Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Iraqi Debacle: Finding A Way Forward and Out

On March 20, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush launched a ‘pre-emptive’ military invasion against the state of Iraq intended to transform the greater Middle East region, through Iraq’s own shining example of reformed success, neutralize a potentially significant threat and perceived puppet-master of terrorism, by conclusively ousting the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein through military means, and divert attention away from the U.S.’ inability to locate and capture Al Qaeda front man Osama Bin Laden and his fellow collaborators, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri—the two men most responsible for the nefarious terrorist attacks on 9/11. The invasion itself was a stunning success but that feeling of triumphant exuberance has since been mired by the post-invasion ‘perils of occupation’—as the persistence of sectarian violence, civil strife, lawlessness, and widespread crime, an insurgency, and innumerable political animosities, divisions, and seemingly irreconcilable differences that exist to this day all elicit. In this paper I wish to examine the nature, sources, and causes of the Iraq war and explore a few viable solutions which achieve, as a title in a recent Carnegie Endowment report suggests, ‘a way forward for Iraq and a way out for the United States’. I will start by discussing the relevant changes in US foreign policy post 9/11, then I will address the myriad actors involved in the Iraqi conflict, elaborating on both their goals and intentions, and finally, I will conclude with a proposed set of solutions, at which point I will share the particular one I favor most.

On September 11, 2001 the world, and with it, American foreign policy dramatically changed. The terrorist attacks on both the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., inspired the Bush administration to rapidly craft a new National Security Strategy (NSS) that dealt with the new security environment. The contents of Bush's NSS revolved around three main pledges: First, the US will “defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants.” Second, it “will preserve the peace by building good relations among the super powers.” And third, it “will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”[1]The most significant change in Bush's NSS, which would later prove to have profound effects on the course of history, was the “shift in strategic thinking from a reliance on the deterrent containment doctrine of the Cold War to a willingness to use preemptive policy-making when necessary to safeguard American national interests.” [2]In other words, the Bush administration's preemptive principle proposed an abandonment of the US' traditional foreign policy approach of managing and containing existing threats and crises' (aka realism) for a much more proactive policy prescription: spread democracy in order to thwart future threats before they arise. Evidence of this shift in foreign policy can clearly be seen on November 7, 2003, at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, where President Bush expressed his deep conviction that U.S. security is threatened by the realist divorce of American values and American interests:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo[3].
The first victim that fell into the cross hairs of this new preemptive principle of American foreign policy was Iraq.

In the very same speech Bush made his intentions for invading Iraq perfectly clear: “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic transformation.”[4] By invading Iraq and replacing its despot with democracy you would, they thought, allow freedom to reign and the economy to flourish with investment and growth. Iraq would thus become a paragon of potential for other Middle Eastern states to model themselves after. Moreover, the White House and the neoconservatives envisioned the invasion of Iraq as being the solution to the majority of their Middle Eastern problems: terrorism’s source would be eradicated, other states in the Middle East, specifically Iran, would reform and become democratic and free, and Israel could “reenter the regional system, under conditions far more favorable to its economic interests and national security.”[5] The anticipated realities of this dream, however, were never, or at least, have yet to be, realized.

After five years of U.S. occupation, the expenditure of trillions of dollars, and despite the presence of 160,000 troops at the end of 2007, Iraq, today, is still an “unstable, violent, and deeply divided country, indeed a failed state.”[6] The cost and duration of the war in Iraq has far exceeded what the US administration had ever anticipated and the outcome was radically different from what had been expected. A mixture of mismanagement and poor decision making by the administration before and during the post-invasion reconstruction process certainly accounts for much of the mess that emerged over the course of the occupation, but today, the single greatest challenge preventing progress in Iraq is the refusal of Iraqi political factions to engage in serious political reconciliation.

The existence of myriad political factions and ethnic alliances within Iraq has only made the already difficult task of creating an integrated Iraq more challenging. The different Iraqi political figures and forces have conflicting and often changing views on what they envision to be the future of Iraq. Moreover, there is often inconsistency between their vision and their actions. Understanding the intentions and goals of these various and varying factions is a crucial part to understanding the overall Iraqi conflict puzzle.

There are three main ethnic groups who make up the constituency of Iraq: the Shi'a, who make up the majority with 60%, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. The Shi'a were severely oppressed under the Saddam regime, but since the U.S. invasion have gained a significant amount of power. In general the Shi'a support the strengthening of the Iraqi central government, which isn't surprising considering the fact that they are “the most numerous group, with the most members of parliament and control over the office of the prime minister.”[7] But there are still a number of different Shi'a factions who have conflicting goals. The Da’wa Party, represented by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, supports the enlargement of the central government’s authority and power. The Islamic Supreme Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), led by Abdel al-Aziz al-Hakim, favors the concentration of power being placed at the regional level. It has strong Iranian ties and supports the unification of a Shi’i bloc, in which the nine predominantly Shi’ite provinces would be made into one single region. Then there’s Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who has certainly been a thorn in the US’ side, who “heads the largest but also least disciplined and cohesive Shi’i militia” and “talks of a unified Iraq but at the same time has been contesting the authority of the central government and imposing his own control wherever he can.”[8]

The Sunnis, on the other hand, once the main party in power, have lost a significant degree of that power since the overthrow of Saddam. The reconstruction process--the disbanding of the military, the de-Baathification program, and the elections (which, only having a 20% share of the population, put them at a significant disadvantage)—left the Sunnis feeling indignant and marginalized. As a result, the Sunnis decided to boycott the elections, which only made matters worse, since it excluded them from having a role in the crafting of the constitution and from being represented in the parliament. Despite their lack of power and representation in the newly created Iraqi government, the Sunnis still initially advocated a strong, centralized Iraqi state. More recently, however, the Sunni vision has begun to change and has become much more complex. The new Sunni tribal leaders who, helped by the U.S., opposed al-Qaeda, also strongly oppose the Iraqi central government. As the recent 2007 US NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) states, the Sunnis “believe the central government is illegitimate and incompetent.”[9] Thus, it is difficult to determine whether or not the Sunnis would be willing to participate with the central government or if they perceive it to be a threat to their regional autonomy.

The Kurds occupy the northern region of Iraq and are the only group who have maintained a clear, consistent, and relatively unified vision. Since the end of the first Gulf War, the Kurds have continued to develop their own autonomous region. Their long term aspiration has been independence, but this vision is often ignored or flat out rejected because of its unfavorable implications amongst bordering states (such as Turkey and Iran) and amongst Iraqi political factions, since it threatens the unification of Iraq. Nevertheless, the Kurds have consistently pursued their autonomy. They supported the adoption of a constitution for Iraq that empowers the regional and provincial powers, instead of the Iraqi central government. They have their own militia; their own regional government and parliament to enact laws and govern their province; and they have signed a number of investment contracts with international businesses, including oil companies, without consulting or including the Iraqi central government.[10]

Reconciling these conflicting visions and constantly changing political agendas is the only way to transform Iraq from its current failed state status to a functioning state status. The task of stabilizing Iraq, as Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute Carlos Pascual points out, “has become an issue of massive global and regional consequence. At stake are the risks of a wider regional conflict between Sunni and Shi’a and perhaps between Arabs and Persians, humanitarian tragedy spreading over multiple states, a platform for international terrorism, and disruptions to oil production and transit from the single most critical region affecting global oil markets.”[11] There are three options available, or strategies that the U.S. can embrace, but, in my opinion, there is only one option that leads to a solution.

The first option is withdrawal. Reports indicate that, come this fall, the White House intends to start withdrawing a significant amount of American troops—on the order of 50%, though I have read in some places that it might be even larger. Withdrawing may seem like an immediate solution in the eyes of the U.S., but the likely long-term consequences of withdrawal will quickly teach the U.S. that it cannot wash its hands of the mess it has made that easily. According to Ivo Daalder, “after the withdrawal, the situation will get worse, probably much worse. Violence will increase, with deaths likely rising from tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed a year. A million deaths is not inconceivable.”[12] Moreover, if Iraq becomes engulfed in violence and remains a failed state it will become a magnet and safe haven for terrorists, where they would be able to safely plan and orchestrate future attacks on the region and around the globe.

The second option is for the U.S. is to stay until Iraq is stabilized, but significantly change its strategy in order to achieve this end. Over the course of the occupation the U.S.’ main security approach has been very broad: “pacify the entire country more or less simultaneously, preventing the insurgents from securing safe havens and focusing on political and economic progress across the board to help the country “shed” the violence by undermining the key claim of the insurgents (and would-be warlords) that only they can provide security and basic services.”[13] The U.S., lacking the necessary resources to accomplish this broad endeavor, would need to adopt, as Kenneth Pollack proposes, a true counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. This approach would focus on securing “enclaves or protected areas (Kurdistan, most of the predominantly Shi’ite southeast, Baghdad, and a number of other major urban centers, along with the oilfields and some other vital economic facilities) while, initially, leaving much of the rest of the country outside of Kurdistan and the Shi’ite southeast to the insurgents.”[14] This strategy emphasizes a smaller, ground-up approach to security in which local economic and political developments would be able to make “meaningful progress.”[15] The US would then be able to spread success outwards to encompass more territory (which is why this strategy is often referred to as a “spreading oil stain” or “spreading ink stain”). The U.S. has dabbled with this strategy in the most recent phases of the occupation, but it appears to be a strategy that does not make meaningfully significant progress quick enough, so it is hard to sustain and entails an indefinite amount of years of U.S. presence (something the US public does not seem to keen on supporting).

The third option and, to me, solution to this Iraqi quagmire, is the involvement of the International community through the U.N. in collaboration with the US military presence. Carlos Pascual usefully draws upon the learned lessons of history to emphasize how “decades of International experience underscore that, first and foremost, a political agreement among the warring Iraqi parties is needed for a sustainable peace, and that long-term multilateral engagement is necessary to create a chance for its successful implementation.”[16] Thomas Pickering puts this learned lesson of history even more pointedly when he says “all insurgencies, like most wars, end in political settlements. Indeed most insurgencies have been ended by political settlements, which is not the same thing.” [17]The experience in Iraq certainly supports this claim. The ‘go-at-it’ alone approach, coupled with the military-dominated strategy for achieving stability, has proven itself to be catastrophically fruitless.

More importantly, the US needs to recognize that it can no longer play the role of arbiter in the Iraqi political reconciliation process because it has both a political stake (its reputation) and national (economic and strategic) interests attached to the negotiations. This lack of legitimacy is one of the single greatest impediments to the achievement of successful reconciliation. In order to achieve sustained peace and stability in Iraq, political reconciliation must be brokered by a neutral entity that embraces all of the relevant state actors within its membership. The United Nations is the perfect candidate uniquely suited for this monumental role, because it offers not only an ability to mobilize a multilateral response, but also provides legitimacy through its neutrality.

The UN will be able to deal with the two most pressing concerns facing Iraq: it can manage the refuge crisis and broker peace. The latter will of course be the most difficult task, as most of the relevant parties involved in the Iraqi conflict are armed and obviously not very prudent when it comes to violence, but through the international support of its member states and its legitimacy, the UN is clearly the most able body to broker a political settlement between the Iraqis. The UN, however, cannot replace the US’ military role in Iraq. Providing security on the ground is a crucial element in the political reconciliation process. Without the continued presence of U.S. military forces the U.N. would be quickly doomed to failure.

The challenges of stabilizing Iraq are enormous and reason for optimism in achieving or brokering a political settlement is certainly fleeting, but this approach of including the UN and enlarging its role, is clearly the one that offers the best chance for success. The only question left is whether or not the Iraqis are prepared, capable, and willing to achieve this end. But judging from their past history I would certainly wager that they are more than ready to move forward. It is our job to give them that opportunity, and then get the hell out.


[1] Pauly, Robert J. Strategic Preemption: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Second Iraq War. Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub., 2005

[2] Pauly, Robert J. Strategic Preemption: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Second Iraq War. Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub., 2005
[3] White House.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kepel, Gilles. The War for Muslim Minds. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
[6] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[9] National Intelligence Estimate, Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, January 2007. Available:; accessed: 4 February 2007.

[10] Ottaway, Brown, Hamzaqy, Sadjadpour, and Salem. The New Middle East. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
[11] Pascual, Carlos. “The United Nations in Iraq.” The Brookings Institute. September 2007. Accessed 10 March 2008. < >
[12] Daalder, Ivo. Coping with Failure in Iraq. Brookings Institute. Retrieved: 16 March, 2008. <>

[13] Pollack, Kenneth. Cited in The Road Ahead: Middle East Policy in the Bush Administration’s Second Term. Washington, DC : Brookings Institution, 2005.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Pascual, Carlos. “The United Nations in Iraq.” The Brookings Institute. September 2007. Accessed 10 March 2008. < >
[17] Pickering, Thomas. Does the UN have a Role in Iraq? Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group. Retrieved: 15 March 2008.

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