Last week’s bloodshed in Iraq and the bombing of what remained of the historic Shiite shrine in Samarra and of two Sunni mosques in Basra were more reminders of a terrible truth: The war in Iraq is lost. The only question that remains—for our gallant troops and our blinkered policymakers—is how to manage the inevitable. What the United States needs now is a guide to how to lose—how to start thinking about minimizing the damage done to American interests, saving lives and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco.
No longer can we avoid this bitter conclusion. Iraq’s winner-take-all politics are increasingly vicious; there will be no open, pluralistic Iraqi state to take over from the United States. Iraq has no credible central government that U.S. forces can assist and no national army for them to fight alongside. U.S. troops can’t beat the insurgency on their own; our forces are too few and too isolated to compete with the insurgents for the public’s support. Meanwhile, the country’s militias have become a law unto themselves, and ethnic cleansing gallops forward.
But the most crucial reason why the war is lost is that the American people decisively rejected continuing U.S. military involvement last November. As far as the voters are concerned, the kitchen is closed. U.S. policymakers have not yet faced this hard fact. Some disasters are irretrievable, and this is one of them. Unless we admit that, we cannot begin the grueling work of salvage.
One reason why Washington’s head remains firmly buried in the sand about defeat is that the Bush administration and its die-hard allies are determined to try to win a war that is already over. As justification, they warn that a U.S. withdrawal would mean disaster. The same policymakers who assumed that Iraq would be a cakewalk now assume that the hard-to-predict consequences of leaving will be vastly worse than the demonstrated costs of hanging on. They paint the unknowable as the unthinkable. According to national security adviser Steven J. Hadley, for instance, a failure to secure Baghdad will lead to “regional chaos” and a civil war that will bleed into surrounding countries. Or Anbar province will become an al-Qaeda mini-state radiating violence throughout the world. Or there will be genocide. Or U.S. disengagement will destroy our credibility, weaken our deterrence and embolden our foes. Or all of the above.
In fact, history suggests that the consequences of a U.S. defeat will not be that dire. First, the risk of a regional Shiite-Sunni war is modest. The region has endured many civil wars: Algeria, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Yemen. While some have drawn in outsiders, none has led to war among those outsiders. Such meddlers tend to seek advantage in their neighbors’ civil wars, not to spread them, which is why they rely on proxies to do their fighting. You can already see that pattern at work in Iraq today: All of Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran, are trying to protect their interests there, but all are also carefully calibrating their involvement.
The risk of a longer, bloodier Iraqi civil war is considerably higher. Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish killing and score-settling will probably intensify after U.S. forces leave. So fears of genocidal violence shouldn’t be dismissed, especially if the United States goes ahead with its current plans to arm Iraq’s largely Shiite army. But at this point, the three essential ingredients for genocide—heavy weapons, organization and broad communal consent—don’t exist. The present rough military balance between Sunnis and Shiites, both of whom have built formidable militias, reduces the likelihood of nationwide genocide; so does the fact that Sunnis have a haven available in western Iraq.
As for al-Qaeda: True, its Iraqi branch has established a stronghold in Anbar province, and trained fighters from Iraq are, predictably, returning to their home countries, hardened by combat and looking for blood. But thus far, the chief jihadist threat to the West continues to emanate from Pakistan, not Iraq. The proportion of foreign fighters in the insurgents’ ranks is smaller than ever—perhaps 10 percent of the total number of Sunni combatants. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi forces are already under pressure, not just from the United States but also from other Sunni leaders jealously guarding their own turf. And beyond all that, it’s simply too late to stop jihadist blowback from Iraq, which will persist regardless of whether U.S. forces remain.
The downsides to defeat, then, are either manageable or unavoidable. And leaving Iraq could offer some silver linings, too. After years of turmoil, an orderly, methodical drawdown of U.S. forces, coupled with efforts to reassure U.S. allies and demonstrate American influence elsewhere in the region, could begin to restore America’s global reputation.
It’s possible but unlikely that U.S. withdrawal would embolden some strategic adversary such as China to confront the United States years from now. But rivals are far more likely to act according to the raw-power conditions that prevail at the moment of confrontation than according to the ghosts of setbacks past.
A well-managed defeat would be more likely to boost U.S. credibility. Staying longer certainly won’t. As the historian Robert Dallek recently noted about Vietnam, “U.S. credibility was enhanced by ending a war that it could not win—a war that was costing the country vital resources that it could better use elsewhere.”
Withdrawal would also staunch the hemorrhage of our global influence. U.S.-occupied Iraq is now a wellspring of images that seem to show U.S. weakness and cruelty. The insurgency alone produces more than 900 widely distributed communiques every month, which steadily erode our image in the Muslim world. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a conservative U.S. ally, has condemned the American occupation and said that he refuses to be President Bush‘s Arab Tony Blair.
So, how to manage the United States’ first military defeat since Vietnam? Somewhat improbably, the keys to preserving U.S. power and position in a post-Iraq Middle East are the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Progress on those fronts would make it far easier for the United States to leave Iraq and remind Arab rulers and publics that Washington can be engaged, effectual and constructive.
Contain Iran. Without question, Tehran is more confident and assertive than it was before the Bush administration invaded Iraq. Iran is bent on regional domination, keen to acquire nuclear weapons and prone to support terrorists. Instead of intimidating Iran into better behavior, the Iraq war has removed Tehran’s historical regional counterweight and discredited U.S. power.
For the moment, Washington is sensibly backing a European push for stronger U.N. sanctions against Iran if it does not suspend its uranium-enrichment efforts. But if this policy fails—either because the resulting sanctions prove too tepid or because Iran decides to defy even severe penalties—the United States will need a new approach.
The shrewd strategy would be to hold out carrots and sticks that steer Iran toward recognizing that more responsible behavior is in its self-interest. (And remember, Iran’s interest in chaos in Iraq will subside dramatically once the United States leaves.) Through negotiations, trade and compromise, the United States has long sought to tame Chinese and Russian power, with some success. Similarly, Washington should offer normal diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran in exchange for Tehran’s confining its nuclear program and butting out of the Arab-Israeli arena. That all may not work, but isolation or armed confrontation are even less likely to do the trick.
Tamp down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We cannot restore U.S. stature and credibility without easing Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Those tensions also help Osama bin Laden’s admirers recruit new acolytes and give Iran a pretext for expanding its influence westward.
To be sure, the conditions are dismal, with the Islamic radicals of Hamas raining rockets on Israeli border towns and driving their secular Fatah rivals out of the Gaza Strip. But meaningful U.S. diplomacy needn’t wait for an unlikely eruption of statesmanship and moderation. We can’t end the conflict now, but we can make serious, sustained efforts to improve daily life for the Palestinians and demonstrate our willingness to nudge the Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, to take risks for peace. This alone will not transform America’s strategic position in the region, but it will make it easier for Arab governments to align themselves with the United States, deprive Iran of an opening and hamper bin Laden’s ability to play one of his favorite cards.
Return to realism. The U.S. defeat in Iraq should finally squelch the appealing but naive belief that promoting democracy is a panacea for the Middle East’s ills. Washington faces a bleak choice: It can push its values or realize its interests. It cannot do both.
The problem with trying to build democracy in the Arab world is not solely that Islamic radical groups such as Hamas tend to win the elections; it’s also the absence of secular, liberal parties or politicians who support U.S. policies. It is Washington’s misfortune that it can achieve its objectives only by working with illiberal regimes such as the stagnant autocracy of Egypt or the complacent monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On the margins, some reforms could take place; Arab despots have an interest in cultivating a veneer of legitimacy, which is best served by including some more moderate elements of the opposition in government. But the notion that America’s foremost aim should be disrupting the existing Arab order in the name of democratic transformation must be discarded.
A rapid recovery from the U.S. defeat in Iraq depends on Washington’s ability to act creatively, decisively and diplomatically. But no recovery can begin until Washington offers a clear, convincing timetable for military disengagement. If this administration is not prepared to lose this war right, its successor will be saddled with the burden.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.