The odds of Iraq surviving as a constitutional democracy with its present borders intact are down to 50/50. While it’s still too soon to give up on the effort to let free elections decide the future of one Arab-majority state, 2007 will be the year in which the Iraqis themselves determine whether our continued sacrifice is justified, or if Iraq is fated to become yet another catastrophic Arab failure.
We have given the people of Iraq an unprecedented opportunity. If they make a hash of it, it won’t be our defeat, but theirs. We must make that clear to Iraqis and to the world.
Iraq is a grotesque labyrinth of ethnic and confessional rivalries, and of rivalries within those rivalries. While a minority of Iraqis would like to harm us, a majority would prefer to harm their neighbors. The deep loyalties, legacies of betrayal and layered relationships are so opaque to outsiders that we cannot be certain even of the leading figures in the Baghdad government. Yet, for all of the country’s complexity, one thing is simple and straightforward: The test for the fundamental question (immortalized by The Clash), “Should I stay, or should I go?”
If the people of Iraq are willing to fight for their own constitutionally elected government in decisive numbers, we should maintain a military presence in their country for a generation, if need be. If, however, Iraqi security forces fail to demonstrate a sufficient commitment — by the closing months of 2007 — to defeat their government’s violent enemies, we must have the common sense to recognize that our dreams for Iraq are hopeless. The Sunni-Arab insurgents, Shiite-Arab militiamen and foreign terrorists are ready to give their lives for their beliefs and causes. If the remainder of Iraq’s population cannot summon an equal will to fight for a unified, rule-of-law state, our troops should not continue to do their dying for them.
The stakes in Iraq are very high, indeed. Yet, an intelligently conducted U.S. withdrawal might be far from the disaster that all-or-nothing partisans predict. Skillfully managed, the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq — except for elements redeployed to Kurdistan — might result, not in catastrophe, but in long-term advantages for the U.S.
The key to making the most of an Iraqi failure to grasp the opportunity we provided is to think imaginatively and ruthlessly, setting aside our political prejudices and middle brow morality. We should exclude no scenario, however extreme, as we war-game alternatives in Iraq and the Middle East. As for realism, it begins with accepting the Law of Sunk Costs (“Don’t throw away additional resources in attempts to recover irretrievable losses”) and proceeds to an honest appraisal of the situation in Iraq — something unpalatable to ideologues on both the right and left. Critically, we cannot afford another application of Point No. 1 of the Rumsfeld Doctrine: “Plan only for what you desire and forbid planning for any alternatives.”
We require not only a Plan B, but Plans C, D, E and beyond, as well as constantly evolving variations of each. As former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan used to put it, “Hope is not a method.” We must not only prepare for the worst, but calculate how to turn it to our advantage.
At present, our enemies — and those of the Iraq we envisioned — have only two advantages over us, but they’re powerful ones: They display a greater strength of will, and they dare to think (then do) the unthinkable. Our self-flagellation over media-amplified “war crimes” has trapped us into the far-greater immorality of giving ground to implacable fanatics. We have limited our national imagination to courses of action we hope a global consensus will approve. That’s suicidal nonsense. There is no morality — none — in being defeated, however politely we make our troops behave.
We know how to fight. But we must relearn the art of thinking.
We also must shake off the habit of interpreting all developments to our own disadvantage (a media addiction). The most obvious example is the inextinguishable nonsense about Iraq being “another Vietnam” for our military. It isn’t. On the contrary, Iraq has turned into al-Qaida’s Vietnam. We could leave tomorrow, lick our wounds and fight on elsewhere. But whether we stay or go, al-Qaida’s resources will be devoured by Iraq for years to come. Far from profiting from a future Iraqi civil war, al-Qaida would be its victim.
We also need to recognize when it’s time to stop shaking our fists at the sky and commanding the rain to stop. The Shiite-Sunni divide may be unbridgeable and interludes of peace no more than a temporary result of bloody exhaustion or one side’s tyrannical supremacy. For all of the fashionable anti-Americanism on the political catwalk, the style of the region is Shiite-Sunni hatred unto death. And fashion is a transient phenomenon, but style endures. Human beings may hate a distant enemy in the abstract, but in practice they prefer to kill their neighbors.
If the Iraqi military and, especially, the police cannot overcome their sectarian rivalries and rally to their government’s defense by late 2007, we need to begin an orderly withdrawal of our forces. The decision cannot be based exclusively on the views of our military leaders in Baghdad, since few will see this particular issue with sufficient clarity. The U.S. officer’s can-do spirit combines with a loyalty to those he’s trained and with whom he’s worked that blinds him to their irremediable deficiencies. The generals’ line will be, “We can’t abandon them now.” But we can. And we should, if Iraqis in uniform will not show valor and determination equal to the enemies of their state.
We cannot accept pleas for “just one more year.” 2007 should be the last chance. Senior officers will counter that developing a military from scratch takes time, that this is a massive, complex effort. That’s true, but, to borrow from Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap, it is also irrelevant. The militiamen, insurgents and terrorists have not had billions of dollars and years of American military training lavished upon them. Yet they fight hard and often well (if not by our rules). If all of the human capital and material resources we’ve invested can’t arouse an Iraqi will to win sufficient to defeat the elected government’s numerically inferior opponents, there is no justification for wasting an additional American life.
Iraqis have to want to fight for their state — and not just a valiant handful of Iraqis. They must be willing to fight in decisive numbers. Yes, those fighters would continue to need American support, from air missions to logistics, for years to come, and the support would be merited. But if Iraqis will not actively and relentlessly carry the fight to their enemies, foreign and domestic, nothing we can do will make up the difference.
If we do leave, we should go out shooting. All anti-government factions should suffer — the gloves should come off at last. The one thing we cannot afford is a popular view that our troops have been defeated. They haven’t been. We will have to make that clear. Our withdrawal should be conducted under conditions that push our enemies bloodily onto the defensive as we make our exit, and we should not worry about collateral damage. If we leave Iraq, we must leave the world with a perception of American strength — and ruthlessness, when required. We can afford being seen as heavy-handed, but we can’t afford being seen as weak.
We should leave sufficient forces in Kurdistan to deter foreign interference in that pro-American region, as well as to give us local leverage and emergency bases in periods of crisis. Even after we withdraw from the rest of Iraq, we should be ready and willing to intervene with air power to prolong the subsequent civil war, ensuring that neither Sunni Arabs nor Shiite Arabs gain the upper hand — and that the designs of neighboring states are frustrated.
Civil war’s profit
If we leave Iraq, there will be a civil war. We must accept that and make up our minds to profit from it. Not only would it be al-Qaida’s Vietnam (its cadres hate and fear Shiites far more than they do us), but the strife would inevitably entangle our other regional enemies. Currently aligned against us, Iran and Syria would not be able to sustain their cooperation, but would be drawn into backing opposite sides. While we should be willing to use force to prevent the cross-border involvement of Iranian or Syrian regulars, we must accept that their support for rival factions with armaments and “volunteers” is inevitable. Let us turn it to our advantage by bleeding out our opponents and trapping them in a quagmire.
An Iraqi civil war would be a human tragedy. But it would be a tragedy that Iraqis, through factionalism and fecklessness, brought down on their own heads. Given that it cannot be prevented, we should avoid hand-wringing diplomacy in favor of placing no obstacles in the path of Sunni and Shiite extremists anxious to kill each other.
The region is due for another of its periodic bloodbaths and, paradoxically, the exhaustion in the wake of a sectarian war may be the only long-term hope for peace.
As for Iraq’s other interested neighbor, Turkey, we should make it explicitly clear that our air power, advisers, special operations forces and, if need be, regulars will stand by the Kurds if Turkish forces cross the border — but we should do so behind closed doors to avoid a public humiliation for Ankara. As a sop, we should give the Turks a free hand to engage in contiguous regions of Arab Iraq to “protect” the Turkoman minority. (Turkish ambitions will thus prevent any rapprochement with Ankara’s Arab neighbors.) We might even offer open support for Turkish efforts and, since Turkey is oil-poor, we should consider a compact that allows Ankara to occupy part of Iraq’s oil fields in return for accepting the Kurdish claim to Kirkuk. With their own new oil fields under development, the Kurds can and must be persuaded to share a portion of the Kirkuk area’s oil with the Turks in return for security, open trade and pipeline access.
By offering Turkey a free drink of oil, we might be able to protect the Kurds without fighting. As an insurance plan, we should arm and train the Kurds — who will fight for their freedom — to include applying lessons learned from Hezbollah’s strategy against the Israel Defense Forces. Anyway, a Turkish military incursion into Kurdistan might explode the conventional wisdom by failing miserably in the difficult, canalized terrain of northern Iraq. The free Kurds would be the toughest enemy Turks have faced since the Great War, and we might have to intervene with the Irbil government to persuade the Kurds to spare trapped and suffering Turkish units.
Another line of conventional wisdom holds that, should the Iraqi experiment fail, we will lose our influence throughout the region. That is exactly wrong. An Iraq embroiled in civil war would underscore the importance of American good will and military power to protect the effete sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and the hollow Saudi monarchy. Each of these Sunni emirates and states dreads Persian hegemony.
The old Arab-Persian antipathy eventually will re-emerge in Iraq, as well. At present, Persian and Iraqi Shiites are religious brothers facing a traditional enemy. But Iran ultimately will insist on exercising too much authority and demand too much subservience. Persian arrogance and racism will undo Tehran’s attempts at empire. An eventual Shiite victory in a civil war would lead inexorably to a future Arab-Persian conflict within the Shiite community.
As for securing oil supplies, we have a wide range of alternatives, from a rump occupation that concentrates on Iraq’s southern oil fields, through a no-nonsense demand that the Saudis and gulf states maximize their production, to a surprise occupation of Venezuela’s oil production sites (most of them conveniently located for military visitors).
We have done our best to help others. The time may be approaching to help ourselves.
Finally, contingency plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities should be timed for the moment when Iraqi Shiites appear to be gaining the upper hand. With the Sunni Arabs pressed to the wall (which might happen quickly) and Iran pouring resources into the fight, we should blindside Tehran, breaking its nuclear weapons program and preventing an outright Shiite victory in Iraq. The goal would not be to deliver victory to the Sunni Arabs, who could not win a civil war, but to prevent them from losing and keep the confrontation alive. Al-Qaida’s Vietnam could also become Iran’s Vietnam.
Make common cause with Iran. Upend the chess board, approach Iran and offer Tehran hegemony over central and southeastern Iraq in return for halting its nuclear-weapons development program and a commitment to defend Kurdistan’s independence against all aggressors. Propose an alliance based on noninterference in Iranian affairs (save the nuclear-arsenal issue) and recognition of Shiite ascendancy in the northern gulf.
What if, instead of weakening Iran, we helped it become stronger? Of course, our views on Israel are in direct conflict, but the attempt to assert local hegemony would occupy Tehran and drain its resources for years to come. And, as noted above, the deep conflict in the region isn’t between Muslims and Americans or even between Muslims and Israelis, but between Muslims and Muslims. Given the chance to lord it over Sunni Arabs, Tehran might forget about Israel except for intermittent bursts of token rhetoric. And, in the end, an attempt to build a greater Iran will inevitably result in a lesser Iran. Iran’s ambitions will be self-defeating, so why not encourage them?
The only way to win in the Middle East is to choose a side and continue to back that side no matter how badly it misbehaves. Our attempts to play the honest broker have failed, preventing resolution and making many a bad situation worse. Sunni Arab culture is in freefall and we have to accept the fact. We have bound ourselves to the dead and dying. Perhaps it’s time to put our anger over yesteryear’s hostages and name-calling behind us — and to ask the Iranians to abandon their own old grudges against us.
As for the benefits of choosing Shiites over Sunnis, we should remember that the worst anti-Western terrorists by far have been Sunnis. Anyway, the odds are better if we back the region’s oldest surviving civilization — Persia — over a collection of tribal cultures that do not reach the standard of a civilization.
The formula, in short, would be: Embrace Iran and kill it with kindness; terrify (but continue to embrace) the gulf oil states; isolate Syria and destroy the Assad regime; protect the Kurds, but placate Turkey; and create so obsessive a regional focus on local problems that we can concentrate on future opportunities elsewhere.
Of course, the Iranians would cheat like mad on any such agreement. That’s part of the equation. But the loss of the U.S. as a galvanizing bogeyman would foster the conditions for internally driven regime change. Rob the Tehran regimes of its excuses. By making Iran stronger in the short term, we might do more to change its political nature than by striving endlessly — and ineffectually — to weaken it.
Perhaps it’s time for the Great Satan to do what devils do best: Seduce.
A variation on Plan C: Cut a deal with Iran to allow it unrestricted influence over the Shiite provinces of Iraq in return for a mutual-support pact that frees American forces to invade Syria (an indirect withdrawal); to provide guarantees for the Kurds; and to raise joint Iranian-Iraqi oil production in return for an American purchasing shift away from Saudi Arabia. The goal would be to lower world oil prices sufficiently (and just long enough) to create a financial crisis in Saudi Arabia, the primary source of anti-Western Islam, of destabilizing policies in the Muslim world, and of terrorists.
By driving Saudi Arabia into a government breakdown, we might dry up the funding for Wahhabi missionary efforts that wreak havoc on states from Pakistan to Nigeria, while diverting Sunni Arab resources and energies to internal struggles in place of the export of fanaticism. At an opportune time, we might occupy key Saudi oil fields, holding profits in trust for a future constitutional state. Let Sunni Arabs fight over Mecca the way Christians once warred over the Papal States.
As for the invasion of Syria, it would be easy militarily and we would not make the mistake of trying to occupy the country; rather, our goal would be to create “constructive turmoil” that weakened Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by depriving them of dependable strategic depth, while embroiling al-Qaida and its affiliates in yet another Muslim-versus-Muslim struggle that bleeds the movement out. We should never forget that, while we can afford to “lose” Iraq, al-Qaida can’t. Expand al-Qaida’s struggle to Syria and we create a situation where Arabs do our killing for us. And if al-Qaida ever achieved unexpected success, we could prevent it from governing: We may have difficulty with post-modern terrorist organizations, but we can take down states with ease (we only have to avoid trying to rebuild them in our own image).
We sought to foster peace in the Middle East. Perhaps it’s time to let the Middle East fight itself out. And the best way to protect Israel is to involve Arabs and Persians in resource-draining struggles within the Muslim world.
Leave. Not just Iraq, but the entire region (except for expandable bases in Kurdistan). Apres nous, le deluge. Let the region burn, if that’s what its populations choose. Put real fear into the lives of our Saudi enemies. Let civil war rage in Iraq and let it expand, if that’s the conflagration’s natural course. If necessary, intervene just sufficiently to preserve oil supplies. Otherwise, strictly refrain from military engagement in any form, until the various actors have bled themselves out. Let the world get one of its periodic and necessary lessons in the horror of sectarian wars.
Then return and pick up the pieces.
The best-laid plans
Iraq still has a fighting chance. And if Iraqis will fight for their own freedom and a constitutional government, we should stand by them. But we need to think seriously and creatively about alternatives, in case the Iraqis let themselves down. The Bush administration’s cross-your-fingers approach has served us poorly. For their part, the administration’s detractors offer no alternatives beyond platitudes and their own brand of wishful thinking.
We cannot afford inane squabbling that elevates short-term political advantage over our strategic interests. It’s always up to the incumbent administration to take the lead in pursuing alternatives — simply because it has the power to do so. After actively preventing our military from planning for an unwanted-but-unavoidable occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration must not make the same ideology-driven mistake again. Our efforts in Iraq degenerated swiftly from a nebulous vision to a series of improvisations — none of which convinced the intended audience.
After 3½ years, we still don’t have a genuine plan, only a loosely connected series of programs and a bucket of fading hopes.
None of the scenarios sketched above would be ideal. The purpose in summarizing them isn’t to offer Pentagon planners a blueprint, but to provoke our leaders to think honestly and imaginatively about the wide range of potential outcomes — not all of them necessarily bad for us — should Iraqis lack the will to risk their lives for their elected government. We must smash the self-imposed barriers of political correctness. As we war-game the future, no strategy should be off-limits.
In the Middle East, the closest we can come to certainty is to accept that the one outcome we reject as unthinkable will come to pass.
Ralph Peters is a retired U.S. Army officer and the author, most recently, of “Never Quit The Fight.”