In a final attempt to salvage his presidency and secure his legacy, President George W. Bush has announced yet another “strategy for victory” which calls for introducing 21,000 additional troops into the killing fields of Iraq. The point that the president and much of theWashington establishment refuses to concede is that theIraq war is already over.
Saddam Hussein is dead and any remnants of his WMD program are utterly dismantled. But theUnited States has proven incapable of achieving any of its other lofty objectives.
For nearly four years,America has tried to reconstitute a kinder, gentlerIraq, ignoring the fact that Iraqhas always been an artificial entity—an incongruous collection of sectarian groups cobbled together by the British empireand then sustained by Sunni terror.
The American invasion has irrevocably unraveled that arrangement, as the empowered Shiites, embittered Sunnis and secessionist Kurds have little desire to concede power to their sectarian foes.
Yes, a loosely partitionedIraq with a degree of wealth sharing among its provinces may come into existence. But such an arrangement will likely follow only after a protracted and bloody civil war, and it is this civil war that American forces—augmented or not—can no longer prevent.
Nor can one find justification for the president’s claim that the battle of Iraq will “determine the direction of the global war on terror.”
The sad reality is thatIraq is already the epicenter for anti-Western terrorism.Iraq is the only place in the world where prospective jihadists can engage in live-fire exercises with the U.S. military and hone their skills in battle. It is not accidental that techniques pioneered in Iraq, like “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs), have been exported to other battlefields, like Afghanistan.
There seems to be a fundamental misconception that there is a finite number of potential terrorists in the world and that the use of Iraq as “bait” will lure them for destruction at the hands of U.S. forces.
The emotive picture of Arab suffering at the hands of Occidental powers has already generated countless volunteers and recruits for Al Qaeda. The American occupation has provoked a narrative of struggle and sacrifice that will radicalize Arab youth for decades to come.
President George W. Bush should take a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook. Initially, Reagan authorized the deployment of U.S. forces to Lebanon in 1983 under many of the same justifications bandied about today for why the United States must remain in Iraq—to combat terrorists, to check Syrian and Iranian influence, to prevent an escalation of sectarian conflict that could lead to a general war in the Middle East.
Pundits warned of dire consequences to American credibility if troops were withdrawn, particularly after the bombing of the Marine barracks. To his credit, however, the 40th president realized that a limited American force could not achieve any of these objectives and pulled the troops out.
With U.S. ground forces no longer held hostage to the shifting fortunes of the fighting in Lebanon, Washingtonwas free to pursue more effective strategies to combat terrorism and to stem the impacts ofLebanon’s internal tragedies on the rest of the region.
Americans have no interest in either paying the costs of becoming Iraq’s new imperial warden or in waging the brutal campaign necessary to pacify the country.
Instead of giving speeches on new strategies for victory, and sending off another contingent of hapless Americans into the fires of Iraq, the president would have been wiser to declare the American mission is over, and presented a plan for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqis. And whether through violence, negotiations or accommodation, they will be the ones that will have to determine the prospects of their country. So far, they are making choices the United States abhors—just as the Lebanese did in 1975 and the Bosnians in 1992—and Washington has no real leverage to alter these decisions.
For the second time in its postwar history, the United States has been defeated in a war—not in military terms, but in its inability to shape political outcomes. The challenge before American leaders now is not to devise plans for prolonging the war, but to find ways for America to regain its power and to realize its interests in light of this setback.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of the National Interest. Ray Takeyh is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.
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