Thursday, November 30, 2006

There's Plenty of Blame to Go Around

In Slate today, Timothy Noah refutes the notion that we should blame the Iraqis for our failure to build a nation there that we can be proud of. I think he sets up a straw man in attacking assertions that it's "their" war, that Iraqis are "ungrateful," or that they are simply "uncivilized." While some may make these claims, in fact, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Obviously, the mistakes of the administration, and the Army, have made the chances of success lower than they might otherwise have been. Those have been well documented by hundreds of experts. I don't want to absolve us of blame, but it's important not to assume the Iraqis are a blank canvas on which we played out our policies; there were many players in this game. Here are some decisions that various groups in Iraq might have reasonably made, resulting in a different outcome in Iraq:
  • Sunnis: Vote in the first election. This might have resulted in a Constitution and governmental structure less stacked against them.
  • Shiites: Don't vote for Muqtada Al-Sadr. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the dynamic changing from a patient Shiite leadership attempting to contain an insurgency into inter-ethnic slaughter.
  • Sunnis: Don't make common cause with Muqtada Al-Sadr. Perhaps if Sunni insurgents had a laid off us a bit while Sadr was causing trouble in April 2004 -- and possibly even given us a bit of political cover -- we might have taken care of him then. Everyone would have been a lot better off.
  • Sunnis: Don't invite Al Qaeda in. Besides really irritating the occupying power, these guys immediately started trying to foment the inter-ethnic struggle that has now begun: a struggle in which the Sunnis are at a distinct disadvantage.
  • Shiites: Rely on the Army rather than the militias. If Shiites control the Army, and the Army is focused on defeating the insurgency, why take the law into your own hands? It's that the Army's freedom of action is restricted, but doing so may have avoided the chaos that is now upon us.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Iraq: What to Do

I was an initial supporter of the invasion of Iraq. I believed Saddam's behavior was consistent with someone hiding a WMD program; that radical reform of the Middle East was the only long-term strategy for throttling Islamic terror; and that the existing strategy of "containment" and sanctions was unsustainable from both a diplomatic and a humanitarian perspective.

Up to now, I've been an advocate of patience; reform takes time and is likely to meet significant resistance. Many reasonable military/political approaches had yet to be tried, and we were right to try them.

But none of them worked. I honestly don't know if we were doomed by poor decision making, or doomed regardless; incredibly poor choices by the Sunni community certainly didn't help. Either way, the fiscal and intangible costs of the invasion have spiraled well beyond whatever benefits we might have attained.

I believe that the least bad option is to promptly withdraw.

The advantages of this are obvious: fewer dead Americans, less money spent, less direct responsibility for the nightmare that is Iraq, and the gradual repair of our nation's reputation with time.

There also some arguments against doing this, and they are very much worth addressing.
  1. Leaving is handing Iraq to Al Qaeda. I disagree. At best, the lack of the American crutch will force resourceful politicians to cut deals, improving the situation. At worst, we're handing it over to the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr is a horrible guy, but he doesn't pose the existential threat to America that Al Qaeda does. Al Qaeda is really unpopular in Iraq, as they're most responsible for the current sectarian mess. Still, I'm not above dropping some bombs or doing a little raid if Al Qaeda finds a haven in the chaos.
  2. We have a moral responsibility to Iraqis. Of course we do. If things do devolve into full-scale civil war, the inevitable consequence is mass slaughter of Sunnis. However, there are realpolitik, moral, and practical reasons to run for it.
    • As much of a human tragedy as that slaughter would be, it has little to no impact on the long-term interests of the United States.
    • The Sunnis have resisted us violently from the beginning, at times making common cause with the very Al-Sadr now butchering them. The support of a substantial minority of Sunnis for Al-Qaeda brought about the Samarra mosque bombing that widened the inter-ethnic warfare. At what point does their total refusal to cooperate, record of violent resistance to us, and utter failure to behave responsibly as a minority absolve us of a responsibility to protect them?
    • If such a confrontation truly is inevitable, which is better: getting it over with now, or leaving 150,000+ troops there for two years, and then letting it happen?
  3. The disintegration of Iraq will draw its neighbors into a wider regional war. This is a favorite chestnut of foreign-policy expert types who think every year is 1914. What's not clear is by what mechanism such a thing might occur. It's not at all clear to me that, having witnessed America's experience in Iraq, Iraq's neighbors will excited to repeat that experience with their own troops. Indeed, if Iran chose to stick their arm in the meat grinder the way that we have, that's about the best thing that could happen for our Middle Eastern policy!
It pains me to be on the same side as the knee-jerk left, but it's time to cut our losses.