More Bushwhacking in Iraq
Carlton M. Caves
2007 September 10

This is supposed to be the big week as far as our future in Iraq is concerned, what with the reports to the Congress by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker and a planned address to the nation by the Decider himself.

Not that there has been any suspense. Bush put Petraeus and Crocker in their present positions because, in addition to their estimable qualities, they could be relied on not to stray from his approach and to flack for him when needed, and flack away they did today.

It has been clear for some time that the Decider isn't going to change anything. He put it this way in remarks in Hawaii last Saturday, on his way home from a round-the-world trip that took him to a fortified American base in Iraq and then to the APEC summit in Sydney:

I came back from Iraq encouraged by what I saw. No question there's still hard work to do, but my resolve is as strong as it's ever been. I believe we're doing the right thing there for the security of the country and for the peace of the world. General David Petraeus will be reporting to the Congress along with Ambassador Crocker on Monday and Tuesday. I will then talk about a way forward after their report. I ask the members of Congress to sit back and listen to what we all have to say before they reach the conclusions that they're going to reach. But one thing is for certain: Now is the time to do the hard work in order to make sure that we can have a peaceful world, now is the time to deny radicals and extremists a safe haven, and now is the time to advance democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I believe that's the calling of our time, and I believe we'll succeed. And I know it's necessary that we do.

So there you have it: listen to Petraeus, Crocker, and Bush, and fall into line, but whether or not you do, forget about any real changes. The Decider doesn't change his mind.

Speaking of the President and the Petraeaus/Crocker reports, White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten declared this past weekend, "He needs to take their recommendations, step back and put it in the broader context of why we are there, and talk more broadly about the U.S. presence in the Middle East." Indeed, that's what we all need to do, especially since there's no evidence that Bush will do it for us---or even has the ability to do so.

I have always thought there were five stated and unstated justifications for our Iraq adventure. To evaluate where we are and where we ought to go, it's useful to start with these five and see how they have morphed in the nearly four-and-a-half years of the occupation.

1. Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction and the consequent threat he posed to his neighbors and ultimately to us and our friends. This fear has, as we all know, proved groundless. That doesn't mean it was wrong to be concerned about Iraq's possessing WMD, because there was evidence, believed by many responsible people, that pointed toward this possibility, but it was wrong to exaggerate the evidence, as the Bush gang surely did, solely because it was the easiest way to sell a war that they were determined to pursue.

Had any evidence for WMD been found, no matter how insignificant, the Bush gang would have hyped it as a major threat, but in this case their propaganda machine was stymied---unlike every other situation in an administration notable for egregious spin---because multiplying zero by anything still leaves you with zero. No matter how hard you try, you can't spin a zero into anything else.

2. Iraq's connection to the global network of terrorists and, hence, to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. This justification has been discredited except in the mind of the irrepressibly irresponsible Dick Cheney, and it has now morphed into the contention that Iraq has become the central front in the war on terror.

It's not at all clear that Iraq really is this central front. The presence of foreign terrorists in Iraq's Sunni regions is undeniable, but their significance and influence is unclear. We should never forget that if foreign terrorists are a major problem in Iraq, it is entirely a consequence of our intervention. Our presence in Iraq is a recruiting tool for extremist Islam everywhere, as the extremists object most violently to any Western presence on Arab land. Equally clear is that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself under Osama bin Laden in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border. This might reasonably give that area claim to the central-front title and a consequent primary claim on our attention.

3. Saddam's oppression of Iraq's people, particularly the Kurds and the Shia. The capture of Saddam and his chief partners in crime is the one positive accomplishment of our Iraq adventure. But one has to wonder whether this one accomplishment can possibly justify the cost in lives and treasure: nearly 3,800 American dead, with the number of wounded approaching 28,000, and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed; a present cost of just over $450 billion, increasing at a rate of $200 million per day, and an ultimate cost approaching $2 trillion; and whether we leave or stay, a dangerous, chaotic situation for millions of Iraqis. If Bush had told you in 2003 that we could buy Saddam's demise for just 3,800 American dead and $2 trillion, would you have bought it?

4. The spread of democratic institutions to Iraq and from there to the entire Arab and Muslim world. This became the major stated objective of our intervention once WMDs were off the table, but it has receded in importance in the past year as it has become abundantly clear to everyone that we are not going to leave a nonsectarian, democratic national government in charge of Iraq. Moreover, our preoccupation with Iraq and the consequent need to curry favor with existing governments in the region has meant that the rest of the Arab and Muslim world has settled back comfortably into its habits of monarchical and authoritarian government. So much for promoting democracy in the region.

What then are our troops doing in Iraq? Our presence is now devoted to shoring up the central government's tenuous control in Baghdad and to helping the Sunnis take control of their tribal areas.

The central government in Iraq, which American politicians of all stripes are fond of badgering to take effective actions, is an irrelevancy. There are no national institutions, and the central government exerts no effective control over any part of the country. It is a joke to be ragging the Iraqi government about achieving a set of benchmarks. For once, in shrugging off those benchmarks, the Bush gang is right about something, although their reason for dismissing the benchmarks isn't so admirable. It's the usual desire to avoid responsibility for their own failures. The only Iraqi national institution thought to be approaching any sort of effectiveness---and that might be a year to 18 months away---is the military, and should it become effective, that will turn out to be a mixed blessing. How long do weak civilian governments last in countries with an even partly effective military when there is no tradition of civilian control?

As far as the Sunnis are concerned, we are told of the great success of bringing the Sunnis around in Anbar province. The Sunnis have realized that they need the same control of their tribal areas, enforced by locally controlled militias, that the Shia and the Kurds have in theirs. For the present, the Sunni chieftains have realized that their interests in securing control of their region---and in resisting or even pushing back against the Shia---are best served by co-operating with us, instead of with foreign influences, the so-called al Qaeda in Iraq being the most prominently mentioned example. This has nothing to do with the surge, but rather is a consequence of our deciding to work with those who had been fighting us and their realizing that co-operation with us is their current best bet.

It does offer a potential way forward, however, the only way forward that has a prayer of succeeding---and it's important to remember that it's little more than a prayer. Give up on the idea of a nonsectarian, democratic national government in Iraq. Shoot for a country loosely partitioned along sectarian lines, with an inevitably weak central government that manages to control Baghdad, after a de facto partitioning of that city, much of which has already occurred. Making all this work will require constructing a tenuous internal balance of power between the three sects, in which each has enough power to control its own affairs and deter the other sects, but not enough power to be a threat to the others. That will be exceptionally tricky to accomplish, but it's the only hope.

That this is the only plausible future has been obvious, since at least the summer of 2005, to anyone who was paying attention, but it has apparently not been obvious to the Bush gang, although perhaps they are stumbling in this direction as a consequence of their Anbar success. Events are going to move in this direction regardless of what we do, so our best bet is try to influence this movement positively as we systematically draw down our presence, realizing that the risks are great. To those who object that this scenario is likely to lead to chaos, the answer is a question: chaos we have, and chaos there will be, so can you promise less of it?

The Bush gang's only apparent strategy has been to stumble along, promising that if we just stay longer, things will get better, though they never have before. In assessing this week's reports to the nation, we should remember some of the previous stumblings, and these are nicely framed by comments in Ambassador Crocker's testimony in the House today.

What we need from the Bush gang now is clear thinking and a realistic plan, one that takes into account the dysfunctionality and irrelevance of Iraq's central government. We don't need more of the fantasies they have pushed in the past, all of which assume there will be an effective national government to take control in Iraq. We need a plan with very minimal objectives that has at least a prayer of being accomplished as we draw down our presence. That Crocker hasn't gotten the point---or is unwilling to acknowledge it---is clear from the opening of his testimony today: "A secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is, in my view, attainable." What we need is not benchmarks for the dysfunctional Iraqi government, but rather clear goals and objectives for our own government, accompanied by oversight by and accountability to the people's representatives in the Congress.

Why don't we ever get a realistic plan from the Bush gang? Could it be simply that they're incapable of dealing with reality? That might be part of it, but I think there's a deeper reason, which addresses the real mystery of why they insist on continuing in an adventure that after the success of the initial invasion, has been a steady descent into quicksand. That reason has to do with what I believe was their primary objective in going to war. We got a glimpse into this in a comment that Bush let slip to Robert Draper in the course of the interviews for Draper's book Dead Certain. As summarized by Jim Rutenberg in a September 2 New York Times article, Bush said the following:

"I’m playing for October-November.” That is when he hopes the Iraq troop increase will finally show enough results to help him achieve the central goal of his remaining time in office: “To get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence,” and, he said later, “stay longer.”

It's time to take a look at the last justification for the invasion of Iraq.

5. A show of American power in the Middle East, thereby increasing American prestige in the region and cowing the region's governments and governments elsewhere into supporting American interests. I have always believed that this was the Bush gang's primary reason for invading Iraq, because it is standard neocon doctrine that American military power is wasted unless we use it to control fractious parts of the world. The other justifications were mainly cover for this one.

Of course, the original Bush scenario was that the whole Iraq adventure would be a cakewalk: we would be down to 30,000 troops by the end of the summer of 2003, with those troops enjoying the gratitude of a new democratic national government that would pop into existence in Iraq. The United States would bask in the benefits of a major American presence in a client state right in the heart of the Muslim world.

Silly though all that was, it is what the Bush gang expected, and it's why they did no effective planning for the occupation, with the result that, right there in the summer of 2003, they threw away whatever chance there was to avoid an insurgency. Four years later we continue to reap the whirlwind of their astonishing incompetence. Some observers wonder why American politics is so angry now. Realizing that anger is counterproductive, I wonder why we're not even angrier.

Bush can't let loose of this idea---that there will be a permanent American presence in a friendly Iraq, which will increase American power, prestige, and influence in the region---despite its being utterly ridiculous at this point. Ridiculous to you and me, but Bush's slip to Draper makes it clear that this, indeed, is the reason he insists on maintaining our presence in Iraq.

Bush is fond of saying that the "war on terror" is a long-term struggle, and about this, he is right, although I detest that phrase "war on terror," with its implication that military solutions are the chief prescription, and prefer to talk instead about the challenge of Islamic extremism. Bush is right that we will be dealing with Islamic extremism for decades. Wouldn't it have been nice then if after 9/11, we had taken effective action to start ameliorating this problem, instead of rushing into a disastrous and irrelevant war.

Wouldn't we be better off if on 9/12, we had resolved to assemble an international coalition and the required resources to make Afghanistan viable, instead of what we have now, an Afghanistan that is sliding inexorably back into the control of extremists. Wouldn't we be better off if we had resolved to devote even a fraction of the effort and resources we've wasted in Iraq to helping the Palestinians and Israelis find a solution to their conflict; that solution and its implementation will be messy and ugly, requiring constant attention for two decades or so, but we'd now be six years into those two decades, whereas instead we are now further away from a solution than ever. Wouldn't we be better off if we had resolved to change our fossil-fuel-based economy so that we can get out from under our addiction to Middle Eastern oil; that, too, will take decades, but we'd now be six years into working on it, instead of where we are, which is even more addicted than ever.

The ultimate lesson here is to beware of presidents bearing facile military solutions to problems that are fundamentally social, cultural, and political. It's terribly tempting to think that a quick military strike can fix a complex problem, especially when your country spends so much on its military that it seems a waste not to be using it for something, but it's a temptation that must be resisted nonetheless. We can only pray that we get through the rest of the Bush gang's tenure without a new temptation---maybe Iran---getting the best of him, and then we can hope for new leadership that starts the arduous task of extracting us from the disasters of the Bush presidency.

Addendum: 2007 September 22

The latest estimate of the cost of the Iraq war is about $300 million per day.

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