Achieving 'Total Victory' in an Unwinnable War

"So long as I am President, we will stay, we will fight and we will win the war on terrorism," President Bush recently declared. "I made a decision. America will not wait to be attacked again," he added. "We will confront emerging threats before they fully materialize."

These comments, made to an audience of Idaho National Guardsmen, echoed rhetoric from a day earlier before a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which Bush underscored the foundation of his strategy for Iraq: "We will accept nothing less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology."

These are noble words, uttered at a time of increasing difficulty for a President beleaguered at home, where a groundswell of anti-war sentiment has driven his popularity ratings to an all-time low, and in Iraq, where the process of Iraqi self-governance has proved incapable of producing a viable constitution. At the same time, an increase in the intensity of the ongoing insurgency in Iraq has taken a marked toll on Americans and Iraqis alike.

But the fact is, noble words void of a coherent strategy to achieve the stated goals accomplish nothing more than to continue to propel the United States, together with Iraq, down the path of collective chaos, devastation and ruin.

While one may argue (as I have vociferously over the past years) that the Iraq under Saddam Hussein had nothing whatsoever to do with the forces of Osama Bin Laden and the radical form of Islam embraced by his Al Qaeda movement (the group that actually perpetrated the attack against America on September 11, 2001), the reality is that this logic is moot today. As we speak, conditions are devolving inside Iraq. This is conducive to the emergence of a training ground and recruitment base for Al Qaeda that will make pre-September 2001 Afghanistan look like a child's playground.

If President Bush wants to add substance to his rhetoric, then he must first be willing to re-evaluate, in its totality, where the United States is going vis-à-vis Iraq and the entire Middle East. The politics of regional transformation, so boldly underscored with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent removal from power of Saddam Hussein, have floundered catastrophically inside Iraq before they could be applied to other targeted regimes in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. As an antidote for the festering that produced the anti-American sentiment that Osama Bin Laden and others feed off of, the goal of imposing democracy on the region has backfired.

Today, the policies of the Bush administration have bred far more terrorists than have been eliminated, and the world, including the United States and its allies, is a much more dangerous place to live. The attacks in Madrid and London should leave no doubt in anyone's mind that there is a direct correlation between the American-led invasion of Iraq and the decision by Al Qaeda to strike those two European cities.

The failure of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to ratify a constitution worthy of the name provides the Bush administration with a unique opportunity to shift gears in Iraq and the Middle East. It allows for the achievement of stability inside Iraq, and as a result, a meaningful reduction in the ability of anti-American terrorists to recruit and train followers to wage Jihad in Iraq and abroad.

Rather than continuing to reinforce failure by supporting a fatally flawed process, the Bush administration should allow the current government in power in Baghdad to collapse, walk away from the policy of direct meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq, and seek a more nuanced approach to achieving stability inside Iraq through a strategic shift in overall American policy in the Middle East as a whole.

The key reasoning behind the impetus for a radical departure from the current policy is the reality that the Bush administration has gotten it fundamentally wrong regarding Iraq from the very beginning, and as such lacks a foundation upon which to build any lasting achievements in that troubled nation. In its rush to achieve regime change in Iraq, the Bush administration disregarded years of expert opinion, which held that before one seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power, one had better have a good idea about who or what will rule in his place.

Instead, policy formulators acted on ideologically-driven revisionism that held that an invading American military would be greeted by "song and flowers," and that Western-style democracy could flourish in Iraq, despite centuries of historical grievances among those who populate that country. This ideologically-motivated theory deviated so far from reality that the damage incurred by the Bush administration in trying to force an outcome is irreparable.

The list of mistakes made by the Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq is long and noteworthy, starting with dismantling the Iraqi army and internal security apparatus, and dissolving and disenfranchising the Ba'ath Party. By removing the infrastructure of security and stability while simultaneously eliminating the sole source of self-governance available to the Iraqi people, and failing to replace either with anything of substance, the Bush administration sowed the seeds of its own post-invasion doom. The U.S. military forces occupying Iraq were too few in number to provide for the day-to-day security of the Iraqi people, let alone hold a fragile nation-state together once the glue of Saddam and the Ba'athist Party had been removed.

The combined arrogance and ignorance of the Coalition Provisional Authority as led by Paul Bremmer was staggering. Independence-minded Kurds and theocratically-inclined Shi'as were coddled, while the secular Sunni center of Iraq, the only ethnic group possessing a true national vision for a modern Iraq, had war declared on them. In order to survive, the Sunni of Iraq were forced to fall back on their tribal roots, further crippling any chance that might have existed to cobble together a post-Saddam state capable of standing on its own two feet.

The growing, Sunni-based insurgency only reinforced the tendency among the American occupiers to accede to the desires of the Kurds and Shi'as regarding the post-Saddam expansion of their respective power bases. This deepened fractures in Iraqi society that were only solidified in the election of January 2005. Iraqi voters, participating in a process that promised them the dream of representative democracy, instead empowered a handful of Kurdish and Shi'a elites who had nothing in common with the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the people they allegedly represented.

The continued interference by the United States in matters of internal governance has only exacerbated the situation. From drafting "transitional law" that kept the final say on domestic matters of importance firmly in the hands of the American occupying authority, to its ongoing intervention in matters pertaining to a new Iraqi constitution, the Bush administration has done everything in its power to shape the course of domestic events in Iraq, with disastrous results. The incompetence of American meddling in Iraqi internal affairs all but guarantees that civil war will break out in Iraq. This new phase of the post-invasion conflict in Iraq will be bloody not only for the people of Iraq, but also for the American and coalition forces caught in the middle.

When speaking from the perspective of an illegitimate occupier (which is, unfortunately, the status enjoyed by the United States in Iraq today), there can be no "winning" this kind of conflict. The best one can hope for is to mitigate the damage that will be inflicted.

The harsh reality is that if left to run its own course, a civil war in Iraq would result in a hard-line, radical Islamic mini-state in southern Iraq, with extremely close ties with Iran; a Kurdish state in the North engaged in its own internal civil war between rival factions; and Baghdad reduced to a modern-day Beirut, divided into fortified Shi'a and Sunni communities at war with one another. It would all be "governed" by a weak central authority lacking the means to effect any meaningful change.

Worst of all, from the American perspective, is that the Sunni population of Iraq, disenfranchised and impoverished, would be compelled to embrace radical Islam, providing a perfect recruiting and training ground for the forces of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

This is the future of Iraq should the Bush administration continue to "stay the course," as the President recently promised to do. There is no elegant solution to offer up as an alternative. The fact is, the number-one threat faced by the United States from Iraq today is the creation of a lawless, non-state entity among the Iraqi Sunni that serves to feed a regional and global anti-American Jihad.

The current policy of the Bush administration -- advocating a "winnable" strategy in Iraq that involves keeping American forces in that country -- virtually assures such an outcome. What is required to avoid it is a policy that empowers the secular Sunni of Iraq and minimizes the influence of those who promulgate either Kurdish independence or Shi'a theocracy.

The United States needs to disengage from trying to resolve the problems of post-Saddam Iraq through internal interference, and instead fall back to a posture that uses external forces to shape events in a manner that mitigates against anything that facilitates the expansion of an Al Qaeda recruitment base in Iraq.

American relations with Turkey should be revamped, centering our diplomacy within Europe on Turkish membership in the European Union while giving the Turks a green light to retard Kurdish independence movements both in Turkey and Iraq. America should foster increased ties between the Turkish government and secular Sunni elements inside Iraq in order to prevent the Kirkuk oil fields from being absorbed by any independence-minded Kurdish faction in Iraq. It is important that a semblance of Kurdish autonomy be preserved in Iraq, and expanded in Turkey, but the notion of a unified, independent Kurdistan must be quashed once and for all.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia should become the conduit of support, both financial and political, for a strong Sunni center in Iraq. American assistance -- material, fiscal and diplomatic -- should be filtered through these two governments, instead of being provided directly, so as to minimize the American footprint in Iraq. Relations with Syria should likewise be re-worked, trading American acceptance of the Ba'athist regime in Damascus for Syrian assistance in strengthening a secular Sunni presence in Iraq.

All of these initiatives must be implemented in conjunction with a rapid, yet phased withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq. A lasting ceasefire with the insurgents, combined with the strengthening of a secular Sunni base inside Iraq, can only happen without the presence of American and coalition forces inside Iraq.

Lastly, and more complicated, is the issue of Iran. The United States needs to stop confronting Iran about a non-existent nuclear weapons program, and accept as a reality the full-scope of the desired Iranian nuclear energy program, provided it is carried out in accordance with international law and carefully monitored by international inspectors. Lifting economic sanctions and fully recognizing the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iranian agreement to exerting a moderating influence on the Shi'a of Iraq, is the best possible hope for the United States in minimizing the spread of radical, anti-American Islam in the Middle East.

Such a policy would produce a strong, secular, Sunni-based government in Baghdad that 1) controls the borders of Iraq, its armed forces and its oil resources; 2) presides over an autonomous Kurdistan and Shi'a South where local governance, including matters of family and domestic law (enabling some form of Shari'a-based rule where desired), is left to the respective autonomous authority; 3) retains authority on national security and the economy. This represents the best deal the United States can hope for.

Gone would be any notion of a "transformed Middle East" imposed by America. In its stead would be a tenuous alliance of powers, in and around Iraq, united in the common goal of preserving political stability in order to benefit from the natural oil resources they control.

While there would be many hurdles in implementing such a radical new policy, the only real obstacle is American domestic politics, where political futures are tied to an aversion to admit mistakes regarding Iraq. President Bush could take the lead by being the first to acknowledge that events have not gone the way he had envisioned, and that a new approach is required in order to safeguard the security of the United States. The Democrats have failed to articulate any strategy regarding Iraq, other than to point a critical finger at Bush and the Republicans.

If the President had the courage to maneuver America into a new, winnable posture vis-à-vis Iraq and the Middle East, there would be nothing the Democrats could do except sit back and watch the President reap the political rewards for not merely doing what was politically expedient, but rather doing what was best for America. In this way, the President could give America a "total victory" in Iraq worthy of the name, and worthy of the sacrifices of so many brave Americans.


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