a steady build up of grassroots Muslim anger,”1 and a breeding ground for terrorism. Much of the insurgency, moreover, has been aimed not only at American forces but also at oil pipelines and ordinary technicians, foreign private contractors, and Iraqis working for and with the Americans. It may well be that many Iraqis currently opposed to the occupation will be increasingly revolted by the killings of fellow Iraqis by the insurgents. In that case, an Iraqi policy aimed at defeating insurgents may become popular or at least accepted. But as long as such a policy depends on intervention by US forces, it is unlikely to crush the rebellion. Although the US is increasing its efforts to train security forces, as the Financial Times recently commented, they “cannot stand alongside a US military that daily rains thousands of tons of projectiles and high explosives on their compatriots.”2

There are therefore good reasons for calling for an end to the occupation. As in Palestine, the occupation is the main cause of the current troubles. This certainly does not mean that the attacks will end if we leave; but whatever we do to try to resolve internal conflicts is likely to backfire. Continuing US military control, direct or indirect, will intensify anti-Americanism (as in post-1965 South Vietnam) and provide a training ground for terrorism, both indigenous and from other countries. American interests would be better served by a shift of US resources toward two objectives. The first is the fight against al-Qaeda and its allies throughout the world, which have become more diversified and decentralized. They continue to receive financial and other support from powerful groups in officially pro-American states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They are not easily defeated by high-powered military operations, and they continue to recruit members from extremist madrasas, whether in Pakistan or in other Muslim countries.

  1. 1

    Christopher Preble, Exiting Iraq: Why the US Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against Al Qaeda (Cato Institute, 2004), p. 30.

  2. 2

    Time to Consider Iraq Withdrawal,” editorial in the Financial Times, September 10, 2004.

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