Measuring the Consequences of Failure in Iraq (Updatedx2)
The issue of whether or not we can win in Iraq is being hotly debated in this country. Rep. John Murtha’s demand for withdrawal and the subsequent period of news cycle domination lead to heated discussion in the MSM and blogosphere. This seems to have sparked a candor offensive from the administration where the crux of the president’s argument is that regardless of how we got into Iraq “failure is not an option”.
The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq states:
And it’s not just the administration saying it. In a recent editorial, Henry Kissinger said, “if, when we go, we leave nothing behind but a failed state and chaos, the consequences will be disastrous for the region and for America's position in the world.”
Failure is Not an Option. Iraq would become a safe haven from which terrorists could plan attacks against America, American interests abroad, and our allies. Middle East reformers would never again fully trust American assurances of support for democracy and human rights in the region -- a historic opportunity lost. The resultant tribal and sectarian chaos would have major consequences for American security and interests in the region.
In a November press release, Sen. John McCain stated: “We must get Iraq right because America’s stake in that conflict is enormous. All Americans, whether or not they supported American action to topple Saddam Hussein, must understand the profound implications of our presence there. Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue for our foreign policy and our national security, for now and years to come. I would submit that the stakes are higher than in the Vietnam War.”
And in November upon return from a trip to Iraq, Sen. Joseph Liberman said, “the cost of successfully completing our mission here will be large in terms of American lives lost and money spent, but the cost of failure here would be catastrophic for us in the U.S. and for the Iraqis, of course -- and I believe for the entire Middle East.”
Of course, there is dissent, and the immediate withdrawal argument still has political traction. In New York, Jonathan Tasini is running against Hillary Clinton. He argues that they reasons against pulling out are myths and states that “the troops must be brought home now.”
The media, both new and old, is filled with endless gas-baggery about what got us into Iraq in the first place. Of course, this debate is important to a robust and vibrant democracy, but it doesn’t solve our problems in Iraq. This month’s elections seem to indicate progress. The initial results seem to favor Shia dominance, but there still remains the possibility of a political compromise.
Whether or not we ultimately achieve our goals as outlined in the president’s strategy remains to be seen, but it is clear that none of these goals will be achieved if we pull out now. So what are the second and third iteration effects of failure? What makes defeat “catastrophic for us in the U.S. and for the Iraqis, of course -- and I believe for the entire Middle East”?
There are two possibilities for failure in Iraq: catastrophic and creeping failure.
Catastrophic failure is the worst case scenario made most possible by a mishandled withdrawal from Iraq. The result is a full-scale sectarian civil war which sucks in the rest of the region. Many argue that the civil war has already started, but it is contained to a simmering conflict—car bombs and assassinations. Catastrophic failure looks like Afghanistan after the Soviet pull out in which, by design or circumstance, the rest of the region becomes players.
Iran has an interest in what happens both because of the religious connection the Iraqi Shias and the overall desire for a stable neighbor. Iran’s desire to insure a favorable outcome could resemble Pakistan’s desire for a stable Afghanistan. The end result? In Afghanistan it was the Taliban. In Iraq the result might be a government that resembles the increasingly radical, nuclear ambitious, Iranian theocracy.
And the other nations in the region, or non-state actors within them, won’t stand by while this happens. Radical Sunnis will probably provide support to the Sunni minority in its fight against the Shias. Sunni governments would abhor the idea of Shia dominance and would seek to thwart Iran’s ambitions. Chaos and instability is the result.
Iraq has already become a terrorist breeding ground, and the violence has spread to Jordan. In catastrophic failure, where does it spread next? Saudi Arabia is a logical next step, and the hardest wildfire to put out once it starts.
Will Saudi’s security forces, sitting on 25% of the world’s oil reserves, be able to handle battle-hardened terrorists fresh of the Iraqi battlefield? There is also an oppressed Shia minority in Saudi. Do they get sucked into the conflict? Then there is the other oppressed group in Saudi: foreign workers. There are several million in Saudi, and after years of abuse, how easily could they be radicalized? (The movie Syriana has a great subplot illustrating just how this could happen.)
And don’t expect the West to rush to stabilize Saudi Arabia. The Europeans will probably lack the political will to act, and a US intervention would just invite more hostility. US forces have completely withdrawn from Saudi, and their return would be an AQ recruiting boon. We could effectively end up trading one unpopular occupation for another but this time with Mecca and Medina thrown into the equation. But, something would have to be done or the results for the global economy would be disastrous.
A destabilized Saudi Arabia would spell trouble for its neighbors. How long before the chaos spread to tiny Qatar who possesses the world’s third largest natural gas reserves? Or Kuwait? Or Yemen which has already had problems with extremism?
And don’t forget the Kurdish wildcard in the Iraqi civil war. The Kurds have long desired a country of their own. Currently, they are marketing themselves as “the other Iraq”. A civil war would give them the chance to succeed from Iraq and establish Kurdistan. This would embolden the already repressed Turkish Kurd minority.
Historically, Turkey has responded harshly to Kurdish ambitions. A similar response to a renewed drive for a greater Kurdistan might jeopardize Turkish membership in the European Union. European rejection of Turkey would further isolate the Muslim world from the West and may spur further unrest in Europe’s Islamic minorities. Iran also has a large Kurdish minority, and Iranian suppression of the Kurds may also further distance Iran from the West.
This encroaching chaos would undermine U.S. credibility and influence throughout the South Asia and the greater Middle East. Democratic reform, economic development, and women’s rights would all take a back seat to “stability”. And how will the 600 pound, nuclear armed gorilla—Israel—react to all this?
In order to avert this chaos from spreading, taking hold, and disrupting the world’s economy the US military would be forced to remain in the region in large numbers. Leaving Iraq would not mean leaving the Middle East.
The second, more probable but less dramatic, possibility is creeping failure. In this scenario, the US leaves too soon before the Iraqi government and military are truly viable entities. Iraq sputters along for a few years with an ambient level of sectarian and ethnic violence. Eventually, democracy is traded in for the “stability” of a renewed dictatorship.
This dictatorship could be a return to Sunni dominance or, more likely, an Iranian backed Shia state where the roles of oppressed and oppressor are reversed. The Kurds will again retreat into Kurdistan. The rest of the region will react accordingly, and the US will most likely be forced to retain a large military presence in the region to keep the peace. Countless lives and billions of dollars will be spend will no progress to show for it—strategic failure.
There have been arguments that the U.S. survived the strategic failure of Vietnam, but that comparison is imperfect. Vietnam was never the centerpiece of the Cold War. The defense of Western Europe was. Right or wrong, the Bush administration has made Iraq the centerpiece in the global war on terror, and pinned success in that struggle to success in Iraq.
At whatever point we declare “Victory in Iraq” and leave, there is no assurance that all or some of these negative possibilities won’t come to fruition. The U.S. has unleashed something in which it cannot be sure of the final results. However, there has been a great deal of intellectual immaturity and insensitivity in the debate about Iraq.
Many who do not support the administration and its policies have not yet come to grips with the consequences of failure. Loosing Iraq might discredit the Bush legacy and be a serious reversal for the conservative movement in this county. The reward may be electoral victories, but the consequences for this country would still be grave. Whoever replaces the conservatives in power would inherit a discredited American foreign policy and a destabilized Middle East. It will take decades to make it right.
It is possible to politically distance yourself from the president and his policies while still striving for a favorable outcome in Iraq. The intellectual valid outcome for any debate about Iraq should be an improved policy which sets the stage for a successful exit, not a haphazard withdrawal. The mature voices on the left side of aisle understand this, but the galling idea of trading tactical political victory for strategic defeat still has traction. The nearly casual approach with which this strategic defeat is relished in some circles is maddening.
We have sacrificed over 2,000 American servicemen and untold numbers of Iraqis in this endeavor. While we can disagree with what got us into Iraq, their blood is the currency on which we trade our political barbs. A robust debate on what got us into Iraq is necessary as a check and balance for future military interventions, but the cynical certainty with which some dismiss this sacrifice bodes ill for our country and for the world. Are we that willing to condemn millions in the Middle East to chaos and barbarism? Do 2,000 lives mean nothing?
The administration has been criticized for painting too rosy a picture about the probable outcome of the Iraqi invasion and has made grave mistakes in the occupation. They did not understand the consequences of their actions. Yet, the administration’s critics are guilty of the same intellectual falsity in their lack of a sober assessment of the consequences of failure. There is a difference between accepting a risk and gambling. Staying in Iraq means accepting the risk that things may end up turning out badly no matter how hard we try. A botched withdrawal means rolling dice with the strategic future of this country—an unacceptable gamble for future generations.
Update: Bobby has a great post on Iraq over at his blog. Worth reading.
Second Update: John over at Democracy Arsenal has a good post that asks the question: Is Iraq simply immersed in the darkness before a painful dawn, or have things really slid off the rails in such a profound way that it makes sense for the United States to begin a careful withdrawal?
Note: I have cross-posted this piece on Intel Dump, the much more popular blog to which I am a contributor. I expect that there will be a lively debate in comments section, and my reader(s) are invited to the fray.