Iraq Justification Revisited


Here’s one to chew on.

Tigerhawk resurrects the work of Steven Den Beste, one of the first erudite neo-con bloggers (USS Clueless), explaining the big picture of the war on Islamism and the place of Iraq in it. The extensive summary of America’s position in 2003 was more comprehensive and informed than anything the White House had managed to lay out (or really has since), and it was widely linked.

Two years down the road, Tigerhawk, himself a formidable blogging voive on the right-center, revisits this “high level strategic view of the cause of the war,” and adds his observations and annotations to bring the document up to date:

Whatever might be said about the success of the war in Iraq compared to the standard of history, it has been at best a qualified success — and many opponents of the war call it an unqualified failure, or worse — compared to the standard set by its most optimistic advocates in early 2003. So where do we stand? … The object of this post, then, is to organize my thinking about the war in light of what we knew then and what we now know.

If you want to cut to the chase, skip down, in the outline form, to item 7, “Stage 2: Iraq”

Whatever the links between Saddam and the Islamists, they were tentative. Saddam did support terrorists, but primarily those aimed at Israel. However, once the United States was on the offensive against al Qaeda, it is foolish to suppose that such an implacable enemy as Saddam would not have supported them, and vice versa. If the far more rational government in Tehran is crossing the Shia-Sunni divide to treat with al Qaeda, it is very likely that Saddam would have had we not turned our attention to Iraq so quickly after the elimination of the Taliban.

To make a significant long term change in the psychology of the “Arab Street”

To prove to the “Arab Street” that we were willing to fight, and that our reputation for cowardice was undeserved.

To prove that we are extraordinarily dangerous when we do fight, and that it is extremely unwise to provoke us.

To defeat the spirit of the “Arab Street”. To force them to face their own failure, so that they would become willing to consider the idea that reform could lead them to success. No one can solve a problem until they acknowledge that they have a problem, and until now the “Arab Street” has been hiding from theirs, in part aided by government propaganda eager to blame others elsewhere (especially the Jews).

To “nation build”. After making the “Arab Street” truly face its own failure, to show the “Arab Street” a better way by creating a secularized, liberated, cosmopolitan society in a core Arab nation. To create a place where Arabs were free, safe, unafraid, happy and successful. To show that this could be done without dictators or monarchs. (I’ve been referring to this as being the pilot project for “Arab Civilization 2.0”.)

Not confirmed: It may have been hoped that the conquered nation would serve as a honey-pot to attract militants from the region, causing them to fight against our troops instead of planning attacks against civilians. (This was described by David Warren as the “flypaper strategy”.) It seems to have worked out that way, but it’s not known if this was a deliberate part of the plan.

Tigerhawk’s insertions at this point begin, in parentheses:

[If it were deliberate, then the Bush administration botched it horribly. The poor preparation for a counterinsurgency after the end of major military operations seems to suggest that the “flypaper strategy” was no strategy at all, but an unforseen consequence. I depart from more dovish observers, though, in my view that it may be a fortuitous, even if bloody, unforseen consequence.] Many of the defenders who died in the war were not actually Iraqis. [Readers will recognize this as the “foreign fighter” controversy, and it still rages today because one’s perception of the extent of foreign fighter intervention seems directly related to the political argument over American withdrawal. If the insurgency is essentially nationalistic, then the American presence probably exacerbates it. If, however, we have drawn al Qaeda into a strategic battle (even if by accident), then we would be tragically foolish to withdraw and hand al qaeda a victory even if our presence is otherwise feeding the nationalistic elements of the insurgency. My own view is that we are some distance from defeating the Sunni nationalists but that the Shia and the Kurds, acting through the government, will be able to contain it within the next few years. Al Qaeda, though, is on the run in Iraq. We have a chance to humiliate it if we chase it from the region. We must not let that chance slip by.]

Den Beste approves of the whole exercise, and comments:

The major trends in the GWOT are positive. Support for al Qaeda et al is falling. Counter-terror support in essential states like Saudi is increasing. Iraqi security forces have crossed into the geometric phase of growth in capability. The former-regime-elements + Jihadi forces are generating increasing alienation whilst their leadership is degrading. The U.S. nation-building leadership seems to be finally getting their act together. The U.S. military continues to adapt and get smarter. The morale and resolve of the U.S. troops is firm (a complete disconnect from U.S. polls).

So I would be short the insurgency and long the Iraqi democracy-on-training-wheels except for:

1) The fear that internal U.S. opposition will defeat a fundamentally good policy.

2) The fear that corruption and tribalism will defeat the efforts of the best of Iraqis (similarly for Afghanistan).

I believe corruption is a more serious 10-year threat than the current insurgency. While much external and internal effort is being invested to thwart the corruption threat, the outcome will be determined by the Iraqis.

But where we should have leverage, the U.S. political trends seem almost hopeless. The administration doesn’t seem able to communicate, and the opposition doesn’t seem to care about the damage they are doing. This is one of the few accurate parallels to the Vietnam case, and it’s not a happy one.

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