Washington is losing the battle for Iraq–but it is losing that battle in Washington. The situation in Iraq itself is mixed but improving.
For all its faults, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has achieved a great deal in rebuilding Iraq’s physical infrastructure, restoring public services, and establishing a responsive civil service throughout the country.
As a result, the Iraqi economy is recovering and the oil is flowing again. The terrorists perversely acknowledged this achievement last weekend when they attacked the Basra terminal to disrupt its daily supply of two million barrels to the world oil market. The failure of that attack–and the forthcoming injection of massive U.S. funds for more rebuilding projects–will further reinforce Iraq’s economic recovery.
Political progress too has been substantial. Local elections have been successfully held throughout the country. Political parties and free newspapers now abound. A liberal constitution, with guaranteed rights for women and minorities, has been agreed (though leading Shiite clerics think it too liberal.) And an Iraqi governing authority is scheduled to take over on June 30–though its precise composition and powers are still being determined.
As a result, the Coalition retains the broad consent of the Shiites, the Kurds and, according to opinion, about two-thirds of Iraqis. These are remarkable–if qualified–achievements. But they are now undermined by two factors: growing insecurity within Iraq and growing indecision in Washington.
Most of Iraq is, of course, relatively peaceful and stable. But the Coalition has lost control of security in several areas‹notably, in much of the “Sunni Triangle,” particularly in Fallujah, and in some southern Shiite towns like Najaf. And once a government has lost control of security, it has no good options.
If it compromises with those fighting it–for instance, by allowing the jihadists in Fallujah to walk free with or without their weapons–then it invites more guerrilla attacks. If it crushes them, then it risks alienating most Iraqis and perhaps driving them into the arms of the jihadists.
When all options have risks, however, we have to take risks. And the risks will differ in different situations. At this point the risks in Fallujah of either a compromise deal or a long siege are worse than those of a full and rapid conquest. The U.S. Marines should go in and kill or capture the mainly Sunni insurgents. Now a symbol of Sunni resistance, Fallujah might become a symbol of their defeat.
In Najaf the calculation now points in the opposite direction. Rather than attack a city beloved by Shiites still largely sympathetic to us, we should accept the offer from the firebrand Motoqba al-Sadr to surrender to an Islamic third party for interrogation by the Iraqi judge who issued the murder warrant against him. That would avoid one major threat to good U.S.-Shia relations, namely a bloody conflict with Shia militias, and remove another, namely al-Sadr himself, from the center of events.
In both cases, however, we are adopting the worst possible response–namely, issuing bold threats but taking weak actions or even doing nothing. And this paralysis stems largely from indecision in Washington itself where a series of local conflicts prevents the U.S. from pursuing a consistent Iraqi policy.
Some in the media and Congress would happily lose in Iraq if it meant Bush losing in November–and paint an excessively gloomy picture of Iraq accordingly. The U.S. State Department would rather have a defeat in Iraq than a victory for the Pentagon–and so exploits that gloom to oust the Pentagon¹s Iraqi friends like Ahmed Chalabi. And both the neoconservative advocates of democracy in Iraq and the Kissingerian “realists” who would settle for “stability” there direct more fire at each other than at the insurgents who seek to frustrate both.
Taken together these local battles have produced policies based on panic and escapism. Some want to reshuffle the political deck in Iraq to bring in Baathists. Some want some international deus ex machina to take the problem off our hands. And others want both–i.e. a reshuffle in Iraq conducted by, in effect, a sovereign U.N. None of these ideas would improve matters. Even if promoting Chalabi and dismissing Baathist army officers were mistakes (which is more asserted than established), reversing those decisions now would make the U.S. look weak and changeable. It would tell Iraqis that it is better to be our enemy than our friend since the U.S. buys enemies and sells friends.
Nor is there an international rescuer at hand. The “international community”–minus France, Russia, and Germany–is already present in the Coalition in Iraq. None of the three absentees would serve in a largely U.S. mission. The U.N., discredited in Iraq itself by the Oil-for-Food scandal, can provide only a modest international “legitimacy” irrelevant to current American purposes. And none of them fully shares the American aim of a stable, liberal, and ultimately democratic Iraq.
So the U.S. cannot subcontract that outcome to a third party. It must stay the course–perhaps increasing the troop levels, perhaps making the governing council more representative, maybe granting the U.N. a role in such tasks as supervising democratic elections–but essentially providing security, and so remaining the ultimate Iraqi sovereign power until the nominally sovereign Iraqi government is capable of ruling without external assistance.
That may not take too long. Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset once pointed out that whether a country was democratic correlated closely with whether it had once been a British colony. Iraq had a long training in democracy under the British with a prime minister whose appointment had to be approved by parliament, regular elections, and peaceful changes of government determined by those elections. Local elections in Iraq today suggest that those lessons were learnt well.
But however long it takes, the U.S. has to be there. The only people to whom it can hand over power are the Iraqi people. Handing over to any other power would be a defeat in disguise.