This is the first in a series about Iraq, the Introduction is here.
I don't think any sober analysis would argue Iraq is shaping out well geopolitically for the United States. However, this has little to do with Iraq itself. The biggest issue with Bush’s strategy in Iraq isn’t necessarily the Iraq part, which has generally been ok, but the policies regarding the larger conflict of which Iraq is merely one part. Put another way, the problem is that Washington seems to have lost sight of the global forest for the Iraqi tree. I don’t mean this in the manner of “ignoring Afghanistan” as some have charged or ignoring China or Venezuela but rather in ignoring (or not understanding) the ways Iraq has changed the global order and allowing those changes to drift out of our favor. If this tendency isn’t arrested it will make a real victory extremely difficult to achieve in Iraq and what victory we do manage would likely be either fleeting or Pyrrhic. We still have the chance to use the wider struggle Iraq has initiated to improve our geopolitical position if we can keep the Democrats from forcing a precipitous retreat and if Washington will start engaging the wider conflict. It should be noted however, that this isn’t a new American tendency. We have done it before in much greater wars and the reasons are all the same.
Recently, President Bush at very long last has been making some changes to Iraq policies that do take a tougher position inside Iraq while marginally recognizing the global nature of the conflict. Though sort of little and somewhat late, they are still welcome changes. US soldiers are finally being allowed to go after Iranian and Syrian meddlers in Iraq. Rules of engagements seem to have been loosened and more aggressive patrols launched. Shiite militias will apparently be targeted along with the usual Sunni suspects. The addition of 5 combat brigades at least seems to indicate our intention to finish the job. It’s not an extremely large or lengthy deployment so I’m not sure what its practical impact will be, but changing perception is in itself something important. Through all this we seem to be telling the Iraqis that if they follow Arab tradition and take another opportunity to miss the opportunity we are presenting them that it will be the last time they do that. Again, whatever the limitations, whatever the unnecessary delay, it is good to see these changes in Iraq. That doesn't mean they are enough though. Max Boot, author of The Savage Wars of Peace about America's small wars, has a good piece in the LA Times about some changes Bush should make in Iraq. I'd say some like the security issue and moving soldiers out into the population are sort of being addressed but could use more. Some, such as appointing a clear American leader for everything in Iraq and doing a census and handing out ID cards, would be better late than never. Others however are simply too late like imposing martial law and keeping suspected insurgents looked up despite a lack of evidence.
However, because these changes primarily deal with the situation inside Iraq, they are not dealing with the main supporters of the chaos in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Islamic terrorists. Bereft of support from these three sources the Sunni revanchists would have run out of the required money, weapons, supporters, and fear for a terror/insurgent campaign. This would have happened prior to the Shiites growing so tired of the continued Sunni sponsored violence that they launched their revenge terror campaign that is fueling the current violence. Minus the support of Iran the Shiites would have far less capable of doing so even had they decided to. As good as it is to let our soldier kill those trying to kill them, the reality is that killing individual ants after they cross the Iranian or Syrian borders is not the best way to deal with the problem. The only way to deal with it effectively is to go for the ant queen in Teheran. This doesn’t mean starting a war, but rather clear and painful action (economic mostly) that is linked to Iran and Syria continuing to support chaos in Iraq. If that doesn’t stop them then we could show as much respect for the Iranian and Syrian border as the show for the Iraqi border and launch small scale raids on terror camps and facilities in those countries. If those countries choose to escalate from there that’s their decision, though we would have to be prepared for that escalation. Lastly, though I don’t think we have the resolve, we could counter-destabilize Iran and Syria both. Syria is run by a very unpopular heretical minority, the Alawis. Iran is only 50% Persian with the rest largely disgruntled Azeris, Baluchis, Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds, etc. If we made Tabriz as unsafe for Persians as the Iranians have made Basra for the British we could potentially trade security for security or at least make Iran pay a price for its activities.
This international conflict doesn’t just impact Iraq inside Iraq, it also does so outside of the country. Caroline Glick, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, has an excellent article about Bush’s pointless general retreat from pretty much all aspects of the global conflict outside of Iraq. I would recommend reading it since the few points I’ll mention are also mentioned by her along with many others. Iraq is the central front of this conflict, but the other fronts can have a major influence on it. This is primarily because the willingness of these three actors to confront us in Iraq is driven by our retreats elsewhere. Since the more trouble Iraq is for us the more we retreat elsewhere, we’ve given Iran and Syria a massive incentive to cause as much trouble in Iraq as possible. All the more since until recently we haven’t even been fighting them in Iraq, much less in their own countries (which we still aren’t doing). As we continue to retreat in Lebanon, in the Palestinian areas, in Libya, in Uzbekistan, now in Somalia these are all to one extent or another falling to the Iran-Syria-Islamic terrorist axis. Rather than strengthen our hand in Iraq, these retreats will make our job all the more difficult as Iranian resolve strengthens and the perception of American weakness grows stronger. The sad thing is that it is only perception, we have the power to deal with these problems if only we would accept that we are in conflict with something beyond the nebulous “terror”. Somalia especially we did a great job by sub-contracting the invasion to Ethiopia (who showed so much tenacity that some conservatives jokingly suggest licensing Iraq to them also) but supporting it with intelligence, aid, and some air power. Now for some unfathomable reason we are joining with Europe, the UN, and the Arab League in demanding the Islamic Courts Union be brought back to share power. The result is that while Bush is coming around to what has been needed in Iraq for years now, we could still easily see the stable Iraq we form end up as little more than an Iranian puppet. Even should Iraq not fall to Iran we would probably be left looking at the price of Bush’s unnecessary retreats elsewhere along with a costlier than need be Iraq occupation and like Pyrrhus considering his retreat from Sicily to win 2 costly victories against Rome wonder what kind of victory we had achieved.
As mentioned above, this isn’t the first time that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture and real goals during a war. The worst example of this tendency has to be the way in which FDR, General Marshal, and General Eisenhower conducted the European campaign of World War II. Liberating all of France and smashing up as much of Germany as possible were allowed to override winning the war as quickly as possible and in a manner that didn’t plunge the world into another global conflict. The British, as long-time masters of managing an empire and fighting wars, understood this and were from late 1944 were in conflict with the US leadership over the wars conduct. JFC Fuller’s Military History of the Western World covers this in its last chapters. By the end of August 1944, the German army had largely been destroyed in both France and Italy. What was left in France, 11 small divisions, faced 38 larger Allied divisions while in Italy the Germans were racing for their last line of defense, the Gothic Line in the north. Prior to this 3 decisions were made which kept Germany from losing the war before the end of 1944. The first was the decision to liberate Paris before the German army west of the Seine had been destroyed. Due to the diversion of 3 American divisions to Paris, the Germans after a furious battle were able to break the encircling Allied divisions at Falaise and get enough troops out to continue the fight east of the Seine. The second decision was to withdraw 10 divisions from the Mediterranean to invade southern France so as to liberate the entire country. 6 of these divisions were pulled from Italy which kept General Alexander from breaking through the Gothic Line and pushing into the Po valley and possibly southern Germany in late 1944. The last decision was the one to advance on a broad front through France instead of blitzing through weak German defenses into either the Ruhr as per Montgomery’s plan or the Saar as Patton would have liked. Although I’d cut the US leadership some slack on the last one, they knew the Allied forces were not anywhere near as capable of the Germans at operational maneuver and didn’t want to get sucked into the kind of bloody maelstroms the Soviets kept walking into (such as 3rd Kharkov). At any rate, the desire to liberate France and to placate the Soviets (who didn’t want us occupying Germany before they did) we prolonged the war until 1945. Since we didn’t make it to the borders of Eastern Europe before the Soviets we, as the British warned us, consigned that region the Soviet domination and the world to the Cold War.
The reasons for these decisions are pretty much the same as today. The biggest problem is that due to our sheltered history we have a hard time accepting wars that are fought to benefit ourselves. Wars are to be fought to destroy evil and only to destroy evil. During World War II we therefore had trouble thinking like the British and planning for how the war would leave a world that benefited us. We could only think in terms of totally eradicating Nazism, no matter how long it took and no matter how much more favorable the peace was to another power. Today we can understand fighting terrorism and getting WMD out of the hands of a madman, but Iraq is increasingly about America’s position in the world and that is much harder to sell as worth the fighting. Dovetailing with the last problem, we also tend to trust that other countries are like us and have good intentions leading us to have unrealistic expectations. During World War II it was our unbelievable faith in the Soviets. We believed they were our true friends and saw no reason to try to win the war before they gobbled up too much. We apparently never questioned whether the Soviets would use their gains to start another war. Today it is the even more unbelievable faith that the State Department in particular has in Iran and Syria. This can be seen in the constant recommendations from the Iraq Survey Group and others that we talk to Iran since Iran has no interest in a chaotic Iraq. This is said despite the obvious fact that Iran has a lot to gain from a chaotic Iraq (as mentioned above and as Mark Steyn writes about). Another major problem is the constant electoral cycle in which our politicians exist. JFC Fuller notes that one of the reasons FDR ruled out focusing on Italy and driving into Austria and Slovenia was the upcoming presidential election. He had been warned by advisors that the American people were fixated on France, if things didn’t go as well as expected in France and it was discovered that he had allowed divisions to be diverted to invade “the Balkans” he would likely face a difficult re-election campaign. President Bush likewise faced major pressures in 2004 when insurgency was in its growth stage to not allow US casualties to rise to high lest it become a campaign issue. As such the April attacks into Fallujah and the killing of al-Sadr were called off. While Fallujah was taken care of after the election, al-Sadr becomes a greater problem with each passing day. FDR’s reluctance to be seen expanding the war and attacking on multiple fronts is also reflected today by the outcry that has already occurred over the idea of attacking other countries in the progress of fighting Iran and Syria.
These are the real problem’s I see today with Bush’s Iraq policy and could be summed up with the slogan “Iraq has nothing to do with Iraq”. This is of course exaggerated but it gets to the heart of the matter. Yes there are powerful forces and sentiments in this country against fully prosecuting the war on all levels, but that doesn’t absolve the President for taking us to a war he apparently didn’t intend to fully wage. We are playing a much bigger game in Iraq than just knocking off Saddam and replacing him with a democracy. Iran and Syria have risen to our challenge and are fighting back to markedly improve their position in the world at our expense. As victory everywhere else cannot make up for defeat on the main front, we do need to win in Iraq also, which at long last Bush is making moves inside Iraq in that direction. However, due to the influence the other fronts have on Iraq, unless the Bush Administration soon comes to grip with the wider war, who we are fighting, why we and they are fighting, what we are trying to accomplish beyond Iraq, and does what needs to be done regardless of internal pressures, we are likely to end up with an international situation, that while better than if we let the Democrats call it quits and retreat from Iraq, is still less than desirable and not worthy of the sacrifice of our soldiers or our great nation.