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Sat. August 17, 2019
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Operation “Freedom From Iraq”
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After nearly 3000 American deaths, 250 allied (‘coalition of the willing’) casualties, and over 200,000 Iraqi dead, the most important fact about the New Bush Strategy for stabilizing Iraq may that it signals the last phase of US operations there. By seeming to rebuke the ‘status quo’ in US Iraq policy, the mid-term election at least brought a fundamental policy review. Clearly the President now understands that preaching the virtues of Iraq’s fledgling democracy is no answer to the fundamental instability of post-Saddam Iraq. When low-grade terror, fanatic religious factions, Al-Qaeda cells, and ‘insurgents’, both domestic and imported, rule so much of daily life, damage control becomes the critical watchword. Moving forward with the President’s revised strategy—a re-calibration rather than a fresh start--demands realistic recognition of hard facts. While American motives for invading Iraq mixed the dubious (giving ‘teeth’ to UN sanctions aimed at WMD) with the noble (established a Middle East beachhead for nonsectarian democracy), in this case looking back may actually impede going forward. Some pundits suggest that Iraq is worse off than under Saddam (who seldom matched, even at his worst, the killing quotas we see today), but while Western onlookers have a relatively high tolerance for “collateral damage” amid chaos, we can’t stomach a murderous dictator ruling with a bloody fist. When violent oppression is delivered from a specific return-address, we feel a responsibility to stop, or to have prevented it. Even the most idealistic of Iraq’s partisans can’t weigh the mountain of dead against the nation’s “messy freedom” and find solace. By targeting Iran and Syria for supplying and fomenting Iraq’s insurgency, the President concedes that regional terror is up, Iran and Syria emboldened, and US leverage seems radically diminished. Under the Bush strategic doctrine (worry about failed states; strong ones are a longer-term issue), that is a catalog of failure. The administration’s argument—that the Iraq war drew potential terrorists into a discrete battlefield where we could confront them—fails if the confrontation becomes eternal. And by what moral right do we make the Iraqi people the guinea pigs and primary victims for this experiment in fighting terror? President Bush must know the fine line between stubbornness and principled commitment was long ago crossed, and that the sacrifices of so many demand sound policies moving forward. Abandoning the cause is a bitter pill, but must remain an option if the de facto results are good for neither the US nor Iraqis. Mr. Bush ‘troop surge’, though temporary, with discrete missions, and under new military leadership, is the new ‘hot button’ with Congress. Nevertheless it’s a fair option if civilian security is enhanced and Iraqi troop-training dramatically stepped-up. The President’s blend of status-quo elements (no precipitous withdrawal, faster devolution of security to Iraqi forces) and a few radical departures at least bridges the divides in the body politic. Diplomacy, though, must now take center stage. Turkey and Jordan, the most ‘western’ of Islamic nations in the region with the most direct security concerns should be brought to leverage the factions in Iraq, and Mr. Bush seems inclined in this direction. Better that than the Iraq Study Group plan to “ask” Iran and Syria to secure a nation they would rather carve up. Broader alliances must be brought to bear as well. The US must be responsible for its failures but should not be damned to go it alone now. Neither Europe nor the Arab world benefits from a violently unstable Iraq and should see their own interest in contributing—diplomatically, militarily, and resource-wise— to securing Iraq’s borders (limit terrorist access and flow of weapons). If NATO is not deemed the right vehicle for this, then go ad hoc: at the height of the Balkan crisis the prospects seemed as bleak as Iraq today, but NATO with US leadership at least stemmed the violence. Ideology must take a back-seat to practical results. A stable Iraq with viable, long-term democratic prospect is an extraordinary diplomatic challenge. Still, giving up on it would demoralize the West in combating Islamist terror. If stability eludes us we can yet halt the experiment and chalk up the losses. The critical principle may not be unpalatable partition but re-emphasis on unifying Iraq in a way that transcends ethnic and sectarian division. That is still what most Iraqis say they want. If a referendum on the US presence would help reinforce Iraqi ownership of their fate, so be it. The West can have a lighter footprint and still return civilization to its cradle, but only if its ability to project force remains credible. Geopolitical realism guided by Western ideals can yet prevail, but politicians need to cut the PR campaigns and attend to the hard work of statecraft instead. George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation. Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum.

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