October 20, 2006
One day's grim headlines blend into the next, and before you know it we are numbed to the carnage in Iraq. Those who do keep paying attention know that the ethnic strife has been worsening for the last few months. It has gotten to the point where the Shiite militia controlled by the thuggish "cleric" Moqtada al Sadr claimed control of the city of Amarah today, burning down three police stations. It would be nice if the high human death toll were just "the price of freedom," but I don't think that applies here. Almost 2,700 Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad during September (see Yahoo News; hat tip to Donna Ball). This month is even worse, and with at least 75 Americans dead already, and many more badly wounded, it is sure to be the bloodiest month for us since October last year.
Americans are bound to be confused by all the killing, because there are multiple factions and subfactions, with cross-cutting affiliations. Broadly speaking, the three main power centers in Iraq right now are the Americans, the Sunnis, and the Shiites. (The Kurds are relatively detached from the ongoing conflict for the moment, though there are signs that that may change.) We profess a desire to reconcile the Iraqi factions, both of whom have a hard time deciding whether they hate each other more than they hate us. Because of the inherent love-hate relationship in all situations of unequal power, the Sunnis and Shiites at once resent our intrusion and want our protection and/or help against the other faction. The Sunnis are greatly outnumbered but benefited from years of privilege under Saddam Hussein, so they are willing to take huge risks just to hold onto the power they once had. At this point, the only thing that could dissuade them from pursuing that goal is the prospect of defeat at the hands of the Shiite militias. Some of those groups have been rampaging in Balad and other towns north and east of Baghad over the past week, forcing Sunni families to leave their homes. It is a very cruel program of ethnic cleansing that is taking place.
In spite of growing calls to reconsider, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld once again stoutly defended the U.S. strategy in Iraq, saying only that tactical adjustments will be made. Rumsfeld was right to state that we should not expect the process of transition to be smooth or peaceful, but he didn't give much reason to hope that things will eventually get better. See Washington Post. I'm all for persevering as long as there is a coherent strategy that balances objectives with available means, but I'm worried that Bush's vague definition of "victory" will become increasingly problematic. The people doing the killing are not uniformly anti-U.S. or anti-freedom, they have simply calculated that brutal violence is the best way to get or hold onto power in Iraq. Some but not all are connected to the religious extremist groups that can be considered "Islamofascist." Others are just ordinary warlords with local political objectives. Realistically, the best we can hope for is a gradual reduction of violence over the next few years, as the government slowly gets consolidated. For some reason, Bush keeps giving blanket reassurances to Maliki that we will be there to back them up, undermining the incentive the Iraqis have to pick up the slack. (I call that the "permanent training wheels" approach.) What I don't understand is why Bush would refrain from exerting leverage to get Prime Minister Maliki to crack down on militia groups, as I have urged -- unless in fact Bush is aware that the Iraqis are simply incapable of exerting such power. If that is the case, then there will be hell to pay in terms of U.S. public opinion. First and foremost, President Bush needs to reassure us.
Just because prospects for meaningful victory in Iraq are fading does not mean we should pull out abruptly, or set an arbitrary timeline, as many Democrats and others have urged. Instead, we should use our military presence in Iraq as a bargaining chip to secure security commitments from relevant power centers in Iraq and in neighboring countries such as Iran. As long as this is handled gracefully and deliberately, the United States can minimize the loss of prestige from what some would be sure to call a "defeat." Our goal at this point should be to encourage a more pluralistic Iraq, with more local control over government. Official U.S. policy rejects any hint of a "partition," but that is probably where Iraq is headed. The Kurds are well on their way to achieving a semi-autonomous government, and the Shiites are following close behind. Even though there is a big risk that Iran will gain influence if the Shiites gain the upper hand in the sectarian warfare, our government has plenty of resources to drive a wedge between patron and client. In particular, we can exploit the linguistic difference between Iraqi Shiites and the Farsi-speaking majority in Iran. The former have strong similarities with the Arab-speaking minority in southwestern Iran, where the oil is. In other words, we have plenty of seldom-appreciated advantages in the complex geopolitical "game" that is the Persian Gulf.
Beyond that, what if a U.S. tactical retreat backfires (as President Bush warns it would) by encouraging a worldwide upsurge in Islamo-fascism? Last month, Clayton Cramer, a blogger who supports the war objectives, pondered what we might have to do if worse comes to worse. (Hat tip to Chris Green.) He outlines five stages of increasingly desperate action by the United States to save Western Civilization:
The point is not to offer these as serious suggestions for the foreseeable future, but rather envision what might be necessary for the defense of the West ten or twenty years down the road. Remember, we Americans operate under a much shorter time frame than those in the Arab-Islamic world do. Perhaps contemplating such ghastly scenarios will focus our attention on devoting more resources to dealing with the comparatively moderate degree of threat we face at the present. If President Bush is serious about winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had better call for a large increase in resources devoted to that cause. That would mean higher taxes and higher loss of American life in the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts.