Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Cleaning Up Our Mess in Iraq

Via a comment on a Kevin Drum post, I came across a position paper by Carl Conetta called "400 Days and Out: A Strategy for Resolving the Iraq Impasse." As the title suggests, Conetta's article is a detailed plan for getting out of Iraq without leaving Iraqis stuck in a nightmare of our creation.

Conetta's exit strategy is very similar to Juan Cole's. First, Conetta says, you have to look at the Bush administration's mistakes (aside from invading Iraq in the first place). First and foremost, the goals were wrong. The White House wanted to reshape Iraq's political system, religious ideologies, and national identity to reflect American values -- not to turn Iraq into a democracy, but to ensure that Iraq would be a reliable and compliant ally. Those goals led to specific policy blunders: demobilizing the Iraqi army; firing tens of thousands of Iraqi civil servants; harshly punishing low-level members of the former Baathist government; and, in general, both discouraging Arab nationalism and underestimating the extent and importance of that nationalist feeling. Interestingly, Conetta does not mention sending too few troops as one of the fundamental mistakes the Bush administration made -- maybe because the insurgency might not have happened or would have been much milder if the underlying purposes of the invasion had not been so wrong-headed and ignorant.

With these policy blunders as a starting point, Conetta comes up with the following exit strategy:

  • The U.S. should declare unequivocally that it does not desire a permanent military presence in Iraq, even if it were asked to provide one. To my mind, this clearly means no permanent military bases. A phased troop withdrawal plan would accompany this announcement.
  • The focus of the military should change from offensive to defensive and all or most of the military's resources, time, and energy should go into training the Iraqi security forces -- meaningful training, with the right equipment and technology, and treating Iraqi police units as professionals who merit the same sleeping, eating, and safety accommodations as American soldiers do. This would serve the dual purpose of taking away much of the insurgency's support (because U.S. offensives like Fallujah and Najaf fueled anti-American feeling among Iraqis and increased support for the insurgency); and hastening the day when a fully trained Iraqi security force can protect their own country.
  • All sectors of Iraqi society should be brought into the political process and policies should be designed to enhance local control. In part, this means that broad-brush sanctioning of any Iraqi who was part of Saddam Hussein's regime or who might have been an insurgent, absent proof that he committed a crime, should be ended. In other words, judge people by what they do or have done, not by their identity, associations, or employment. Obviously, former Baathists and insurgents (especially leaders) who can be shown to have carried out attacks against civilians or who have committed war crimes should be punished.
  • Stop rattling sabers at Iran and Syria, calling them "evil," and threatening to invade them. Every country in that region has a legitimate interest in what happens to Iraq; and the U.S. will not be able to achieve anything positive in Iraq without the cooperation of those countries, and others. In fact, a major factor in the Bush administration's miserable failure in Iraq is the way it antagonized countries like Syria and Iran by using the Iraq invasion as a way of threatening Iraq's neighbors. I very much like Juan Cole's way of expressing this:

    For the sake of getting out of Iraq without a world-class economic disaster, the US will just have to deal with the real world, which contains Iran and Syria. The US is now a Middle Eastern Power, not just a New World one, and as such it needs to use Iraq's neighbors to calm their clients within Iraq. This goal cannot be achieved through simple intimidation, more especially since, with half of all fighting units bogged down in Iraq, the US is in no position to follow through on its threats and everyone knows it.

Juan Cole also makes some suggestions Conetta does not go into, although given the tenor of Conetta's piece, he would probably agree:

  • Withdraw U.S. troops from urban areas. They're a huge red flag, and the Iraqi police are in a much better position to deal with insurgent violence in crowded city neighborhoods. I see this as logically following from the idea that our military should stop launching offensives on insurgent strongholds and concentrate on defense and training the Iraqi police; but the extent to which U.S. tanks rumbling through crowded city streets has contributed to civilian deaths and anger toward Americans is important enough to mention specifically.
  • After U.S. troops are gone, help Iraqis build an armored tank corps and teach them how to use it. Juan notes this hasn't been done up to now probably because Americans are afraid the tanks would be turned on them (which only shows, in my view, how much Americans are hated in Iraq). But once American military forces are out of Iraq, that threat is gone.
  • Get rid of the legal restriction, imposed by the Bush administration, that makes U.S. reconstruction aid contingent on Iraqis giving first crack to U.S. companies and materials. This is a presumptuous law that fuels Iraqis' conviction that the Bush administration is using their resources to enrich Americans. Iraqi firms should get the reconstruction money, so it can go directly into the Iraqi economy.

No one should expect miracles; but there's a better chance of averting full-scale civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide if we stay in Iraq long enough to carry out a plan like this than there is if we cut and run. Even more to the point, in a situation where the United States has so much harm and misery to answer for, we will be in a better moral and ethical position if we can tell ourselves we tried our best to acknowledge and atone for our sins against Iraqis.

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