Frederick Kagan: Insult to Injury in Iraq





[The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.]

It's been coming for a long time: the idea that fixing Iraq is the Iraqis' problem, not ours -- that we've done all we can and now it's up to them.

Such arguments have been latent in the Bush administration's Iraq strategy and explicit in Democratic critiques of that strategy for some time. Now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declared: "It's their country. . . . They're going to have to govern it, they're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."

The implication of these arguments is clear: The United States should prepare to leave Iraq, after which the Iraqis will work out their own troubles -- or they won't. In any event, we can no longer help them. This notion is wrong and morally contemptible, and it endangers American security around the world....

Americans believe that all problems are soluble and therefore that people who aren't solving their problems must not be trying. They need to be "incentivized," either through promises or threats. Many on the left have long been advocating a withdrawal of U.S. forces, or the threat of it, as just such an incentive for the Iraqis. But what if even then Iraqis cannot accomplish the goals we have set for them? Can we then declare that, by establishing the Iraqi army and helping Iraq elect and establish its government, we have done all that honor requires?

No, we can't. Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance. It doesn't matter how many "trained and ready" Iraqi soldiers there are, nor how many provinces are nominally under Iraqi control. If America withdraws its forces before setting the conditions for the success of the Iraqi government, we will have failed in our mission and been defeated in the eyes of our enemies. We will have dishonored ourselves.

Our enemies watched the debacle in Somalia and drew conclusions: America is weak, unable to stomach even the smallest level of casualties and willing to lose rather than fight. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq changed the equation. Al-Qaeda leaders did not expect us to attack, and they regarded their unanticipated defeat as a catastrophe. Iran's leaders and North Korea's Kim Jong Il saw the invasion of Iraq as the first phase of an attack on the "axis of evil" and were fearful. But the protracted insurgency and the apparent weakening of U.S. will are emboldening them once again.

In 1991 the United States encouraged rebellions against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned to his inhuman vengeance the Kurds and Shiites who answered the call. That abandonment, still fresh in the minds of many Iraqis, is one reason for the suspicion with which the United States was greeted in 2003. What will happen if we abandon the progressive forces of Iraq once again with the hypocritical declaration that the resultant failure is their own fault? What reasonable moderate in the Muslim world -- or anywhere -- will ever again rely on America?

The comparison is often made between Iraq and Vietnam. One implication is that just as it was possible to lose Vietnam and still win the Cold War, so it is acceptable to lose Iraq. But in the Cold War, Vietnam was a sideshow. Iraq is in the heart of the Muslim world and at the center of the struggle against radical Islamism.

It is also worth keeping in mind that as indirect consequences of America's defeat in Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua and Ayatollah Khomeini seized Tehran and American hostages. The "decent interval" between our withdrawal and the collapse of South Vietnam didn't help. Neither will the implausible deniability the Pentagon is now trying to establish in Iraq....


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Barrie Lambert - 11/15/2006

Hi Sean

I think it's Occam's razor: they're both foolish and liars. Maybe they think it's all a TV game show. Who knows?

Very contribution, though.


Sean M. Samis - 11/13/2006

Thanks for your kind words, Barrie. I'd like to brag that I "predicted" what the Baker/Hamilton Iraqi Study Group will suggest, but these strategic principles are known from ancient times; and were frequently mentioned and discussed in the run-up to our ill-considered invasion. They are among the "Lessons of Vietnam" which Bush et al. ignored.

What I find most infuriating about our current predicament in Iraq is that very little has happened that was not foreseeable at least generally; it is manifestly obvious that when the Administration said it had planned our Iraqi effort very thoroughly that they were either very foolish or lying.

sean s.


Barrie Lambert - 11/12/2006

Sean has very clearly and realistically stated the options facing the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq.

"Whether convenient or not, it remains a fact that only the Iraqis can "win" the war in Iraq. The US can support and enable some Iraqis in their struggle, but unless and until those Iraqis are able to gain control of events there, there is nothing the US can do to "impose" order, much less Democracy. It is an "inconvenient truth" but the US cannot fix Iraq, we can only assist the Iraqis in that effort."

So Sean suggests a variant of "peace with honour" but it does require a response to the questions which Iraqis should be helped to "win", and why?

And, "What if the Iraqis begin to miss their benchmarks? We give them a reasonable hand and opportunity to fix things, but if they are unable to, then we leave in an organized fashion.

"We cannot win this war. Only the Iraqis can. If we've backed the wrong horse, we need to face that fact and stop wasting time, money and lives." Ahh, it's really "peace with honour" with "cut and run" as a fallback.

Stripped down to their essence, this is most likely to be the form the Baker proposals will take. At its crudest, save face, stick around long enough to screw up some more, and then wander off as Iraq collapses into at least three entities looking as if that’s what’s been planned all along. It is all very reminiscent of the Nixon/Kissinger exit strategy from Vietnam with all the temptations to prolong withdrawal it offers to the occupying military, overseas contractors and their private armies, "coalition" politicians such as Howard and Blair who need the war to continue so they can “front it” with their respective electorates, and client politicians in Iraq. Why not just cut to the chase, withdraw all "coalition" troops and use the good offices of the United Nations to provide security and manage reconstruction funded by reparations payments made by the invading countries? Then we just have to hope for the best on the reasonable assumption that pretty much anything which results from this process can only be an advance on the situation we have created so far.


Sean M. Samis - 11/3/2006

Whether convenient or not, it remains a fact that only the Iraqis can "win" the war in Iraq. The US can support and enable some Iraqis in their struggle, but unless and until those Iraqis are able to gain control of events there, there is nothing the US can do to "impose" order, much less Democracy. It is an "inconvenient truth" but the US cannot fix Iraq, we can only assist the Iraqis in that effort.

There are many people with many views regarding how the US should proceed in Iraq; some acknowledge the foregoing truth, decide our Iraqi allies are unable to win, and think we should leave. Others, while acknowledging the same facts, believe that our Iraqi allies are still able to win, and we should stay and help. There are valid points on both sides of that debate, and it is a legitimate and valuable debate. I am not sure myself which is right; though I lean toward the latter with conditions.

But one thing I am sure of, if we don't hold our Iraqi allies' feet to the fire, they will never make the hard choices that governing a nation requires. Our open-ended, unconsidered support enables their ineptitude. They don't need to make the tough calls because they can just call on us to be there to help them out of every jam. Until they clearly know that our commitment is not forever, they will not do what needs to be done.

Should we set a timeline? Or issue formal benchmarks? Probably the latter, not the former.

What if the Iraqis begin to miss their benchmarks? We give them a reasonable hand and opportunity to fix things, but if they are unable to, then we leave in an organized fashion.

We cannot win this war. Only the Iraqis can. If we've backed the wrong horse, we need to face that fact and stop wasting time, money and lives.

sean s.