Friday, October 20, 2006

Plan B

By Eliot A. Cohen
Wall Street Journal
October 20, 2006

That the Iraq war is, if not a failure, failing, requires little demonstration. By all measures -- but above all, the sheer insecurity of daily life in Baghdad -- things have been getting worse, not better. Yes, there are islands of security and stability, particularly in the Kurdish north; but the communal violence between Sunni and Shia has gotten worse. The Iraqi army has improved, but the police, consigned to secondary relevance by the U.S., are penetrated by militias. Iranian influence spreads, and Iranian-designed and -manufactured improvised explosive devices inflict higher tolls on American troops. With an eye to the forthcoming American elections, the enemy is ratcheting up the violence, and successfully.

It will be important in future years to settle whether the Iraq war was the right idea badly executed, an enterprise doomed to disappoint, or simply folly. There will be individuals to be held accountable (not all of whom have been in the crosshairs of journalists and partisans), and institutions whose shortcomings require not only soul-searching but reform. That's for later. The question now is, what should we do?

The current course -- Plan A -- involves an open-ended commitment of some 130,000 or 140,000 soldiers, with temporary surges during periods of crisis. Its theory of victory seems to be that American support, nagging and cajoling can eventually bring the Iraqi security forces to maturity and gradually hand over responsibility to a democratically constituted, unitary Iraqi government. It is difficult to believe that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps -- filled with soldiers now doing their second or third tour in Iraq, including soldiers whose participation is enforced by "stop-loss" orders that keep them beyond their enlistments -- can sustain this indefinitely. The hairline cracks in the armed forces are there, and growing for those willing to see them. Public support for the war is dwindling, and most importantly, we are not only making no progress: Things are actively getting worse. So what are the alternatives?

Getting by with help from your enemies. It is bruited about in Washington that the Iraq Study Group, a collection of worthies commissioned by Congress that has spent several days in Iraq, chiefly in the Green Zone, will recommend turning to Iran and Syria to, in effect, bail out the U.S. To think that either state, with remarkable records of violence, duplicity and hostility to the U.S., will rescue us bespeaks a certain willful blindness. And to think that the Sunni states of the Arab world, much less Iraq's Sunni population, would welcome such a deal is more incredible yet. Syria is, as the Lebanon war and its earlier defense treaty with Iran demonstrated, now a client state of Iran. This option would in effect mean conceding dominance in the northern Gulf to that country; it would pave the way for more wars, and in no way guarantee us a clean exit.

Wash your hands. Simple withdrawal, with or without a timetable and surely under fire -- although American forces could probably cope with that -- would have the disadvantages of the first option, without the putative benefits. Iraq would almost surely become even more violent, with massacres of scores or even hundreds being replaced by massacres of thousands, and various regional powers straining to secure their own buffers and clients.

Double your bets. Conversely, the U.S. could react by reasserting its strength in Iraq -- sending an additional 30,000 or 40,000 troops to secure Baghdad and its environs, and making a far more strenuous effort than it has thus far to take control of the civilian ministries that are now merely fronts for political parties and their militias. But could American public opinion sustain this? More importantly, where would the soldiers come from? And has the strain on Iraqis' sense of national identity become so great that those institutions could be built?

Hunker down and let the fires burn. The U.S. military, at its current strength or something less, could, conceivably, simply retreat to its forward operating bases, do its best to train a neutral and effective military and police force, and allow communal violence to take its course. Over time, new demographic realities would emerge, as Sunnis and Shiites separate into different neighborhoods, while some minorities -- Christians, most notably -- simply flee the country. But would there be anything left once the massacres had stopped? And would they stop?

Back to counterinsurgency. One school has it that the U.S. should never have engaged directly in combat with Iraqi insurgents. Instead, it should have focused overwhelmingly on the training mission, retaining only enough combat units to rescue Iraqi forces (and their U.S. advisers) if they get in over their heads. To some extent this is already going on; but some have suggested much more radical reductions in the U.S. presence, down to 40,000 or 50,000 soldiers. The question is whether the levels of violence are so high, and the competence of the Iraqi forces so limited, that this has a chance of success. And what would be Plan C if it were to fail?

Let the generals have it. The Iraqi government is incompetent. Its ministries are viewed not as national institutions but as the playthings of competing parties and their bands of thugs. Yet Iraqi nationalism is real, and it is found where nationalism often is -- in the armed forces. A junta of military modernizers might be the only hope of a country whose democratic culture is weak, whose politicians are either corrupt or incapable. But what would then become of the American goal of democratization? And could the generals suppress the militias that have backing from abroad, and support in local communities?

Break it up. This option would have us concede the end of Iraq as a nation state. The precedents in the Middle East -- with the exceptions of Egypt and Iran, a collection of artificial entities produced by the highly fallible imaginations of British and French diplomats at the end of World War I -- are chilling. Presumably, population transfers on a large scale would be needed, although the problem of multiconfessional Baghdad would be particularly difficult. But it is hard to imagine that a formally independent Kurdistan would last long in the face of the hostility of all of its neighbors, or that the oil-deprived and landlocked Sunni state of western Iraq would be tranquil, or that the southern Shiastan would be able to resist Iranian penetration.

All of the options for Plan B are either wretched to contemplate or based on fantasy; the most plausible (the sixth option, a coup which we quietly endorse) would involve a substantial repast of crow that this administration will be deeply unwilling to eat. But it is not only the administration that can, and should, feel uncomfortable about the choices that lie ahead.

An honest debate about Iraq policy will require of all who participate in it to acknowledge some unpleasant facts. We must all admit, for example, that the enemy (or rather, enemies, of us and of one another) exercises a vote. We have not yet had a Tet offensive, but the experience of Hezbollah in the Lebanon war may well encourage the Shiite militias, particularly those influenced by Iran, to try something like it. Iran's influence is great, and will become greater. There will be considerable bloodshed ahead, but our choices, though they may not make it better, could make it a lot worse.

American prestige has taken a hard knock; it will probably take a harder knock, and in ways that will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road. The tides of Sunni salafism and Iran's distinct combination of messianism and power politics have not crested, and will not crest without much greater violence in which we too will be engaged. Whether it be the Islamization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the subversion of conservative regimes by salafist movements, or the continuing radicalization of European Muslims, the Long War, as the administration calls it, will be even longer, and more difficult, than anyone might have thought.

It is folly to think we can win in Iraq the way some of us thought possible in 2003. It would be even greater folly to think that by getting out, learning our lessons, and licking our wounds we can save ourselves from considerable danger, expense, effort and loss in what remains a protracted and global conflict with mortal enemies.

Mr. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

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