Monday, August 22, 2005

Juan Cole opposes US abandonment of Iraq

Juan Cole, the scholar of Islam who has also become a deservedly well-known analyst of Middle Eastern politics, just posted this important and usefully thought-provoking discussion. Cole isn't the only person who has made the kinds of arguments presented here, but they should command special attention coming from him (whether or not one ultimately agrees), since he's unusually thoughtful and knowledgeable about these issues ... he genuinely cares about the well-being of Iraqis (among others) ... and it's impossible to view him as an apologist for the Bush administration (which he loathes), a foreign-policy neo-conservative (ditto), or someone who indulges in wishful thinking in order to evade the very real and difficult dilemmas posed by Iraq.

As is often the case, I agree with Cole on most of the broad issues here, though not on all the details. (This goes back to our positions on the Iraq war in the first place. I was and remain convinced that the war was necessary and justified, given the realistically available alternatives. Cole explicitly "declined" to oppose the war, though he couldn't quite bring himself to support it either ... and he has argued on several occasions that military action to overthrow the Iraqi Ba'ath regime would have been absolutely and unambiguously justified if it had been carried out with UN authorization ... which I agree would have been preferable, along with Tony Blair and others, but which has never struck me as THE overriding moral or political consideration.) Some specific points in this discussion are more convincing than others, and there are a few passing remarks that I think are quite wrong (even, in a few cases, rubbish). But, overall, I think what he has to say here is right and important..

I may try to send out a message later today that spells all this out more fully. But in the meantime, let me just mention that Cole zeroes in on what I think is the crucial point:
Personally, I think "US out now" as a simple mantra neglects to consider the full range of possible disasters that could ensue.
For example:
People often allege that the US military isn't doing any good in Iraq and there is already a civil war. These people have never actually seen a civil war and do not appreciate the lid the US military is keeping on what could be a volcano. [....]

I mean, we are always complaining, and rightly so, about the genocide in Darfur and the inattention to genocides in Rwanda and the Congo earlier. Can we really live with ourselves if we cast Iraqis into such a maelstrom deliberately?

And as I have argued before, an Iraq civil war will likely become a regional war, drawing in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.
Cole also has some useful advice for people who mindlessly repeat the mantra "no blood for oil" as a substitute for serious thinking about the real issues at stake:
If a regional guerrilla war breaks out among Kurds, Turks, Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the guerrillas could well apply the technique of oil pipeline sabotage to Iran and Saudi Arabia, just as they do now to the Kirkuk pipeline in Iraq. If 20% of the world's petroleum production were taken off-line by such sabotage, the poor of the world would be badly hurt, and the whole world would risk another Great Depression.

People on the left often don't like it when I bring this scenario up, because they dislike oil; they read it as a variant of the "war for oil" thesis and reject it. But working people, whom we on the left are supposed to be supporting, get to work on buses, and buses burn gasoline. If the bus ticket doubles or triples, people who make $10,000 a year feel it. Moreover, if there is a depression, the janitors and other workers will be the first to be fired. As for the poor of the global South, this scenario would mean they are stuck in dire poverty for an extra generation. Do you know how expensive everything would be for Jamaicans, who import much of what they use and therefore are sensitive to the price of shipping fuel? It would be highly irresponsible to walk away from Iraq and let it fall into a genocidal civil war that left the Oil Gulf in flames.
=> With regard to Cole's practical suggestions ... some strike me as definitely on target, others as more problematic, but all are worth careful consideration. As another blogger whose name I won't mention likes to say, read the whole thing.

Yours for reality-based, politically serious, and morally responsible discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Since I am recommending and mostly endorsing this piece (with some qualifications I haven't yet laid out), I feel I ought to comment in passing on one of Cole's more ill-chosen remarks in this discussion. As Cole properly points out:
If there is a civil war now that kills a million people, with ethnic cleansing and millions of displaced persons, it will be our fault,
This is quite right, particularly if "we" now decide to declare failure prematurely and simply bail out ... and if this "we" includes all the other governments and publics that have refused and continue to refuse to do anything constructive to help Iraq reconstruct itself ... and especially those who actually endorse and support the so-called "insurgency" in Iraq.

But Cole then goes on to add:
or at least the fault of the 75% of Americans who supported the war.
This is unwarranted, factually and morally one-sided, and even a bit offensive. Aside from being quite wrong, pinning the blame exclusively on Americans who supported the Iraq war is also pernicious and counter-productive in terms of Cole's own concerns, if only because it lets everyone else--in the US and elsewhere--off the hook completely. I presume Cole wants to drive home the valid point that, in some respects, Americans now have a special responsibility not to abandon the Iraqis to catastrophe. (Though they are far from the only ones with this responsibility ... and in some ways governments that colluded with Saddam Hussein & his regime in the decade after the 1991 Gulf War, and that undermined any serious efforts to address the problems posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq up to the very end, also have their own special responsibilities to help address the long-term consequences of their actions.) But if Cole wanted to say this, he could have found a much better and less misleading way to do so.

============================
Juan Cole ("Informed Comment")
Monday, August 22, 2005
Ten Things Congress Could Demand from Bush on Iraq

The Washington Post notes that the Democratic Party is deeply divided between those who want US troops out now and those who fear the consequences and think it best to stay the course. The article might as well have noted that the Republicans are also divided on Iraq policy.

So the issue isn't a partisan one. It is an American one.

Personally, I think "US out now" as a simple mantra neglects to consider the full range of possible disasters that could ensue. For one thing, there would be an Iraq civil war. Iraq wasn't having a civil war in 2002. And although you could argue that what is going on now is a subterranean, unconventional civil war, it is not characterized by set piece battles and hundreds of people killed in a single battle, as was true in Lebanon in 1975-76, e.g. People often allege that the US military isn't doing any good in Iraq and there is already a civil war. These people have never actually seen a civil war and do not appreciate the lid the US military is keeping on what could be a volcano.

All it would take would be for Sunni Arab guerrillas to assassinate Grand Ayatollah Sistani. And, boom. If there is a civil war now that kills a million people, with ethnic cleansing and millions of displaced persons, it will be our fault, or at least the fault of the 75% of Americans who supported the war. (Such a scenario is entirely plausible. Look at Afghanistan. It was a similar-sized country with similar ethnic and ideological divisions. One million died 1979-1992, and five million were displaced. Moreover, all this helped get New York and the Pentagon blown up.)

I mean, we are always complaining, and rightly so, about the genocide in Darfur and the inattention to genocides in Rwanda and the Congo earlier. Can we really live with ourselves if we cast Iraqis into such a maelstrom deliberately?

And as I have argued before, an Iraq civil war will likely become a regional war, drawing in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. If a regional guerrilla war breaks out among Kurds, Turks, Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the guerrillas could well apply the technique of oil pipeline sabotage to Iran and Saudi Arabia, just as they do now to the Kirkuk pipeline in Iraq. If 20% of the world's petroleum production were taken off-line by such sabotage, the poor of the world would be badly hurt, and the whole world would risk another Great Depression.

People on the left often don't like it when I bring this scenario up, because they dislike oil; they read it as a variant of the "war for oil" thesis and reject it. But working people, whom we on the left are supposed to be supporting, get to work on buses, and buses burn gasoline. If the bus ticket doubles or triples, people who make $10,000 a year feel it. Moreover, if there is a depression, the janitors and other workers will be the first to be fired. As for the poor of the global South, this scenario would mean they are stuck in dire poverty for an extra generation. Do you know how expensive everything would be for Jamaicans, who import much of what they use and therefore are sensitive to the price of shipping fuel? It would be highly irresponsible to walk away from Iraq and let it fall into a genocidal civil war that left the Oil Gulf in flames.

On the other hand, the gradual radicalization of the entire Sunni Arab heartland of Iraq stands as testimony to the miserable failure of US military counter-insurgency tactics. It seems to me indisputable that US tactics have progressively made things worse in that part of Iraq, contributing to the destabilization of the country.

So those who want the troops out also do have a point.

So here is what I would suggest as a responsible stance toward Iraq. Others, including Iraqi politicians, have already suggested most of these things, but I think the below hang together and could avert a tragedy while allowing us to get out.

1) US ground troops should be withdrawn ASAP from urban areas as a first step. Iraqi police will just have to do the policing. We are no good at it. If local militias take over, that is the Iraqi government's problem. The prime minister will have to either compromise with the militia leaders or send in other Iraqi militias to take them on. Who runs Iraqi cities can no longer be a primary concern of the US military. Our troops are warriors, not traffic cops.

2) In the second phase of withdrawal, most US ground troops would steadily be brought out of Iraq.

3) For as long as the elected Iraqi government wanted it, the US would offer the new Iraqi military and security forces close air support in any firefight they have with guerrilla or other rebellious forces. (I.e. we would replicate our tactics in Afghanistan of providing the air force for the Northern Alliance infantry and cavalry.) I concede that this tactic will get some US Blackhawks shot down from time to time, and won't be painless. But it could prevent the outbreak of fullscale war. This way of proceeding, which was opened up by the Afghanistan War of 2001-2002, and which depends on smart weapons and having allies on the ground, is the major difference between today and the Vietnam era, when dumb bombs (and even carpet bombing) couldn't have been deployed effectively to ensure the enemy did not take or hold substantial territory.

4) With the agreement of the elected Iraqi government, the US would prevent any guerrilla force from fielding any large number of fighters for set piece battles. Such large units of militiamen attempting to march from Anbar on Baghdad, e.g., would be destroyed by AC-130s and other US air weaponry suitable to this purpose. This tactic cannot prevent the current campaign of car bombings, but it can stop a full-scale Lebanon or Afghanistan-style civil war from erupting.

6) In addition to the service of its air forces, the US would offer targeted military aid to ensure the stability of the Iraqi government. It would help protect key political figures from assassination; it would give the Iraqi government help in preventing pipeline sabotage so as to increase Iraqi petroleum revenues and strengthen the new government; and it would help rapidly build an Iraqi armor corps. The new Iraqi military's lack of tanks is almost certainly because the US is afraid they might be turned on US troops in a crisis. Once US ground troops are out, there is no reason not to let the Iraqi military just import a lot of tanks and train the new Iraqi army in using them.

7) The US should demand as a quid pro quo for further help that elections in Iraq henceforward be held on a district basis so as to ensure proper representation in parliament for the Sunni Arab provinces. This step is necessary if there is to be any hope of drawing the Sunni Arab political elites into the new government.

8) The US should demand as a quid pro quo for further help that the Iraqi government announce an amnesty for all former Baath Party members who cannot be proven to have committed serious crimes, including crimes against humanity. Former Baathists who have been fired from the schools and civil bureaucracy must be reinstated, and no further firings are to take place. (This step is key in convincing the old Sunni Arab elites that they won't be screwed over in the new Iraq.)

9) Congress must rewrite the laws governing US reconstruction aid to Iraq so as to take out provisions that Iraqis must where possible use US companies or materiel. All of the reconstruction money should go directly to Iraqi firms, so as to help jump-start the economy.

10) The US should join the regular meetings of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors, with Condi Rice in attendance, along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, employing a 6 + 2 diplomatic track to help put Iraq back on its feet through diplomacy and multilateral aid. This step will require that the Bush administration cease threatening regularly to bomb Tehran or to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran. For the sake of getting out of Iraq without a world-class economic disaster, the US will just have to deal with the real world, which contains Iran and Syria. The US is now a Middle Eastern Power, not just a New World one, and as such it needs to use Iraq's neighbors to calm their clients within Iraq. This goal cannot be achieved through simple intimidation, more especially since, with half of all fighting units bogged down in Iraq, the US is in no position to follow through on its threats and everyone knows it.

I can't guarantee that these steps will resolve the crisis in the short or even medium term. But I do think that, if taken together, they would allow us to get the ground troops out without risking a big civil war or a destabilization of the Middle East. Once Iraq can stand on its own feet, I am quite sure that the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf will just give a fatwa for complete US withdrawal, and the US will have to acquiesce, as it did in similar circumstances in the Philippines.

posted by Juan @ 8/22/2005 06:37:00 AM

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