Thursday, February 17, 2005

Our Iraq Policies

My last post was so long ago that we've had time for an Iraqi election, the requisite period of post-electoral euphoria (in the U.S.), and the beginnings, at least, of the inevitable return to sobriety. But not time, apparently, for the formation of a new interim government, the exact composition of which, at this hour, is still in doubt.

Not in doubt -- any more now than before the election -- is which groups will wield power in the new Iraq. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), led spiritually by Ayatollah Ali Sistani and rather more temporally by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and composed primarily of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and al-Dawa ("The Call"), won a simple majority of seats in the new parliament that will draft the new constitution.

For the purpose of forming (though not of running) the next government, the UIA will need a two-thirds majority. This means the cooperation of the Kurds, whose two parties hold the next-largest block of seats -- over a quarter. This cooperation is apparently being received -- no doubt in exchange for certain concessions regarding the preservation of de facto Kurdish autonomy. Ibrahim al-Jaafari of al-Dawa looks set to succeed the hapless Iyad Allawi -- yesterday's toast of the town in Washington -- whose secular list managed less than 15% of the available seats.

The Sunnis, meanwhile, largely boycotted (or were frightened away from) the polls, with the result that they have virtually no representation in the body that will decide their country's future. It remains to be seen how far the victorious religious Shi'ites and their highly-mobilized Kurdish partners will be willing to go in overlooking Sunni parliamentary weakness, and in actively seeking out Sunni participation in the drafting of the constitution -- and whether any such informal inclusion, if it happens, will be enough to undermine the hold that the Sunni insurgency currently has on much of central Iraq.


It seems in any case an appropriate time to take stock of the costs and benefits of our Iraqi venture, so far. I've been familiar enough, I think, with the costs. But I've also inquired of friends who are ardent supporters of the war about the benefits, encouraging them to summon as many levels of defense as possible, not wanting to leave any out of account.

I have not been disappointed. As far as Mr. Bush's supporters are concerned, there never was a single Iraq policy, with a single goal, and a single criterion of success. There were, and are, several.


Unfortunately, for every policy, there has already been a manifest failure. Or, more accurately, every policy but one has already failed -- and that one may well be failing too. Consider them in turn:

Strengthen the ability and willingness of international institutions to deal with "rogue" regimes. Here, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Stop history's clock in the fall of 2002, with the inspections regime not only restored but raised to an unprecedented level of intrusiveness, and America looks a lot like it did in the first Gulf War -- a superpower that knows how to marry diplomacy and force to achieve real enforcement of international norms. Roll forward to the spring of 2003, with intrusive inspections coming up empty and the invasion about to go forward anyway, and America stands revealed as a fairweather friend of international law and order -- embracing it when it seems it might justify what we are already determined to do, and discarding it the moment it impedes our will. The case of Iraq became the Bush v. Gore of international law -- another precedent that overturns itself.

Preempt an imminent threat to America's security. This policy failed, of course, when the rumored threat, against which the preemption was launched, turned out to be non-existent. That threat had been composed of twin spectres, one slightly more plausible than the other (which is to say, not completely implausible), but both far from credibly established, even before the inspectors set to work: That Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons (or was getting them, or that he had chem/bio, or was getting it), and that he was prepared to give said weapons to al-Qaida (or anyway to someone sufficiently similar to al-Qaida) for use against us. There is not much more to say here beyond the obvious fact that the game can hardly be worth the candle unless there is, in fact, a candle.

Prevent the future unfolding of an imminent threat to America's security. This is the Minority Report version of the previous policy -- not preemption but pre-preemption. The failure here is both less and more obvious. Less obviously a failure because, as war supporters like to say, we didn't know that Saddam didn't have the weapons, or the terrorist partners, to create such a threat, and he could have gotten them eventually anyway, even if he didn't then have them. More obviously a failure because, after all, if you are going to go around buying insurance against such eventualities, you had better give at least a little thought to whether you are buying the right policy, at a reasonable price. The subsequent behavior of Iran and North Korea suggest rather strongly that we are in the position of the homeowner who, living on a flood plain, decided to take out a second mortgage to pay for -- earthquake insurance.

Quickly and cheaply install a pro-Israeli, pro-American regime in the heart of the Middle East. The arguments associated with this policy were much in the air during the campaign to build support for the war: we would be welcomed as liberators (hence the "quickly" part); we would use Iraq oil revenue to finance the reconstruction (hence the "cheaply" part); the new regime would be headed up by Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (hence the "pro-Israeli, pro-American" part). There was to be no occupation to speak of, and certainly no nation-building. It was to be regime change in the sense of a coup d'etat -- albeit with a little more outside force than is typical in such cases. Alas, when we decapitated the Iraqi state, the body exploded. Whatever we are doing there now, it long since past the point of being quick, or cheap, or even likely to issue in an especially pro-Israeli or pro-American end state.

Strike fear into hearts of our enemies. This is the updated, war-on-terrorism variation on Nixon's "mad bomber" thesis: Only Nixon could bring the Vietnam war to a successful close because only Nixon could get the North Vietnamese to believe he was crazy enough to do anything. The Bush/Iraq variation is either about our enemies in "the region" (politically correct version), in "the civilization" (academic version), or in the religion and/or ethnic group (the verison one encounters when freepers really let their hair down). Though alive and well as a massively multiplayer online fantasy, as actual policy this long ago foundered on the shoals of perception -- as policies with purely symbolic aims are wont to do (think of what became of "credibility" in Vietnam). In this case, what we thought of as "toughness" turns out to look a lot like wish fulfillment to the worst of them. The mad bomber thesis simply breaks down when the bomber on the other side really is nuttier than you.

Achieve a stable and democratic Iraq, at peace with its neighbors. This is the one Iraq policy that, mercifully, hasn't yet failed. Unfortunately, not unlike the real fallout of the recent election (and partly wedded to it), the outcome of this policy remains very much in doubt. This has something to do with the inherent difficulty of such a job, and also something to do with the special circumstances of the particular case. But it also has to do with the very policy failures reviewed above. Some of the aims have been highly counter-productive from the point of view of this policy goal; others would have been highly complementary, had they been achieved, but, having failed, have only made the odds of this one succeeding that much longer. It would be a terrible irony, as well as a terrible result, if the one thing still worth doing, and still at least partly within reach, were undermined by everything that was never worth doing, or never within reach.


To assume the best in Iraq now is to assume the least-bad -- that we get out of this with at least one policy success, after so miserable and costly a string of failures. I hope we do. However, even if we do, there would still then be the question of whether that last success was worth the cost of achieving it.

Colonel Hackworth, who has done this kind of thing before, and seen it botched before, says that it takes about ten years to really build an army -- a step pretty much everyone agrees to be necessary for this last chance of success to take hold, whatever may happen on the political side of things. We are now about two years into it, and it has so far cost, in addition to a rather massive amount of borrowed money, the lives of 1,470 American soldiers -- along with the wounds of some 7 to 10 times that many. At the current death rate (2.84 per day since the official handover of sovereignty last summer), and assuming Col. Hackworth's time table is right, the price of the ticket will hit just shy of 10,000 by the time Iraq is really ready to fight it's own battles.

Will it have been worth it, after all?