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Leave and Engage Iran

How to Win in Iraq

by WILLIAM S. LIND

For many years, critics of us critics have often said, "You are good at talking about what the American military does wrong. But what would you do instead?" In fact, some of us associated with the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and 1980s have offered our solutions all along. Gary Hart and I offered a whole book of alternative policies in the 1980s, America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform.

The question occurs again now with reference to the war in Iraq. Had our advice been taken, America would never have attacked Iraq. But it did, and now our troops are bogged down in a hopeless quagmire. How can America get out other than by accepting defeat?

I offer what I hope is a constructive answer to that question in the July 30 issue of The American Conservative, in a piece modestly titled "How to Win in Iraq." The key is re-thinking what we mean by winning.

The Bush administration’s maximalist strategic objectives are not attainable, and they never were. They are the product of fantasy, not strategy. But if, as President Bush repeatedly says, we are fighting to defeat al Qaeda and other "terrorists" — meaning the non-state forces of the Fourth Generation ­ then victory can realistically be defined as seeing the re-creation of a state in Iraq.

Our invasion and subsequent blunders, such as sending home the Iraqi army and civil service, destroyed the state in Iraq. Iraq currently has a government of sorts, cowering in the Green Zone, but it is a Potemkin government because there is no state. A stateless Mesopotamia is a huge win for Fourth Generation, non-state forces such as al Qaeda, because they flourish in such statelessness.

Conversely, were a state to be re-created in Iraq, they would lose. That is true almost regardless of the nature and orientation of a new Iraqi state. States do not like competition, and any real Iraqi state would quickly roll up the non-state forces on its territory. The fact that an Iraqi state would almost certainly be Shiite-dominated while al Qaeda is poisonously Salafist makes that all the more certain.

The central strategic question, then, is, how can a state be re-created in Iraq? There is no guaranteed answer; it may not be possible. What is guaranteed, however, is that the United States cannot do it. The problem is legitimacy. To be real, a future Iraqi state must be perceived by Iraqis as legitimate. But anything the United States, as a foreign invader and occupier, creates, endorses or assists automatically thereby loses its legitimacy.

What the U.S. must therefore do is get out of the way. When elements in Iraq move to re-create a state — and those elements must be independent of the current al-Maliki government, which, as an American creation, has no legitimacy — we have to let them try to succeed.

There is, in turn, only one way for us to get out of the way, and that is to get out of Iraq, as rapidly as we can. As the elephant in the parlor, our presence cannot be of no effect. If we work against proto-state elements in Iraq, we make their job all the harder and their success less likely. If we work for them, presto!, there goes their legitimacy out the window. To put it as plainly as possible, so long as we are present, no one has a chance of re-creating a state in Iraq, which is to say we have no chance of winning.

The icing on the cake here is that our withdrawal from Iraq, under the strategy I propose, is no longer the retreat of a beaten army. It is, precisely, a strategic withdrawal, a withdrawal required by our strategy as necessary to accomplishing our strategic goal.

In a short column, I cannot cover all that is in the article in The American Conservative; it includes, among other things, the matter of a "win" by Iran. The July 30 issue is on the magazine counters, and anyone intrigued by the idea that we might still win this miserable war can pick up a copy.

But if we define winning correctly, as defeating Islamic 4GW elements including al Qaeda, and if for once we can accept the fact that America’s power is limited and we need an indirect approach, I think we might yet snatch a few chestnuts from the fire. After almost 4000 dead, tens of thousands of wounded and a couple trillion bucks down the drain, it would be nice to leave old Osama, like Snidely Whiplash, having to say, "Rats! Foiled Again!"

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.