Iraq: No Way Forward

I haven't written about Iraq lately because the mainstream media was already saying most of what I've been thinking, and the American people seemed to be hearing the message. But now that I've watched both President Bush's "New Way Forward" speech Wednesday night and read the mainstream coverage Thursday morning, I think it's time I commented again.
    The key point in President Bush's "New Way Forward" speech on Iraq last night had been widely covered before he even started speaking: 20,000 more American troops, with the purpose of doing house-to-house sweeps in Baghdad. Originally this was sold as a "surge" that would recede in a few months, but last night Bush proposed a simple escalation. There's no hint of when the troop levels might come down again, other than

If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home.

In other words, the new 20,000 will "stay until the job is done" and they'll stand down "as the Iraqis stand up" -- just like all our other troops in Iraq. So, basically, it's stay-the-course with more troops.
    What hadn't been covered -- and still isn't being covered except on some of the liberal blogs -- is that Bush all but announced an attack on Iran:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity ­ and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq. ... We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing ­ and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies.

I don't know how else to read that: How's a carrier strike force going to help us do house-to-house sweeps in Baghdad? And Patriot missiles "reassure our friends" against what? Here's my interpretation: We're going to launch air strikes and possibly ground raids into Iran. At least in the beginning, these will be like Nixon's original incursions into Cambodia: interdiction and hot pursuit. If Iran tries to retaliate against Saudi or Kuwaiti oil tankers, that's when the carriers and Patriot missiles come in. It's easy to see this escalating into all-out war and regime change in Iran -- which may be the point.
    One other line in the speech seemed ominous to me:

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes.

"Restrictions" on our troops are mainly to prevent them going all Haditha on Iraqi civilians. Something horrific is going to happen if the restrictions are relaxed, probably in Sadr City. We're on our way to another Abu Ghraib moment in Iraq, where the American people are forced to say, "Oh my God, I can't believe we did that."
    The other thing the mainstream media is not adequately reporting is why this "new" plan won't work: Like all our other plans about Iraq, it relies on the fantasy that the Iraqis are a people and Iraq is a nation. In reality, Iraq has never been a nation. It's three Ottoman provinces that the British pulled together and set a puppet king over. Since the king's overthrow the territory has been dominated by a series of Sunni gangsters, most recently Saddam.
    Why does that matter? Well, consider this paragraph from Bush's speech:

The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort ­ along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations ­ conducting patrols, setting up checkpoints, and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.

It sounds great: Iraqi troops patrolling Iraq's capital. Now put it this way: Kurdish troops are going to conduct patrols, set up checkpoints, and go door-to-door in Shia neighborhoods. Mix and match sects in that sentence however you like. How much "trust" are they going to gain? Why aren't they going to be looked on as occupiers, just like the Americans?
    Another basic flaw in Bush's thinking is the notion that Iraq can be a "democracy" with us pulling the strings. Either the so-called Iraqi people are sovereign or we are: You can't have it both ways. So what can we make of statements like these:

America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced. ... A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them ­ and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and grandchildren.

How exactly are we going to hold Maliki to the benchmarks? If he reneges, will we assassinate him, like we assassinated Diem in Vietnam? And the most popular man in Iraq right now is Muqtada al Sadr, just as Hezbollah is popular in Lebanon. What if he wins the next elections, the way that Hamas won in Palestine? A democratic Iraq, if such a thing could ever be established, would live in peace with us only if that's what its people wanted. They very well may not want that.
    Finally, in this speech Bush repeats the only two justifications for continuing the war that are not provably false. First this one:

The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people.

Actually, this works better as an argument why the war should never have been started in the first place and why it should be stopped now. Our continued presence in Iraq is what gains recruits for Islamic extremists. The main threat to moderate governments in the region is that Muslims will revolt against leaders who line up on the Christian side of Bush's Clash of Civilizations.
    This point deserves its own post, but a better way to look at the War on Terror has been put forward by an Australian colonel currently working for the US State Department, David Kilcullen. He talks about "disaggregating the global insurgency". In other words, it's in Bin Laden's interest to see all Muslim struggles as part of one big war. It's in our interest to break them up and find piecemeal local solutions to the problems of Pakistan, Chechnya, Indonesia, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on. So all of Bush's high-flown rhetoric since 9-11 has been playing into Bin Laden's hand. See George Packer's article in the 12-18 issue of The New Yorker.
    The second reason Bush gives for continuing the war is the sentimental debt we owe to our dead soldiers:

We mourn the loss of every fallen American ­ and we owe it to them to build a future worthy of their sacrifice.

We owe it to them, of course, only because we already failed to provide what we really owed them: The foresight and good judgment not to get them killed for stupid reasons -- like the WMDs Saddam didn't have any more, or the alliance with al Qaeda he never had.
    We still owe that debt to our living soldiers. Let's try to do right by them.

Doug Muder
11 January 2007
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