There is an “Alice-in-Wonderland” quality to the current debate on Iraq. As the war became increasingly unpopular after 2003, the Bush administration took to arguing that we couldn’t leave because it wasn’t going well. We had a duty to hang in there and give the Iraqis a chance to get on their feet. Those of us who opposed the war argued from the beginning that none of the shifting rationales for war held water, and that our very presence in Iraq would exacerbate crisis and instability, and breed new terrorists.
Then came the SURGE. Compound the strain on the US military by adding some thousands of troops for a limited period, to try to stabilize the situation. General Petraeus said it would work, and, if one is to believe the mainstream media, it is working. Numbers of deadly incidents and casualties appear to be down, especially those involving Americans. Iraq is still a dangerous place for Iraqis, but much less so at the moment for Americans.
So, if we accept the Bush (and McCain) argument that things are now going well in Iraq, shouldn’t we start pulling the troops out? Oh, no, we couldn’t do that because things are going so well that we need to hang in there and finish the job.
Let me get this straight: we couldn’t leave before because the war was going badly, and we can’t leave now because it’s going well. Like McCain said, we could be there for 100 years, at an incalculable cost in lives and treasure. This for a war that did not involve our vital interests, distracts us from a more vital struggle in Afghanistan, and has rendered us less secure by stirring up new enemies.
If we reflect further, however, we will find that the image of incipient success is grossly distorted. First, to the extent that there is less violence in Iraq today, it is not clear that this resulted from the Surge. One major source of violence has been the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been militantly opposed to the American occupation, and beyond the control of Shiite sectors that have been working with the Americans. Neither the US authorities nor the Iraqi government have found the means to defeat him without alienating his mass base among poor, urban Shiites. Yet Sadr has chosen, for his own reasons, to order his followers to refrain from aggressive violence in recent months, notwithstanding provocations from both the government and US troops. While Sadr’s motivations are not entirely clear, it is clear that he wasn’t beaten by the Surge. We will hear from him again, and he won’t friendly to the US. His success benefits his patrons in the most radical sectors of the Iranian regime.
The second major sector of Iraqi society is the Sunni Arab minority. They were the main beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein, and from this group came his principal supporters. Sunnis were predictably hostile to a government controlled by the Shiite majority, and they furnished most of the recruits for al-Qaeda in Iraq and other resistance organizations. But increasing numbers of Sunnis have recently turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and begun organizing their communities to oppose the insurgency. This may be in part a result of slow and patient work by US and Iraqi military authorities, but more fundamentally it is a response to gross tactical errors by al-Qaeda itself. It is clearly not a result of the Surge. And, paradoxically, the more the Sunnis get organized, the better able will they be to oppose the Shiite-dominated national government and its American sponsors.
The third major part of Iraq are the Kurds. This northern region is not immune from violence, but it is the most stable part of the country. The political leadership worked willingly with the US authorities, and they provide key support for the national government. Yet their ultimate objective is independence, which would pose a threat not only to Iraq, but to neighboring countries that also have separatist Kurdish minorities (Turkey, Iran, and Syria). The greatest success story of the US occupation also poses the greatest threat to regional stability.
In short, the Surge has done nothing to resolve the inherent contradictions of a state that was created by the British almost a century ago, which can never achieve the organic unity that would make it a real nation. Our continued presence there cannot resolve this basic problem. It can only, sooner or later, provoke a renewal of violence.
Paradoxically, to the extent that the Iraqi government is successful in stabilizing itself and the country, it will insist on the departure of the US forces, because those forces undermine its legitimacy, making it appear a puppet of the US. Indeed, stabilization of the Iraqi government may only be possible once the Americans have left. So we will either be invited out by an ungrateful government, or we will have to leave to give it a chance to survive. It’s time to jump back through the looking glass and get real.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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