Politics & Policy

Why Iraq Matters

Talking back to antiwar-party talking points.

Losing wars is always bad. One of the major reasons for America’s current global predominance economically and politically is that America doesn’t lose wars very often. It seems likely, however, that the American people are about to be told that they have to decide to lose the Iraq war, that accepting defeat is better than trying to win, and that the consequences of defeat will be less than the costs of continuing to fight. For some, the demand to “end this war” is a reprise of the great triumph of their generation: forcing the U.S. to lose the Vietnam War and feel good about it. But even some supporters are being seduced by their own weariness of the struggle, and are being tempted to believe the unfounded defeatism — combined with the unfounded optimism about the consequences of defeat — that hyper-sophisticates have offered during every major conflict. Americans have a right to be weary of this conflict and to desire to bring it to an end. But before we choose the easier and more comfortable wrong over the harder and more distasteful right, we should examine more closely the two core assumptions that underlie the current antiwar arguments: that we must lose this war because we cannot win it at any acceptable cost, and that it will be better to lose than to continue trying to win.

The hyper-sophisticates of the American foreign-policy and intellectual establishment direct their invective at the whole notion of winning or losing. What’s the definition of winning? If we choose to withdraw from an ill-conceived and badly executed war, that’s not really losing, is it? We can and should find ways to use diplomacy rather than military power to handle the consequences of any so-called defeat. Less-sophisticated antiwar leaders on both sides will ask simply why the U.S. should continue to spend its blood and treasure to fight in “a far-off land of which we know little,” as Neville Chamberlain famously said in defense of his abandonment of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. We have, after all, more pressing problems at home to which the Iraq war is only contributing. As is often the case, there is a level between over-thinking and under-thinking a problem that is actually thinking. Yes, in the world as it is, whatever line we sell ourselves, there really is victory and there really is defeat, the two are different, and their effects on the future diverge profoundly. And yes, the reason we must continue to spend money and the lives of the very best Americans in that far-off land is that the interests of every American are actually at stake.

We will consider below just how much of a diversion of resources away from more desirable domestic priorities the Iraq war actually is, but the more important point is simply this: Unless the advocates of defeat can show, as they have not yet done, that the consequences of losing are very likely to be small not simply the day after the last American leaves Iraq, but over the next five, ten, and 50 years, then what they are really selling is short-term relief in exchange for long-term pain. As drug addicts can attest, this kind of instant-gratification temptation is very seductive — it’s what keeps drug dealers in business despite the terrible damage their products do to their customers. “Just end the pain now and deal with the future when it gets here” is as bad a strategy for a great nation as it is for a teenager.

The antiwar party has continually adapted its arguments, but not its conclusions, to the changing circumstances on the ground. At the end of 2006, the argument was that Iraq was in full-scale sectarian civil war, that no conceivable additional American forces could reduce the violence, that the whole notion of having American troops try to do so was foolish, and that we should instead slash our forces dramatically and turn to diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors. When the surge began, the antiwar party crowed loud and long that success was impossible, rising violence inevitable, and the whole business doomed to failure. When Coalition operations brought the violence under control, the antiwar party admitted that security had improved but insisted that the political progress the surge was supposed to enable had not occurred and would not occur. Additional arguments popped up to explain that the fall in violence had nothing to do with the surge anyway — it resulted from the Anbar Awakening, which had preceded the surge; or, alternatively, from the fact that American troops were simply buying and arming former Sunni insurgents; and from Moqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire that he could lift at any moment, plunging Iraq right back into complete chaos. The antiwar party rather gleefully seized upon recent Iraqi Security Forces operations against Sadr’s militia and other illegal gangs as proof of this — the general glee with which the antiwar party has greeted any setback in Iraq is extremely distasteful and unseemly, whatever domestic political benefits they believe they will receive from those setbacks. Even if one believes that defeat is inevitable and withdrawal necessary, no American should take pleasure in the prospect of that defeat. But the key talking points now seem to be two: that the war costs too much, and that it is already inevitably lost whatever temporary progress the surge may have achieved. What follows is an exploration of these and a few other key antiwar talking points.

The War Costs Too Much

An increasingly popular talking point of the antiwar party is that the war simply costs too much and that we must end it and refocus on domestic priorities. This talking point has a number of variants:

The “$3 trillion war.” Simplistic economic analysis declares that the war has cost the taxpayers $3 trillion since its inception, implying that this is a $3 trillion dead loss to the economy — a price too high to pay.

‐ Modern economics has long understood that the notion of a one-for-one guns-versus-butter trade-off is simply wrong. A high proportion of money spent on defense goes back into the U.S. economy in the form of salaries paid to the more than 5 million Americans employed directly or indirectly by the Defense Department, and payments to the defense industry and the long and complex supply chains from which they draw their raw materials. Military spending has traditionally been a form of economic stimulus, and wars more commonly end recessions or depressions than start them. That’s not a good reason to start a war, but neither is it a good reason to lose one. The impact of the current war on the U.S. economy, finally, is far smaller than the impact of previous major conflicts. Military spending in World War II ranged from 17.8 percent of GDP to 37.5 percent; in Korea from 5.0 percent (in 1950 — 7.4 percent in 1951) to 14.2 percent; in Vietnam from 7.4 percent to 9.4 percent. Current expenditures on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars bring total defense expenditures to something well below 5 percent of GDP. Even granting the simplistic and misleading $3 trillion figure, $3 trillion is about 5 percent of the nearly $60 trillion American GDP over the five years of the war.

The war has caused the upcoming recession. Using mercantilist arguments common in the 18th century but subsequently shown to be wrong, war opponents have successfully spread the notion that military spending is causing the economy to slow and contract — they have been successful enough that a large majority of Americans believe this falsehood to be true.

‐ In line with the points made above, the burden of the war on the American economy has simply not been heavy enough to have caused a recession on its own. The collapse of the housing bubble, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, rising oil prices (which losing the war will not lower), and a variety of other factors have been far more important in slowing the economy than any brake the war might have put on it. Defense spending as a percentage of total federal spending is now around 20 percent. In World War II, it ranged from 73 percent to 89.5 percent; in Korea it ranged from 32.2 percent (1950 — 51.8 percent in 1951) to 69.5 percent; and in Vietnam from 42.8 percent to 46 percent. In more context: at the height of spending on this war, defense spending was only 12.3 percent of all public spending (including federal, state, and local expenditures); in World War II the high was 82.1 percent; in Korea, 52.5 percent; and in Vietnam 31.3 percent.

While it is true that security spending (including Homeland Security and many costs not related to the Iraq war) is the largest single line-item in the 2008 Federal budget at $656 billion, mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and S-CHIP, and other non-security discretionary programs received $610 billion, $391 billion, $211 billion, and $481 billion respectively. The $100 billion or so of direct war costs that could theoretically be recouped by withdrawing all of our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan is less than 6 percent of the $1.7 trillion spent on mandatory and discretionary domestic programs. The financial cost of the war, high though it is, is simply not a large enough part of the federal budget, to say nothing of the GDP, to have played a significant part in the American economy, particularly considering the fact that a high percentage of defense dollars go back into that economy. The argument that the Iraq war has caused the recession is just wrong.

High gas prices are the result of the war — and ending the war would lower gas prices.

‐ There is a huge failure of logic here. Oil prices do not rise because American forces are in the Middle East — they rise because of instability and fighting in the Middle East. One of the most dramatic increases in oil prices in history occurred during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when no American forces were present. The antiwar party argues that American failure in Iraq is inevitable and the violence will inevitably increase whatever we do. That is not true, but if it were, then it makes this talking point silly. If violence in Iraq is destined to increase, then the oil premium is destined to remain at least this high if not higher. In the real world, American forces are playing a key role in keeping the violence in Iraq down and preventing it from engulfing the region — if they are withdrawn prematurely, violence will spike and so will the price of oil.

The war is consuming money that would otherwise be spent on more important domestic programs.

If only our schools were fully funded and the Air Force had to have bake-sales to buy bombers…. Well, the Air Force is just about at the bake-sale level thanks to consistent under-spending on defense since 1991. But if we stopped the war tomorrow, would our schools get all the money those who make this argument think they need? Of course not. The war is being funded on an emergency basis (for good or ill) and its cost has not been offset by tax increases (as the antiwar party periodically points out). In the real world, there is no way that even a Democratic Congress would spend $100 billion a year in non-offset emergency authorizations for education or health care, even if some war critics think that they would like it to do so. As for increasing domestic spending, those who believe that we should raise taxes and spend more money on domestic programs can still advocate that policy, whatever its wisdom. This isn’t an argument about the cost of the war — it’s an argument about whether we want to have higher taxes to pay for increased domestic spending. Alternatively, it can be an argument about the cost-benefit of government borrowing versus tax increases, or of government borrowing versus economic stimulus in the form of government spending. It is not about the one-for-one tradeoff of dollars spent on the war versus dollars spent on schools and health care.

America just can’t afford this war any more, whatever the outcome.

‐This argument, one of the most common among the antiwar party, recognizes that the situation in Iraq has improved significantly over the past 15 months, but asserts that further efforts in Iraq will lead only to inevitable failure. The credibility of many making this argument suffers from the conviction with which they declared early (and, in some cases, even late) in 2007 that no progress of any kind was possible. And arguments from historical inevitability are problematic either to prove or to disprove (except for Marxists and other historical determinists). To the extent that this argument is anything other than an assertion of superior abilities to predict the future, it generally rests on one of a handful of bases:

Iraq is a made-up state: Iraqis hate each other, and only armed might can keep the peace.

‐ The high degree of Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage in the mixed areas of Iraq, the large numbers of such mixed areas, and the increasing anger with which many Iraqis in those areas now denounce the idea of sectarian conflict all run against this argument. Those who closely followed the evolution of the sectarian civil war in 2006 noticed the surprise and resentment with which many Baghdadis greeted the idea that they had to interact with one another on the basis of sect. The fact that many reacted by acquiring dual identity cards — one with a Sunni name and one with a Shi’a name — suggests that they did not see sect as a core identity that must be defended at all costs. The alacrity with which Iraq’s Shi’a shifted their condemnation from the “Sunni” to “al-Qaeda” in 2007 as the Sunni Awakening marked the Sunnis’ revolt against the terrorists is another indicator. In truth, it appears now that most Shi’a who do not live in the vicinity of Sunnis really don’t care very much about them. And many Sunni, even those who still call the Maliki government “Persians,” are increasingly more concerned about local political developments and what they can get out of that government than about the sectarian split. The Sunni-Shia fault-line is important and likely will be for a long time. In particular, it will continue to provide the potential to rally the Iraqi masses in internal strife that suits external actors. But its existence in Iraq does not condemn Iraq to endless sectarian violence any more than the once-volatile Protestant-Catholic divide in Germany continues to generate violence today.

Iraqis are not ready for democracy; it was an error for Bush ever to imagine that the U.S. could impose Western values on an Arab (or Muslim) state.

‐ As for the notion that democracy is incompatible with Islam, tell it to the hundreds of millions of Muslims in Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Europe who have embraced it. As for the notion that democracy is inappropriate for Arabs, the enthusiasm with which the liberal elite that insists on the universality of its own moral relativism engages in such overtly racist argumentation is astounding. More concretely, the millions of Iraqis who risked their lives to vote in previous elections and the polls showing that upwards of 90 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs intend to vote in upcoming provincial elections suggest that Iraqis don’t agree. Many of the other counts of the inevitability argument spring from some version of this hyper-sophisticated racist viewpoint — Iraqis are too corrupt for legitimate government; they won’t fight because they’re weak, lazy, or just would rather have us do it; they won’t take responsibility for their state or security; and so on. To each argument there is an on-the-ground rebuttal (like the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died fighting al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias, for instance), but this talking point isn’t really about on-the-ground realities; it’s about preconceptions that can be very hard to sway.

Recent Progress Really Has Little To Do with the Surge Anyway

This has become one of the favorite talking points of the antiwar party, and it has three major components:

The Anbar Awakening began before the surge, had nothing to do with the surge, and will continue (or not) with or without U.S. forces present.

‐ This argument is a bit like saying that the French people, finally tiring of the Nazis’ occupation, rose up of their own accord in 1944, engaging in increasing partisan and insurgent activities culminating with the re-appearance of the Free French military units that liberated Paris — and that none of this had anything to do with the Normandy invasion, since the Free French movement and partisan activity within France predated that invasion. One interesting thing about this argument is that it requires a real detachment from the scene to believe in — Anbaris don’t say this, American troops and leaders who were in Anbar in 2006 don’t say it, Americans who oversaw the full blossoming of the Awakening in 2007 don’t say it. It’s a good argument to make from 6,000 miles away, but it isn’t true. Resistance to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s presence had been growing steadily throughout 2005 and 2006, and local leaders had begun both developing resistance movements and reaching out to Coalition forces for help before the surge. But al-Qaeda in Iraq had responded with fearsome brutality that greatly slowed and restricted the speed and scope of the movement. American forces in Ramadi in 2006 fought hard to establish the preconditions in the city for a clearing operation that would make possible the dramatic turn of the tribes in 2007, but they were not able to conduct that operation until reinforcements arrived with the surge. The exponential expansion of the Awakening movement — and particularly its spread to areas outside of Anbar that had shown no inclination to resist al-Qaeda before the surge — is testimony to the synergy between these two phenomena.

The violence in Iraq has fallen not because of the surge’s success, but because of its failure: sectarian violence is down only because the sectarian cleansing has largely been completed.

‐ This argument doesn’t even work from 6,000 miles away. There has been sectarian cleansing in and around Baghdad, but it has not resulted in homogeneous cities, let alone provinces, and it has not generated stable dividing lines between communities. Traditionally, Shia have dominated Sadr City, of course, as well as its various neighboring areas of Shaab, Ur, and much of 9 Nissan. Shia have also predominate in Khadimiya, west of the Tigris River, around an important Shia shrine there. Sunni have historically been the majority in the Mansour and Rashid Districts west of the river and in parts of Adhamiya to the east. The central areas of Karkh, Rusafa, and Karada have generally been mixed. This sectarian division of the city remains stable today — the Sunni are still in Adhamiya; Shia still in Khadimiya; the center of the city is still mixed; and there remain Shi’a enclaves in Rashid and Sunni enclaves in 9 Nissan. In other words, the river does not form a sectarian boundary, individual districts remain mixed, and there are plenty of sectarian edges to create the basis for sectarian fighting if anyone wanted to engage in it. The same is true in areas south and northeast of Baghdad, such as the former “triangle of death” (that is now a triangle of relative peace where Sunni and Shia both live) and up the Diyala River into Baquba, still a mixed city despite ferocious fighting in 2007. The completion of sectarian cleansing did not occur.

Violence fell only because Moqtada al Sadr ordered a unilateral cease-fire. But he’s as strong as ever and can and will end the relative calm at any moment that suits him.

‐ Sadr’s cease-fire has always been less of a free choice than many imagine. When the surge began, the Sadrist movement had seats in the Council of Representatives and a number of key ministries in the government. The government, despite his objections, developed the Baghdad Security Plan in conjunction with the U.S. forces stationed there. From that point on, Sadr faced a dilemma — if he called on his people to fight the U.S. and Iraqi forces executing the government’s plan, he was casting himself explicitly outside the Iraqi political system and relying on his military abilities to prevail. Since his last effort to rely on force (the uprising of 2004) had been a disaster for him and his fighters, Sadr was not attracted to this option. But the alternative of continuing to play a role in Iraqi politics required that he at least nominally accept the government’s decision and at least nominally order his followers to comply. Since the Maliki government has held firm to its original intent and decision, Sadr has never been able to escape from this dilemma. But his reaction in January 2007 created yet another dilemma for him. Coalition and Iraqi forces began to attack elements of the Jaysh al Mahdi and affiliated Special Groups that were continuing to fight — Sadr declared that any such JAM groups were “rogue elements” violating his orders. As U.S. forces moved into Baghdad’s neighborhoods, they gained visibility not only on these “rogue JAM” members, but also on the “regular JAM” leaders who were adhering to Sadr’s order. In addition to having to abandon any pretext of participating in Iraqi politics if he ended the ceasefire, therefore, Sadr also had to face the likelihood that well-informed U.S. and ISF troops would take out his key leadership cadres the moment he ordered them to fight. And that is what happened when Maliki launched his offensive in Basra and JAM and Special Groups began to fight in Baghdad — which is one of the main reasons Sadr ordered his people again to stand down.

The degree of Sadr’s influence and power — even of his control over his own movement — is increasingly open to question, but his ability to make Shi’a Iraq explode at will appears to be substantially diminished. One need only think back to the bad days of 2004, when U.S. forces had to clear Sadrist fighters methodically from around the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf and it took an entire American Cavalry Division to subdue Sadr City with great loss to see that the most recent combat was not even a pale echo of that cataclysm.

Now that the Surge Is Ending, We’ll Be Right Back Where We Started

For those who believe the myths that the violence has dropped only because Sadr ordered a cease-fire and because the Americans have been “buying” the Sunni insurgents with arms and money, this talking point makes sense. The repeated assertion that American troops are “arming” Sunni militias is flatly untrue, as the military command and independent observers have stated repeatedly. One of the defining characteristics of an insurgent is that he is armed — at all events, one usually doesn’t have to worry too much about unarmed insurgents. To the extent that U.S. forces are bringing former insurgents into the “Sons of Iraq” movement, the one thing we don’t need to do is arm them — and we don’t. As for paying them, we do, and we should continue to do so. But the tribes in Anbar and elsewhere did not turn to us because we offered them money. They turned to us because they knew that if they continued to fight us we’d kill them. We started to pay them only after they turned, and this continues to be the sequence of events as the movement spreads — first they abandon the insurgency, then they are vetted and some are paid, but none are armed.

The worst flaw in this argument, however, is that it naively assumes that the situation in Iraq today is the same as it was in January 2007 apart from the temporary increase in U.S. forces and the (supposedly) temporary drop in violence. In fact, the situation has changed profoundly both in the provinces and in Baghdad itself, where the central government has made remarkable progress even on the “benchmarks” that Congress set for it last year. It is conceivable that the Sunni Arab community could again become so disenchanted with or frightened of the Shia-dominated government that it took up arms against it (although it is much harder to see how or why that community would start to attack Americans again, unless we do something egregiously stupid), but the resulting insurgency will not be the same one that we have already defeated. New power blocs, new political organizations, new social movements have changed the dynamic within the Sunni community, and a similar phenomenon is also occurring in the Shia community. We can’t say with certainty that current positive trendlines will hold, but we can say with a lot of confidence that, if they don’t, we’ll see something new and not just a return to the problems we had before the surge. In other words, we have defeated the Sunni Arab insurgency we faced, and we are on the road to defeating al-Qaeda, which suggests that broader success is possible with those foes out of the way.

We Should Never Have Fought this War in the First Place

There are no do-overs in the real world. Deciding that we made a mistake in 2003 or that we don’t like what has happened in the intervening five years does not make it possible to hit some global rewind button and start again from scratch. Historians and partisans will debate the merits of the decision to invade, the nature of the invasion, post-war planning, weapons of mass destruction, the legality of the operation, and many other things for decades. But George W. Bush is not running for president in 2008, nor is Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. Senators McCain and Clinton both voted to authorize the use of force in 2003; Senator Obama had an opinion then but not a vote. Today it just simply doesn’t matter who was right. What matters is what we should do now, in the current situation, to advance our interests and ensure our security. The American people will make the 2008 election another referendum on George Bush’s 2003 decision-making at their great peril. For those who want to judge the candidates’ judgment, their predictions about the likely results of the surge — when all three candidates had the same information available and the same rights to speak and vote — are more informative than their attitudes toward the invasion. And for those who want to apply a “commander-in-chief test,” the coming days will see all three presidential candidates take a report in their official senatorial capacities from the overall commander of the war and the ambassador. Let’s see who’s willing to listen to and accept reporting and recommendations from a military commander that conflicts with their own positions and who isn’t.

Iraq Is a Distraction from the Real War on Terror

Is it? Let’s see what al-Qaeda leaders have had to say. (For more detail, see “Iraq: The Way Ahead,” Phase IV Report of the Iraq Planning Group at AEI).

At the end of March 2007, al-Qaeda senior leader Abu Yahya al Libi declared:

My brothers, the jihad fighters in Iraq, today you are the avant-garde, the vanguard of the caravan; you are on the front-lines, and there will be implications to your victory. Therefore, strengthen the attack and fortify your determination. . . . and know that your [Islamic] nation in its entirety stands behind you. . . . Do not let it down. Your glorious war is not the jihad of the Iraqi people alone, nor of one group or sect. It is the jihad of all the Islamic nation. . . . Oh jihad-fighting brothers, today you are at the crossroads, since your occupying enemy is showing signs of breakdown and defeat in the military arena. . . . [and the enemy] knows well that it has lost the battle.

By the end of last year, al-Qaeda’s tone was not remotely as optimistic. In a December 2007 address, Osama bin Laden declared that

when America was stopped by its army’s inability, it increased its political and media activity to trick the Muslims. It sought to seduce the tribes by buying their favors by creating damaging councils under the name of the ‘Awakenings,’ as they claimed them to be. . . . What is unfortunate is that groups and tribes that belong to people of knowledge and the call and Jihad are participating in this great betrayal, and have confused right with wrong, and people have seen these groups cooperate directly with the Americans, like the leader of the so-called ‘Islamic Party,’ as he publicly called for longterm security agreements with America.”

Bin Laden added that Zarqawi

and his brothers have already helped to thwart these people and stop their advance and expose them. But instead of supporting them, you [the Sunni insurgents who joined Awakenings] turned against them and stopped the Mujahideen from attacking these people, dividing the fighting into two parts. Fighting against the Americans alone is honorable resistance, but fighting these apostate groups and the members of the [Iraqi] police and army, who are the supporters of America and the tools of its occupation of Iraq and the killing of its free people, has become for you a dishonorable resistance of which you wash your hands. These divisions were not laid down by Allah, and the Prophet . . . used to fight his own tribesmen who were from Quraish, for religion trumps blood, and not race nor nation. . . . I remind my precious Muslim Ummah that there are many lessons in what has pas[sed], so stop playing around and become alert for the matter is dangerous. Where are you heading?! What are you waiting for?!(Translation from the SITE Intel Group).

A posting on an al-Qaeda forum in February 2008 presented a similar message even more strongly:

Brothers, the truth is that I admire the intelligence of the present Crusader, General Petraeus, for through his intelligence and cleverness he was able to achieve in one month what his colleagues couldn’t achieve in five years. . . . After the sly Petraeus became in charge, he started to play his game with us unfairly. We established the Islamic State of Iraq, so he established the Awakening Council to fight it by the method of guerilla warfare, and they started setting up booby traps for the Mujahideen and detonated the explosive packages on them. Al-Furqan Media Foundation was formed, so he established a media council to defame the S[t]ate and to erase it media productions.”

This posting went on to address proper al-Qaeda responses to the new American tactics and strategy, beginning with “Possess weapons of mass destruction as a mean[s] to the balance of terrorizing” and “Carry out a counter attack in the depth of the enemy’s land with great accuracy” as well as “build strong and very modern trenches.” (Translation from the SITE Intel Group).

Is there really any question about whether or not al-Qaeda in Iraq is part of the global al-Qaeda movement? Considering, then, that there are very few and very small al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, that al-Qaeda in South Asia is mostly in Pakistan, and that none of those insisting that the U.S. abandon Iraq to fight the “real” enemy in Afghanistan have proposed any meaningful plans for dealing with Chitral and Waziristan where that “real” enemy actually is — considering, finally, that the one place American soldiers are actually fighting al-Qaeda every day and decisively winning is Iraq, how, exactly, is Iraq a distraction from the war on terror? This is the war, and we’re winning it. Let’s not decide that we’d rather lose.

– Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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