Iraq: staying or going

US soldiers in Iraq, MAy 2005 (picture US Dept of Defense)
The report from the Iraq Study Group that was published last week (read it here) bookends a rather inglorious period in American foreign policy. The era of policy-making by the neo-cons (using the term, as Alberto Majocchi insists, in its English meaning rather than in the French sense) was opened by the so-called National Security Strategy of September 2002 (which you can read here), and this Iraq report brings it to a close.

The ambition in the National Security Strategy was manifest: the world was riven by a struggle between freedom on the one hand and terrorism on the other. The United States had the mission of challenging and confronting terrorism wherever it was found. Chapter 2 of the strategy opens with this quote from President Bush:

“Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities.”

The ISG report takes a very different approach, all because of Iraq.

The NSS was published as part of the build-up to war, attempting to place the promised invasion (promised, that is, by the arch-hawks in the Bush administration) in a wider ideological context. That war has led to very different circumstances, where the methods and even the moralities are now changing. The assumption all the way through the NSS is that there are no effective limits to American military power: the insurgents in Baghdad, Fallujah and elsewhere prove that assumption wrong.

Given that the Americans are unable to win the war in Iraq, the ISG report searches for a way out. Different commentators have drawn different conclusions from the ISG proposals, but if the two options before the Congressional elections last month were “stay the course” and “cut and run”, I think the ISG is suggesting staying rather than going.

True, they want to end the presence of American soldiers in the front line of combat by the first quarter of 2008, but they see also the need to increase substantially the number of troops embedded in the Iraqi army, along with substantially increased military and civilian aid for the Iraqi government. Niall Ferguson, in his book “Colossus”, suggests that the Americans need to come to terms with the fact that they have acquired an empire and need to govern it accordingly: while not using that language, the ISG essentially agrees. It is noted that, of the more than 1,000 staff at the US embassy in Baghdad, only 33 people speak any Arabic and only six are fluent. The report calls for “professional language proficiency and cultural training” to have “the highest possible priority”. That sounds like staying the course to me.

They choose this course of action, grim as it may be, because the alternative is worse. The consequences of a rushed withdrawal from Iraq could be, they fear, the collapse of the entire country, sucking in Iraq’s neighbours to try and look after their own interests in the ensuing anarchy. They don’t say this, but the parallel with Indochina is not the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 but the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. American military intervention smashed the institutions of a state and nothing was done to put anything back afterwards. A truly terrifying prospect: no wonder the Americans don’t want to leave in a hurry.

However, this commitment to stay also leaves them stuck, for they are dependent on the Iraqi government if there is to be any progress. The administration is corrupt, incompetent and divided. Funds for reconstruction cannot – we already know – be properly accounted for; this report notes that the red tape needed to fight corruption prevents money from being transferred to where it is needed. Each government ministry has its own armed militia (the Facilities Protection Service) to guard, in theory, its own buildings, but to guard, in practice, its own minister’s interests. No wonder the country is dominated by armed gangs: they are funded by the very government itself.

The ISG report demands change on the part of the Iraqi government itself, but they are rather short of means to deliver change. The more they say, to the American people, that it is important not to abandon Iraq in a hurry, the less they can say to the Iraqi government that they might. The heart of the problem is that the ISG has two audiences: a domestic audience in the United States, and a foreign audience in Iraq. The NSS was based on the assumption that these two audiences had the same interests: the debacle in Iraq proves that they don’t.

In terms of the consequences for American strategy as a result of this report,

American strategy will be turned upside down, of course, if this report is implemented. The invasion of Iraq was based on the assumption that American power was sufficient and would prevail. Indeed, Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 suggested that being able to win was a necessary precondition for a war being justified in the first place. The occupation of Iraq shows that this assumption is not true. (In fact, concern for the morale and fitness of the US armed forces is one of the major concerns of the ISG and several of its proposals are geared specifically to this end.)

Having proceeded on the basis that America could reshape Iraq and the wider Middle East on its own, the suggestion now is that America needs the help of the wider Middle East in order to preserve anything resembling civil order in Iraq. In particular, Syria is offered the return of the Golan Heights and Iran recognition of its theocratic style of government in return for cooperation. The reports suggests an incentive for Iran in the form of “The prospect of a US policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of (as Iran now perceives it) advocating regime change.” An end to muscular Christianity, no less.

It would be wrong to jump too far ahead, though. This is not yet a change in policy, but rather a proposal for a change in policy. No doubt George W Bush will try to avoid adopting this report in full – there is a patronising tone in places, dictating what the president himself should do personally – but it is hard to see how he can avoid following most of it. It is clear that Iraq’s neighbours are deeply involved in Iraqi politics now – their interests are at stake, how can they not? – and so any settlement is going to depend on their involvement. From having refused to deal with Iran and Syria, George W Bush will become dependent on them.

The original complaint about Saddam Hussein was that he was a threat to the whole region. It should not be a surprise then that to replace him requires a regional solution.

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