Top Ten Myths about Iraq 2006
1. Myth number one is that the United States “can still win” in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what “winning” means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi “government” is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.
The United States cannot “win” in the sense defined above. It cannot. And the blindly arrogant assumption that it can win is calculated to get more tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and more thousands of American soldiers and Marines badly wounded or killed. Moreover, since Iraq is coming apart at the seams under the impact of our presence there, there is a real danger that we will radically destabilize it and the whole oil-producing Gulf if we try to stay longer.
2. “US military sweeps of neighborhoods can drive the guerrillas out.” The US put an extra 15,000 men into Baghdad this past summer, aiming to crush the guerrillas and stop the violence in the capital, and the number of attacks actually increased. This result comes about in part because the guerrillas are not outsiders who come in and then are forced out. The Sunni Arabs of Ghazaliya and Dora districts in the capital are the “insurgents.” The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement or “insurgency” with less than 500,000 troops, based on what we have seen in the Balkans and other such conflict situations. The US destroyed Falluja, and even it and other cities of al-Anbar province are not now safe! The US military leaders on the ground have spoken of the desirability of just withdrawing from al-Anbar to Baghdad and giving up on it. In 2003, 14 percent of Sunni Arabs thought it legitimate to attack US personnel and facilities. In August, 2006, over 70 percent did. How long before it is 100%? Winning guerrilla wars requires two victories, a military victory over the guerrillas and a winning of the hearts and minds of the general public, thus denying the guerrillas support. The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don’t want us there.
3. The United States is best off throwing all its support behind the Iraqi Shiites. This is the position adopted fairly consistently by Marc Reuel Gerecht. Gerecht is an informed and acute observer whose views I respect even when I disagree with them. But Washington policy-makers should read Daniel Goleman’s work on social intelligence. Goleman points out that a good manager of a team in a corporation sets up a win/win framework for every member of the team. If you set it up on a win/lose basis, so that some are actively punished and others “triumph,” you are asking for trouble. Conflict is natural. How you manage conflict is what matters. If you listen to employees’ grievances and try to figure out how they can be resolved in such a way that everyone benefits, then you are a good manager.
Gerecht, it seems to me, sets up a win/lose model in Iraq. The Shiites and Kurds win it all, and the Sunni Arabs get screwed over. Practically speaking, the Bush policy has been Gerechtian, which in my view has caused all the problems. We shouldn’t have thought of our goal as installing the Shiites in power. Of course, Bush hoped that those so installed would be “secular,” and that is what Wolfowitz and Chalabi had promised him. Gerecht came up with the ex post facto justification that even the religious Shiites are moving toward democracy via Sistani. But democracy cannot be about one sectarian identity prevailing over, and marginalizing others.
The Sunni Arabs have demonstrated conclusively that they can act effectively as spoilers in the new Iraq. If they aren’t happy, no one is going to be. The US must negotiate with the guerrilla leaders and find a win/win framework for them to come in from the cold and work alongside the Kurds and the religious Shiites. About this, US Ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad has been absolutely right.
4. “Iraq is not in a civil war,” as Jurassic conservative Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly insists. There is a well-established social science definition of civil war put forward by Professor J. David Singer and his colleagues: “Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter’s ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain.” (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)” See my article on this in Salon.com. By Singer’s definition, Iraq has been in civil war since the Iraqi government was reestablished in summer of 2004. When I have been around political scientists, as at the ISA conference, I have found that scholars in that field tend to accept Singer’s definition.
5. “The second Lancet study showing 600,000 excess deaths from political and criminal violence since the US invasion is somehow flawed.” Les Roberts replies here to many of the objections that were raised. See also the transcript of the Kucinich-Paul Congressional hearings on the subject. Many critics refer to the numbers of dead reported in the press as counter-arguments to Roberts et al. But “passive reporting” such as news articles never captures more than a fraction of the casualties in any war. I see deaths reported in the Arabic press all the time that never show up in the English language wire services. And, a lot of towns in Iraq don’t have local newspapers and many local deaths are not reported in the national newspapers.
6. “Most deaths in Iraq are from bombings.” The Lancet study found that the majority of violent deaths are from being shot.
7. “Baghdad and environs are especially violent but the death rate is lower in the rest of the country.” The Lancet survey found that levels of violence in the rest of the country are similar to that in Baghdad (remember that the authors included criminal activities such as gang and smuggler turf wars in their statistics). The Shiite south is spared much Sunni-Shiite communal fighting, but criminal gangs, tribal feuds, and militias fight one another over oil and antiquities smuggling, and a lot of people are getting shot down there, too.
8. “Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.” From the beginning of history until 2003 there had never been a suicide bombing in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Baath-ruled Iraq. When Baath intelligence heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might have entered Iraq, they grew alarmed at such an “al-Qaeda” presence and put out an APB on him! Zarqawi’s so-called “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” was never “central” in Iraq and was never responsible for more than a fraction of the violent attacks. This assertion is supported by the outcome of a US-Jordanian operation that killed Zarqawi this year. His death had no impact whatsoever on the level of violence. There are probably only about 1,000 foreign fighters even in Iraq, and most of them are first-time volunteers, not old-time terrorists. The 50 major guerrilla cells in Sunni Arab Iraq are mostly made up of Iraqis, and are mainly: 1) Baathist or neo-Baathist, 2) Sunni revivalist or Salafi, 3) tribally-based, or 4) based in city quarters. Al-Qaeda is mainly a boogey man, invoked in Iraq on all sides, but possessing little real power or presence there. This is not to deny that radical Sunni Arab volunteers come to Iraq to blow things (and often themselves) up. They just are not more than an auxiliary to the big movements, which are Iraqi.
9. “The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq.” This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives’ underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don’t want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy. They are not going to start taking flight lessons and trying to get visas to the US. This argument about following us, if it were true, would have prevented us from ever withdrawing from anyplace once we entered a war there. We’d be forever stuck in the Philippines for fear that Filipino terrorists would follow us back home. Or Korea (we moved 15,000 US troops out of South Korea not so long ago. Was that unwise? Are the thereby liberated Koreans now gunning for us?) Or how about the Dominican Republic? Haiti? Grenada? France? The argument is a crock.
10. “Setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is a bad idea.” Bush and others in his administration have argued that setting such a timetable would give a significant military advantage to the guerrillas fighting US forces and opposed to the new government. That assertion makes sense only if there were a prospect that the US could militarily crush the Sunni Arabs. There is no such prospect. The guerrilla war is hotter now than at any time since the US invasion. It is more widely supported by more Sunni Arabs than ever before. It is producing more violent attacks than ever before. Since we cannot defeat them short of genocide, we have to negotiate with them. And their first and most urgent demand is that the US set a timetable for withdrawal before they will consider coming into the new political system. That is, we should set a timetable in order to turn the Sunni guerrillas from combatants to a political negotiating partner. Even Sunni politicians cooperating with the US make this demand. They are disappointed with the lack of movement on the issue. How long do they remain willing to cooperate? In addition, 131 Iraqi members of parliament signed a demand that the US set a timetable for withdrawal. (138 would be a simple majority.) It is a a major demand of the Sadr Movement. In fact, the 32 Sadrist MPs withdrew from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance coalition temporarily over this issue.
In my view, Shiite leaders such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim are repeatedly declining to negotiate in good faith with the Sunni Arabs or to take their views seriously. Al-Hakim knows that if the Sunnis give him any trouble, he can sic the Marines on them. The US presence is making it harder for Iraqi to compromise with Iraqi, which is counterproductive.
Think Progress points out that in 1999, Governor George W. Bush criticized then President Clinton for declining to set a withdrawal timetable for Kosovo, saying “Victory means exit strategy, and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is.”