The Iraq Crossroads

A lot has been happening lately. A few weeks ago Gen. Abizaid gave his testimony to the Senate. Robert Gates was confirmed in record time to be the next defense secretary. And the Iraq Study Group (ISG) headed by James Baker (Secretary of State in Bush Sr.’s administration), and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, presented their report to the President and congress.

I expected the ISG report to provide some ideas for a change in strategy to deal with the insurgency, fostered by Iran and Al Qaeda, and help promote the goal of a stable government in Iraq that is reasonably self-sustaining, that will not be a haven for terrorists, and will be an ally against our enemies. What I’ve heard is disconcerting. It looks like something the State Department would propose–an entirely diplomatic solution. It is marketed as promoting success in Iraq, but I think we need to be careful what “success” means. The point that Baker and Hamilton drove forward, which caught my attention, was that the U.S. is very divided right now, and that it needs to be united to fight this war. I agree the country is very divided, but what is the true objective here? To be united? To win the conflict in Iraq, meaning that we achieve our objectives? I’m not sure. The sense I get from some on the panel is the primary goal is to take realpolitik actions to hopefully end the conflict in Iraq, and thereby end the political conflict at home, with “ending the conflict at home” being the true objective. It’s a polite way of saying, “It was a mistake to go into Iraq. Let’s extricate ourselves while saving some face.” Is this what you consider to be “success”, the term the ISG report uses? Is this a “camel’s nose” into the tent of abandoning Bush’s “drain the swamps” strategy?

Conservatives and even some moderate Democrats have expressed varying levels of discomfort with this report. They are dubious of the idea of doing a deal with Syria and Iran, especially Iran, because it complicates efforts to stop them from developing nuclear weapons. I heard from a military analyst yesterday who ridiculed the recommendation that most U.S. forces get out, with only some trainers left behind, embedded with Iraqi units, plus some special forces for backup. That strategy reminds me too much of Somalia.

A few pundits and/or political commentators I’ve heard from have characterized this as thinking coming from the September 10th world, before 9/11 happened. My gut feeling agrees with that assessment, and for that reason I am very skeptical of the report’s recommendations.

Some Democrats and a few Republicans on Capitol Hill seem to love it. I’m sure they’re saying to themselves, “Finally someone else is saying what we’ve been saying for years! Listen to the growing chorus, Mr. President! We need to get out.”

Having said this, I think some of the recommendations are worth pursuing, like economic development in the stable parts of Iraq. One of the reasons we used to see insurgent attacks in Iraq is it was one way for people to make money. Just like in Afghanistan, investment needs to go into things that will involve people in constructive activities for their own country.

Defense officials, who testified the same day as Gen. Abizaid to the Senate, said that currently there is no court of competent jurisdiction to process insurgents who are captured. This is the reason that whenever insurgents are captured, they are released. In my opinion this is a matter of the utmost urgency. The government cannot be seen as effective if it cannot prosecute, imprison or execute insurgents. This is a no-brainer. Just getting this set up would go a long way towards solving the problem.

What I find frustrating about the discussion that goes on these days about “how to get out” is people act like Iraq is like Vietnam during the Cold War: we can turn the country over to whoever is the most powerful, and they will stay in their box. The Iraqi people have blown it, and it’s not our responsibility anymore. The problem is it’s not that simple. The U.S. was successfully able to pursue a policy of containment and deterance against Communism, even though we had some losses. Neither of these strategies work against Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is operating in Iraq right now. Even the ISG admits as much. Leaving Iraq to regional forces is not a solution, in my opinion. That’s just a return to the status quo ante, without Saddam, but perhaps with someone worse.

The goals at this point should be to stabilize Iraq and stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, not “get out now”. Quit playing defense! There is absolutely no reason we should be on the defensive. None. If we adopt a defensive posture then the Islamists are right. We have the most powerful military in the world, but we don’t have the will to use it for its intended purpose.

The ISG report dreams of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by “flipping Syria”, as if Syria ever had an interest in ending the conflict with Israel. Could Syria be induced to promote the end of conflict with Israel? Maybe, but something about this feels too good to be true. In my opinion Syria’s leader has not shown himself to be trustworthy. We have to ask ourselves, is Assad like Egypt’s Saddat (who was assassinated for making peace with Israel, by the way), or is he like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il? The reason I make the comparison is the U.S. had made deals with Kim Jong Il in an effort to induce his government to stop doing things that were against our interests, like pursuing nuclear weapons, which they now have. Did diplomacy work in that case? No. What people should remember is it takes two to tango. It takes both sides of a conflict being reasonable people, who while having grievances with each other, and dealing with their own problems, are mature enough to come to compromise, and respect each other. If only one party has these qualities, no deal is going to succeed, even if the more mature party believes that an agreement has been reached.

What I mean to say is the goal should be a solution that eliminates the Islamist threat. Anything less is, while well intentioned, a capitulation to those in the Middle East who promote extremism.

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