Is Iraq Winnable?

In a recent Slate article, Christopher Hitchens lays into James Baker, head of the Iraq Study Group. Hitchens: “Baker was quoted as saying, with great self-satisfaction, that nobody ever asks him any more about the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power in 1991.”

In 1991, for those who keep insisting on the importance of sending

enough troops, there were half a million already-triumphant Allied soldiers on the scene. Iraq was stuffed with weapons of mass destruction, just waiting to be discovered by the inspectors of UNSCOM. The mass graves were fresh. The strength of sectarian militias was slight. The influence of Iran, still recovering from the devastating aggression of Saddam Hussein, was limited. Syria was—let's give Baker his due—”on side.” The Iraqi Baathists were demoralized by the sheer speed and ignominy of their eviction from Kuwait and completely isolated even from their usual protectors in Moscow, Paris, and Beijing. There would never have been a better opportunity to “address the cause” and to remove a dictator who was a permanent menace to his subjects, his neighbors, and the world beyond. Instead, he was

shamefully confirmed in power and a miserable 12-year period of sanctions helped him to enrich himself and to create the immiserated, uneducated, unemployed underclass that is now one of the “root causes” of a new social breakdown in Iraq. It seems a bit much that the man principally responsible for all this should be so pleased with himself and that he should be hailed on all sides as the very model of the statesmanship we now need.

Whether or not you were in favor of toppling Saddam, the fact is: he’s gone and we’re there. So, the question now is: can we win? Can the U.S. and coalition forces quell sectarian violence enough for the fledgling Iraqi government to establish and maintain peace?

It seems that the newly elected Democrat House and Senate, and very likely, the Bush administration, are eagerly awaiting the recommendations of the ISG, which is expected to call for regional diplomacy (read that: negotiations with Iran and Syria). I wonder, though, what they hope to gain from such negotiations. Does anyone really think that Iran or Syria is interested in assisting the West; that they’ll suddenly tolerate liberalism and modernity and how to save money on car repairs allow Iraq become the “democracy” that Bush envisions?

  • mike

    My thoughts on the matter are here:

    Suffice to say that I’m no fan of Baker or his realist clan. My soundbite on the matter is that the guy who was responsible for the Taif Accords and the 15 years of Syrian terror that followed in Lebanon and the failure to pursue Saddam, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and the 12 years of sanctions that followed that is now in the driver’s seat of our foreign policy.

    To be a bit more specific, my gut feeling on the ISG is that both parties are looking for a way out. Bush just wants the Iraq “problem” to be over so the party will be strong in ’08 and the Dems want a way to be able to join the “fight,” so to speak, without having to renounce their bleating about “no war for oil, U.S. troops out now, blah blah blah.”

    The Baker plan will offer exactly what everyone is looking for. Talk to Syria and Iran, get them to help shut down the supply lines for the insurgency and help quell the most strident among those advocating sectarian strife (Syria with the Sunnis, Iran with the Shi’ites). Of course, this gives our two biggest adversaries the ability to control the fate of Iraq, but that’s irrelevant. Everyone just wants the Iraq “thing” to be over, so once the sectarian strife is quelled sufficiently, we’ll declare “victory” and withdraw our troops, leaving a half-assed Iraqi security structure to try and defend the government. And when Iran and/or Syria decide to stir up trouble again, we’ll be able to wash our hands of it.

    Of course, the sad truth is that if that transpires, it’s a textbook case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory which happens all too often in counter-insurgency actions. All we need to do is to up the number of troops that are training Iraqi security forces and continue to provide logistical and air support and we will eventually “win” in the sense that we can honestly hand the country over to the Iraqi government. In order to do that, though, there needs to be political top cover, which as I’ve pointed out, is severely lacking.