Insult to Injury in Iraq

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By Frederick W. Kagan
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It's been coming for a long time: the idea that fixing Iraq is the Iraqis' problem, not ours -- that we've done all we can and now it's up to them.

Such arguments have been latent in the Bush administration's Iraq strategy and explicit in Democratic critiques of that strategy for some time. Now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declared: "It's their country. . . . They're going to have to govern it, they're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."

The implication of these arguments is clear: The United States should prepare to leave Iraq, after which the Iraqis will work out their own troubles -- or they won't. In any event, we can no longer help them. This notion is wrong and morally contemptible, and it endangers American security around the world.

The current crisis in Iraq is no more just an Iraqi problem than it has ever been. The U.S. military destroyed Iraq's government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an "occupying force," thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order. And yet U.S. Central Command never actually made establishing order and security a priority. Its commander throughout the insurgency, Gen. John Abizaid, has instead repeatedly declared that America's role is primarily to train Iraqi forces to put down their own rebellion and maintain order.

By allowing violence and disorder to spread throughout the country, the Bush administration has broken faith with the Iraqi people and ignored its responsibilities. It has placed U.S. security in jeopardy by creating the preconditions for the sort of terrorist safe haven the president repeatedly warns about and by demonstrating that no ally can rely on America to be there when it counts.

A rapid U.S. withdrawal would lead to catastrophe in Iraq. The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers -- the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around. The fact that large numbers of U.S. troops are not embedded with the Iraqi police is a main reason for the participation of those forces in the killings. When the U.S. troops go, the Iraqi army will probably go the same way.

Nor is there any likelihood that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to simultaneously accomplish all the tasks now demanded of him, especially without American help. These include reforming the Interior Ministry and the police, disarming Shiite militias, fighting Sunni Arab insurgents, establishing functioning local and regional governments connected to the central government, and rooting out corruption. What are his chances if U.S. forces leave, sectarian violence rises and Iraqis grow ever more pessimistic about the success of their democratic experiment?

Americans believe that all problems are soluble and therefore that people who aren't solving their problems must not be trying. They need to be "incentivized," either through promises or threats. Many on the left have long been advocating a withdrawal of U.S. forces, or the threat of it, as just such an incentive for the Iraqis. But what if even then Iraqis cannot accomplish the goals we have set for them? Can we then declare that, by establishing the Iraqi army and helping Iraq elect and establish its government, we have done all that honor requires?

No, we can't. Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance. It doesn't matter how many "trained and ready" Iraqi soldiers there are, nor how many provinces are nominally under Iraqi control. If America withdraws its forces before setting the conditions for the success of the Iraqi government, we will have failed in our mission and been defeated in the eyes of our enemies. We will have dishonored ourselves.

Our enemies watched the debacle in Somalia and drew conclusions: America is weak, unable to stomach even the smallest level of casualties and willing to lose rather than fight. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq changed the equation. Al-Qaeda leaders did not expect us to attack, and they regarded their unanticipated defeat as a catastrophe. Iran's leaders and North Korea's Kim Jong Il saw the invasion of Iraq as the first phase of an attack on the "axis of evil" and were fearful. But the protracted insurgency and the apparent weakening of U.S. will are emboldening them once again.

In 1991 the United States encouraged rebellions against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned to his inhuman vengeance the Kurds and Shiites who answered the call. That abandonment, still fresh in the minds of many Iraqis, is one reason for the suspicion with which the United States was greeted in 2003. What will happen if we abandon the progressive forces of Iraq once again with the hypocritical declaration that the resultant failure is their own fault? What reasonable moderate in the Muslim world -- or anywhere -- will ever again rely on America?

The comparison is often made between Iraq and Vietnam. One implication is that just as it was possible to lose Vietnam and still win the Cold War, so it is acceptable to lose Iraq. But in the Cold War, Vietnam was a sideshow. Iraq is in the heart of the Muslim world and at the center of the struggle against radical Islamism.

It is also worth keeping in mind that as indirect consequences of America's defeat in Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua and Ayatollah Khomeini seized Tehran and American hostages. The "decent interval" between our withdrawal and the collapse of South Vietnam didn't help. Neither will the implausible deniability the Pentagon is now trying to establish in Iraq.

Those who have criticized the administration for failing to send enough troops to fight the war, failing to plan adequately for the postwar crisis and failing to react properly when it came are right. But Democrats should not be so quick to embrace these attacks unless they are willing to accept the corollary: Just because Bush did the wrong thing in 2003 doesn't mean that we can do the wrong thing now.

The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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