In the Arena

How to Look at Iraq

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Many readers of Swampland would probably disagree with Michael Yon’s position on Iraq, but he has been on the ground, in the line of fire for 18 months and his reports about the hard work and occasional successes of U.S. troops have to be respected. What Yon is seeing now–what I also saw in Iraq, what Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack also saw–is a significant turn of the Sunni population against Islamic extremists. This development is undeniable and encouraging. It points to the difficulty that Salafists are going to have in trying to control the “street” in other Islamic nations: most Muslims are not radical. They like to listen to music, smoke, watch television. They don’t believe their children should aspire to blowing themselves apart in the service of a religious perversion.

But this development doesn’t mean what Bill Kristol and other Iraq war cheerleaders think it does–a step toward “victory” in Iraq. In fact, Kristol is willfully misleading: The U.S. military and the Sunni tribes could drive every last foriegn jihadi out of the country and Iraq would still be in the midst of a deep and profound crisis that might spread into a regional war of Sunnis v. Shi’ites or, more likely, a tribal war of all against all within Iraq.

I am making two assumptions here:
First, I agree with the prevailing analysis of the U.S. intelligence community–an analysis people like Kristol studiously ignore–that the Nuri al-Maliki’s national unity government is a complete failure, that there is no immediate prospect of political reconciliation.
Second, that “soft” partition plans like the one offered by Joe Biden and Les Gelb will founder on the notion that Baghdad can stand as a “federal” city. It won’t. It will be an ethnically cleansed Shi’ite city before long, probably controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, the actual questions facing us are these:
Is there any role we can play in alleviating the coming internecine Iraqi chaos? (My guess is, not much of one…although a U.S. military drawdown, starting now, might induce some sobriety on the part of the various Iraqi factions.)
Is there any danger that the Iraqi chaos will spill the country’s borders and become regional? (Yes, of course, but not necessarily the broad regional cataclysm that people like John McCain posit.)
Is there anything we can do to limit the possibility of regional conflict? (Yes, but the good we can do is mostly diplomatic, not military.)
Is there anything left for our military to do in Iraq? (Yes, continue to press the case against the jihadis. But that can be done with far fewer troops.)

Anyone who says “victory” is possible in Iraq is lying to you. Anyone who says, as Bill Richardson does, that we can and should pull all our forces out by the end of the year is also not telling the truth. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to limit the damage, as we leave, and leave carefully, intelligently, calibrating every step (which means no public timetables or end dates).