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More than two thousand years ago, a Spartan king resisted pressure to go to war saying, “I am less afraid of the enemy’s strategy than I am of the mistakes we will make.” Today, no one in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group would question the Spartan King’s wisdom. It is painfully obvious that in Iraq, American power defeated itself.
The notion that a Muslim Arab country with no middle class or a culture that supports the rule of law could be transformed by Westerners in short order into anything resembling an Anglo-Saxon Democracy was fundamentally flawed. But applying the “if we break it, we fix it” paradigm to Iraq, occupying and governing it directly with thousands of conventional U.S. combat troops under generals whose only strategy was brute force was even more disastrous. No nation wants foreign troops to police their country and Muslim Arabs loathe occupying Christian armies, especially brutal ones.
Any Arab, Sunni or Shiite, rebelling against such an occupation would always be able to cloak himself in nationalism, patriotism, and traditional religious values — even if they were no better than criminals. And this is precisely what happened in Arab Iraq.
But this problem shrinks to insignificance next to the strategic blunder of defaulting to “the Shiite strategy,” establishing with American military power in less than three years what the Iranian armed forces could not achieve in nearly a decade of war with Iraq: Shiite domination of Iraq’s army, police and administration.
Fearing the consequences of an Iranian-backed government in Baghdad, the Bush administration is turning to the Sunni Arab states that fear Iranian power. It makes sense. Sunni Arab leaders in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh understand that Iran aspires to be the core state of Islam, something Islam has lacked since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. For them, Shiite-dominated Iraq is a regional Frankenstein’s monster.
Unfortunately, it’s also a waste of time. Though Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have a stake in curbing Iranian influence inside Iraq, they have no interest in allying themselves with an American military occupation that is illegitimate in the eyes of the whole Muslim World. Until U.S. forces leave Iraq, cooperation with them is a non-starter.
Given these developments, disengaging from Iraq would seem imperative. But the desire on both sides of the political divide, Democratic and Republican, to conceal the true scale of the disaster created by the American military occupation of Central Iraq makes immediate withdrawal unpalatable.
Instead, politicians of all persuasions insist that for U.S. forces to simply leave Iraq and turn it over to the Arabs who live there would be a disaster for all kinds of reasons — terrorism, regional instability and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Disengaging from Iraq, the argument goes, could lead to a replay of an August 1914-style slide into regional war.
Whether true or not, an American military force that cannot stop firefights or kidnappings on the streets of Baghdad, a force that is increasingly under attack from all sides, can do little to prevent a regional war, especially a conflict whose real issue is the Shia-Sunni struggle for control of Mecca and Medina and leadership of an Islamic movement that both Sunni and Shia Islamists believe will, once unified and purified, conquer the world.
Of course, if this is the regional war that is likely to occur, the real question is not how to stop it, but why U.S. forces should participate in it? Unless, America’s regional Sunni Arab partners ask for assistance, how would American involvement in such a conflict advance American security interests?
The answer is simple. It would not.
While Washington policymakers look for political cover on their way out of Iraq, the myth of American military omniscience and omnipotence, of limitless economic resources harnessed to a perpetual “Wilsonian crusade for democracy,” is dying in Iraq along with American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
Meanwhile, knowing that nothing with American fingerprints will survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces including Iraq’s corrupt and ineffective government, the most vexing question for the Iraq Study Group is not whether anything can be done to prevent the United States from looking ridiculous when the “Green Zone” is overrun, looted and destroyed by enraged Arabs. It’s how fast we can end the U.S. and British military occupation of Iraq, an occupation that is both an enormous strategic benefit to Iran and a liability to the West and the Arab World.
Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, Ph.D., is lead partner in Potomac League, LLC. He is the author of “Breaking the Phalanx” and Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. Macgregor served in the first Gulf War and at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe during the Kosovo Air Campaign. He was an adviser to the Department of Defense on initial Second Gulf War plans and is an expert on defense policy issues of organization and transformation.