The Baker/Hamilton Commission has a chance to dramatically reshape our thinking about American foreign policy, if only it will ask the right question. They should follow the guidance of one of the last century’s most brilliant thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asks an apparently straightforward question: what do all games have in common? He ties himself in mental knots trying to get the answer, but nothing works. Finally he realizes that the question was posed wrongly. It should have been: Is there anything all games have in common? That’s the real question (and the real answer is “not much”), but the language of the first question tricked him into searching for an answer that does not exist.
Our strategists are constantly asked, how can we win the war in Iraq? But it is the wrong question, and therefore has no correct answer. Read Reuel Gerecht in Friday’s Wall Street Journal: “(The Baker/Hamilton Commission) cannot escape from an unavoidable reality: We either declare defeat and withdraw completely tout de suite, or we surge troops into Baghdad and fight. The ISG will surely try to find some middle ground between these positions, which, of course, doesn’t exist.”
Instead of trapping themselves in an imaginary quagmire, the commissioners can help us face the real war. What’s going on in Iraq is not “the war,” which is raging over the entire world. The real question — the life and death question — is: How can we win the war in the Middle East, which now extends from Afghanistan to Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Somalia?
That question forces us to devise a strategy to deal with multiple enemies instead of limiting our strategic thinking to the Iraqi insurgency alone. It forces us to confront the terror masters in Tehran and Syria as well as the killers in Iraq. If we ask how to win in Iraq alone, we are led into a fool’s errand of trying to convince our sworn enemies–Iran has been at war with us for twenty-seven years–to act like friends. But if we ask how to win the war, we can see that we have many good cards to play, and many real allies, from the Iranian and Syrian people to the millions of Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria, to several other oppressed groups throughout the region, and even to leaders who today denounce us.
All the leaders in the Middle East know that the outcome of the war will dramatically shape their future; it may perhaps determine whether they live or die. This applies equally to the tyrants and their opponents. They all know that if we lose, Syria and Iran will have won, and will impose harsh terms on the whole region. Their words and actions are shaped by whether they think we will win or lose, and cannot be understood outside that context.
Take Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, for example. Several commentators flew into a rage when Maliki went to Tehran to kiss the turban of Supreme Leader Khamenei, as if this were an expression of Maliki’s deep affection for his neighbors. It isn’t, but Maliki knows they can blow him up, kidnap his relatives, and blackmail his friends. He has no reason to believe that we are going to save him from the Iranians, nor indeed that we are going to win this thing at all. From his point of view, we’re bugging out of the real war, and all the talk about negotiating with Damascus and Tehran can only reinforce this belief. He undoubtedly believes — don’t you? — that we are just marking time until we can dump it all in his lap. Very few Iraqi Shiites dream of living in an Iranian-style Islamic Republic, but they all know that if we lose, they will have to come to terms with Tehran. Maliki is trying to save his neck. Who wouldn’t?
The same applies to the fighting on the ground. Just as Iraqi leaders must come to terms with the Iranians and the Syrians if they believe we will lose, so individual Iraqis, Sunni, or Shiite, urban or tribal, have to stay away from American soldiers. Above all, they must not be seen to be helping us. If we are going to lose and leave, anyone who helps us will lose and die.
In like manner, some Middle Eastern anti-Americanism has less to do with religious or cultural convictions — even when it is expressed in religious language — than with the brutal calculus of winning and losing. Thousands of Syrian Sunnis are now converting to Shiism, and I don’t think they have had an epiphany. They see Hezbollah winning, which means Iran is expanding its domain. Some of the rage against the United States stems from a mixture of anger and fear at a country that often seems ready to pack up and go home. They must surely see the American election results as confirmation of this trend, and no amount of sweet talk from the diplomats or Karen Hughes can undo those harsh facts. The antiwar Leftists at home are not the only ones looking at Iraq as an Arabic-speaking version of Vietnam.
None of the various schemes put forward in our public debate to “solve” Iraq can work — although much can be done to improve conditions — because they all inevitably assume that Iraq can be “solved” by itself. That includes the call for more troops on the ground. Even if you believe that those troops will dramatically improve security, it still doesn’t address the central question: can the people of the region believe we are going to win? They won’t believe it until they see us waging war effectively, which means we have to be able to threaten Iran and Syria with defeat.
It requires an Iran/Syria policy. Iran declared war against us 27 years ago and has waged it relentlessly, but we have yet to respond. It is astonishing how many diplomats and spooks actually believe Syria is a friend, when Assad drinks our blood from the same glass as Khamenei. Serious policies must aim at regime change in Tehran and Damascus. This does not require a military invasion of either country, but it does require active support for anti-regime political groups, combined with an explicit declaration that we want an end to the tyrannies. As a starter, it would be nice to have the Justice Department indict the Iranian leaders, following the example of Argentina, which just issued arrest warrants for former president Rafsanjani and his henchmen, who presided over the Hezbollah bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1996.
We do not have great intelligence on Iran, but we do know a lot about the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Iranians, thanks to public-opinion polls conducted by the mullahs themselves. Those polls show upwards of seventy percent of Iranians — that would be 50 million people, mostly younger than 30 — who do not like the regime and want it changed. Those are terrific numbers for us and terrifying numbers for the mullahs, which is why they frantically arrest, torture and kill anyone who openly criticizes them, and why they have destroyed all remnants of free press, and why they are censoring Internet use, satellite-TV access, and cell phones. They, and their Syrian allies, know where their doom lies.
A free Iran would most likely become an instant ally in the war against terror, reversing the balance of power in the Middle East in a single, non-violent stroke. Hezbollah would be deprived of its source of money, materiel and guidance, and would shrivel up, awaiting last rites. Al Qaeda, many of whose leaders moved to Iran from Afghanistan in 2002, would be similarly damaged, as would Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two of Tehran’s major clients. And the information from Iranian intelligence files would turn over many rocks in many swamps, all over the world, probably including our shores.
We have many options in the war, so long as we decide we really want to win it. Baker/Hamilton can help us see the real war, and free us from the error of strategic vision that has blinkered our strategic debate ever since 2002. Let’s hope.