Grand Strategy in Iraq

The grand strategy of the Bush administration has been to recognize radical Islam as the key challenge post 9/11 to the US and the West in general and try to engage that problem by fostering democracy to the Middle East. I think it has become clear that we have a democracy in Iraq that has massive problems with the final outcome still uncertain. As Hillary Clinton put it “We have to deal with the Iraq we have, not the Iraq we wish we had.” I understand the media is moving in for the kill just now with the midterm elections coming up in the US, but I remain unimpressed by this latest turn of the screw. Tonights serve on Aussie TV was about the opposition trying to censure the Howard government over Iraq. The lede went something like this: ‘Although Iraq is a quagmire, it is easy for the opposition to bring a censure motion in parliament’. The press had been framing the Iraq war as a defeat since the beginning on the pattern of the Vietnam war. I wrote about in more detail here and here. I remain adamant that what is going on in Iraq is something different with very different stakes.

I am willing to rethink America’s grand strategy in the light of events, but I am not willing to accept that it is the wrong strategy and that we should withdraw from Iraq or back away from the notion that radical Islam is the central challenge of our time. I still think that the purpose behind the grand strategy is to help the Arab world make the transition to the modern world and, I believe, that goal remains the most viable approach consistent with our values. When I say consistent with our values I mean that neither capitulation and conversion to radical Islam nor bombing the Muslim world into submission are grand strategies based on the enlightenment values of inclusion and cooperation rather than conquest and subjugation that broadly underpin the modern world. My mind is not closed to other ways of dealing with the challenge that are between the two extremes and I am constantly hoping that better approaches will be developed and implemented. For example, the Australian ABC show Foreign Correspondent had a segment on last night about how the Indonesians had been able to turn some radical Muslims into highly effective agents working for the government using a Muslim to Muslim approach. Indonesia is not Arab and the West is not in a position to easily use a Muslim to Muslim approach, but the idea may well be worthwhile. Currently, I think the Iraq war has produced a great deal of new information about what has worked and not worked. Despite all the criticism of the attempt to establish democracy we know that a significant portion of the Iraqi population aspires to democracy. We could only find that out for sure by making the attempt. We have also discovered that there are complex and difficult issues militating against democracy or any peaceful solution in Iraq and that nothing is going to be resolved quickly. If we pull out we encourage the worst elements. If we stay, we commit to what is a long and painful process that will involve more death and destruction. That is why I welcomed Hillary Clinton’s ideas for Iraq which I discussed here a few days ago.

Consequently, I am not one of those who is declaring that they would not have supported the Iraq war had they known what we know now. While it may be true for some that they did not foresee the costs in blood and treasure, I can’t say the same because I recognized the difficulty of invading Iraq and trying to foster democracy there all along. Although I am not a Muslim, I was in a Mosque in the US praying in 1991 when we rolled into Iraq the first time. (Not praying for anything in particular, certainly nothing to do with the war – lest you, dear reader, get all sorts of ideas.) At the time I was painfully aware of the potential for sectarian or civil war in Iraq, having a reasonable grasp, for an outsider, of the significance of the Sunni Shiite split in the Muslim world in general and in Iraq in particular. For example, prior to 1991 I knew who the Swamp Arabs were and understood something of their way of life, but conversely didn’t appreciate until the current war how tribal and even semi nomadic parts of Anbar province were. Between the wars, I felt with considerable pain what Saddam did to the Swamp Arabs – drained their swamps – and the lack of protection we gave the Shiites generally in the south compared to what we were able to deliver to the Kurds in the north.

So I didn’t think for a moment that the second invasion of Iraq would be easy in 2003. Militarily maybe, but socially and politically it was always going to be tricky. My main concern in 2003 was that democracy meant a Shiite majority government which was a complete inversion of the Iraqi power structure and which would dangerously change the relationship of Iraq to its Shiite neighbor Iran in particular and all its Sunni neighbors in general. Therefore I believe, the potential for the current difficulties were always there for anyone with a basic understanding of the country. I do not claim to have anticipated the exact difficulties that we have encountered, but I certainly anticipated them in general. I do not regard what we have accomplished so far as either a failure or a success. I wish we had done better and that many fewer Iraqis had died. I think there is a significant portion of the Iraqi population that is striving for a workable democracy, but it is clear that there is a significant portion who are trying to reestablish dictatorship of one kind or another by force.

Unlike the quagmire view I think the pro and anti democratic forces in Iraq are fairly evenly balanced and that the biggest single problem is that there are significant portions of the Iraqi government that want a Shiite dictatorship in a closer alliance with Iran or an outright Iranian style Islamic republic run by radical Mullahs. Both these Shiites and the Sunni supremacists think they can set up a dictatorship once America tires of the fight. They may be right. They may be wrong and a lot depends on what the US and the West do over the next few years.

In a later post I want to examine some of the specific lessons I think we have learned in Iraq and where I think the opportunities and dangers lie.


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