When things were especially violent a few weeks ago, the anti-war side of the political spectrum complained that the media was ignoring Iraq, playing more attention to the political horse race at home. Now, when things seem a bit calmer, the pro-war side claims that the media is ignoring ‘success’ in Iraq because it doesn’t fit their narrative. The truth, of course, is that the country is suffering from Iraq fatigue, and absent some kind of breakthrough, the conventional wisdom remains that the war was a bad idea, but we’re still not sure how to bring this to closure.
So what is one to make of headlines out of Iraq? Just scanning today, there remains stories of corruption (latest: $15 billion of US aid unaccounted for), civilian deaths are mounting (today a story on how the US is increasing the use of air power, something the US also did in the latter days of the Vietnam war, thus bringing more civilians and children in danger), the cease fires in Basra and Sadr City remain tense, and the government is not undertaking any serious effort to disarm or disable the Mahdi army, and US ire increasingly is on Iran, who as noted last week really is coming out of this ahead. Interestingly as Barak Obama is criticized for being willing to negotiate with enemies, Israel has started serious negotiations with Syria looking to deal with the problems in Lebanon and with the Palestinians. Perhaps it would be easiest to whittle it down into some ‘myths’ and ‘realities’:
1. Any claim that the Iraq war can be a success is false. That ship has sailed. Even if Iraq became stable tomorrow, by any policy metric this policy has failed to achieve it’s goals, and the costs have been enormous. And, of course, nobody expects it to end any time soon, let alone tomorrow. So if you hear the word “success” used to describe US actions in Iraq, success has been defined so far down so far that the term is all but meaningless. The real goal now: find a way out of this that minimizes the costs and creates the possibility of stability.
2. Recent actions in Basra and Sadr city show that the Iraqi army is “standing up.” That is also a myth. This has been cosmetic, Iraqi forces have had intense help from the US, and have undertaken limited operations. Moreover in Basra most of the fighting was down by the Badr brigade (a militia with heavy Iranian backing), incorporated into the Iraqi army, but not truly integrated. Iraq’s fighting force is improving very, very slowly – and still infiltrated by Iran, the Mahdi army, different militias, and still subject to infighting and sectarian differences.
3. The Iraqi government is increasing its ability to govern. That’s another myth. The reality is that the Kurds are essentially self-governing, Sunni tribes run the Sunni regions, and Shi’ite power is divided, with the government effectively controlling only parts of Shi’ite Iraq. Power is fragmented.
1. There does seem to be improvement in oil revenues due to high oil prices and more effective efforts to stop sabotage – though sabotage is on going.
2. While it’s easy to distrust the Bush Administration, they are right that Iran is doing all it can to undercut American efforts in Iraq. Moreover, there isn’t a lot the US can do about it, which has complicated the exist strategy. We could leave Iraq relatively stable now, but Iran would be the power broker.
3. Corruption is immense, and that alone makes a stable democracy unlikely any time soon. Unless corruption is brought under control, power will continue to be sought so that one can benefit ones’ own clan or sectarian group. This will undercut any efforts the US makes to create what we’d consider a viable democracy, and make it easier for outside forces to play various factions off against each other.
4. Al qaeda in Iraq is weak. The “surge” was effective against al qaeda, but al qaeda was never a major problem in Iraq. When Senator McCain said leaving Iraq would allow al qaeda to take over, he was demonstrating a real lack of understanding of the situation (or a cynical belief that since Americans don’t pay attention to the details, they’d just believe him). And this leads to:
5. The war in Iraq is not about terrorism, but about regional stability and oil. The US really doesn’t fear that leaving Iraq will help terrorists, and the rhetoric that they will be “inspired” or “energized” by the US leaving is just silly – our being there helps them by giving them photos and stories of dead Muslims. But there is a fear that a more powerful Iran would create the danger of a regional Sunni-Shi’ite or Persian-Arab conflict (probably that would be averted) or, more likely, that the powers in the region will be more willing than ever to make China and the growing Asian companies top customers, risking oil shortages in the West.
Taking these myths and truths into account, it’s hard to see how the US can really find a way out of Iraq without either simply “declaring victory and leaving,” which is a real option, or working on regional arrangements which require intense negotiations with all parties, especially Iran. In terms of our national interest, the latter is more viable than the former. Finally, it’s unlikely that Iraq will spash itself on the news often in the coming months. Iraq is unlikely to explode into complete anarchy again, but is even more unlikely to become a stable effective government. Expect more of the same.