The 'Blame The Iraqis' Gambit

By Robert Kagan
Sunday, June 3, 2007

When people want to justify the unjustifiable and accept the unacceptable, they try all kinds of ways to make themselves feel better about their decision. For those who want to pull out of Iraq, there is a whole panoply of excuses:

"Bush lied us into war" is the favorite of many Democrats, including presidential candidates who supported the war but now want to claim they were misled. "Bush screwed up the war" is the favorite of people such as me and others who argued from the beginning for more troops and a different military strategy and were told to shut up by folks in the Pentagon and the White House.

Both of these excuses have the same problem. No matter why we went into Iraq and no matter how badly we have fought the war up until recently, this tells us nothing about what to do now. It doesn't make withdrawal any less costly. It doesn't make an implosion in Iraq and a victory for al-Qaeda any more tolerable.

The same is true for what has now become the most powerful and pervasive excuse for pulling out of Iraq: "It's the Iraqis' fault." For Republican elected officials looking desperately for a way out of supporting a war that threatens their reelection, this has become not only the preferred excuse but also a necessary psychological crutch.

For these Republicans, even more than for Democrats, blaming the Iraqis solves a number of big problems. It absolves them of having supported the war in the first place. We were right to go to war, they will say, and we gave it our best shot. It isn't our fault if the Iraqis were unable or unwilling to do their part.

Blaming the Iraqis also allows Republicans to acquiesce in defeat without having to acknowledge that it is an American defeat. We didn't fail, the Iraqis did. And blaming the Iraqis clears the American conscience. We got rid of Saddam Hussein, Republicans will say. The rest was up to them, and they failed. The more sophisticated will declare that the Iraqis were culturally destined to fail.

As with any good cover story, there is just enough truth in this one to sell it to those who need an excuse. The Iraqi government has been a disappointment. Sunni and Shiite leaders don't have an easy time compromising with one another, as opposed to, say, Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Sectarian killings continue.

It is what's wrong with this story, however, that makes it so irresponsible. The fact is that, contrary to so many predictions, Iraq has not descended into civil war. Political bargaining continues. Signs of life are returning to Baghdad and elsewhere. Many Sunnis are fighting al-Qaeda terrorist groups, not their Shiite neighbors. And sectarian violence is down by about 50 percent since December.

By far the biggest problem, and the source of most of the violence reported every day, has been al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda's strategy is to foment sectarian violence by killing both Shiites and Sunnis. How come? If sectarian violence were out of control already, why would al-Qaeda have to stir it up? In fact, it is precisely fear that things will calm down in Iraq that has al-Qaeda working overtime to blow things and people up.

Al-Qaeda's penetration in Iraq is not the fault of the Iraqis, some of whom are mustering the extraordinary courage to fight back. Nor are the Iraqi people to blame for al-Qaeda-manufactured car bombs that go off in markets where Sunnis and Shiites are shopping together. According to Gen. David Petraeus, upward of 80 percent of the suicide bombers are not Iraqis. Al-Qaeda's inhuman violence, including the use of small children as "suicide" bombs, cannot be written off as just part of that whole Iraqi cultural thing, however convenient that might be for the American conscience. As for the United States, if we are driven out of Iraq, it will be by al-Qaeda, not by the flaws of the Iraqi people.

There is another problem with the cover story. We didn't intervene in Iraq primarily to save the Iraqi people. We went in mostly for reasons of our own, to protect our interests and our allies from the menace of a serial aggressor whose domestic repression was of a piece with his desire for regional domination. And now that we are in Iraq, the United States, not just the Iraqi people, will suffer the consequences of our failure. If Iraq implodes, if the region explodes, if al-Qaeda gains a victory and a foothold in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, it will be our interests that have suffered.

Republican leaders think they're being clever in saying that if there is no progress by September, or by the end of 2008, we will have to wash our hands of the whole mess. That's nonsense. Defeat will be no more tolerable in January 2009 than it is now. And it won't matter whom we try to blame.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post. He has been advising John McCain's presidential campaign on an informal and unpaid basis.


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