Not that anyone is paying attention to Iraq right now, but the second round of the Foreign Affairs roundtable on what to do in Iraq has now been posted (including an interesting response by Stephen Biddle, author of the original Foreign Affairs essay, and Larry Diamond). I would have liked there to have been more opportunity for back and forth among the participants rather than just two rounds like this, but I don't make the rules! I take some heat from several respondents for not offering my own proposal... guess I shouldn't have left that to round 2, huh?
Here's my contribution, for the record:
What is most striking to me about the first round of posts is the degree of consensus on two points: Biddle's description of Iraq as a severe and deteriorating communal conflict, and the limited resources the United States can bring to bear on the situation. This strikes me as progress: at least we can argue about how to solve the problems at hand rather than debate what they are. In my second post, I'd like to comment on three major points: ethnic polarization, al Qaeda's role in Iraq, and the question of U.S. withdrawal.
First, polarization. Here the lessons of history and political science are not kind. De-communalization is difficult and rare, and it is foolish to expect any easy escape from a spiral of conflict fueled by intense anger and legitimate fears. How could Iraqis today, any more than Bosnian Muslims or Croats or Serbs, easily forget the crimes against their families and the destruction of communities? These psychological dynamics are reinforced by every aspect of the political system, and enshrined in the Iraqi constitution. Iyad Allawi's failure in the January elections put paid to fantasies of the emergence of a unifying nationalist figure. Even worse, Iraqis today receive their information from ethnically affiliated media. Ethnic identification in Iraq is there to stay, and the United States really shouldn't waste its scarce and declining resources trying to change that now.
Still, the primacy of ethnic identities by itself does not guarantee perpetual conflict. Survey research shows wide areas of agreement among Iraqis on many core issues such as democracy, the role of religion, and national sovereignty (that is, the need for Americans to leave eventually). Prime Minister Maliki's recent initiatives seem aimed at finding some common ground on that basis. But intensely committed minorities willing to use violence to inflame the situation-whether hard-line Sunni nationalists or jihadists or Shiite death squads-make achieving any of these ambitions difficult. Contra Hitchens, these spoilers simply cannot be stopped through a greater military presence or dramatic events such as Zarqawi's killing. Spoilers can be stopped only when their violence starts failing to produce the desired results. When it became clear that Zarqawi's beheading videos were generating a backlash, for instance, his propaganda unit stopped making them. The United States thus needs to focus on shifting the terms of the Iraqi political debate, taking away the strong cards in the hands of the spoilers and providing the right incentives to the political leadership to reach a consensus. Moving toward a dramatically reduced American presence would help on both counts.
Second, Washington needs to better understand where Iraq fits in to al Qaeda's strategy. The bogeyman of al Qaeda seizing power and establishing a new caliphate in Baghdad can be safely ignored: the Iraqi Shiites will never allow a Sunni movement this kind of power. Even most Iraqi Sunnis would stand against the establishment of an Islamist state, as would every Arab regime (including Saudi Arabia). A failed Iraqi state might allow some pockets of jihadist-controlled territory to emerge, but a jihadist Iraqi state more generally is simply not in the cards.
Iraq is important for al Qaeda because the conflict there helps polarize the Islamic world and hasten a true "clash of civilizations." Americans fighting in Iraq do not hurt al Qaeda; they help it, because such fighting fuels the master narrative of an American "crusade" against a besieged Islam and provides images and stories for use in propaganda. Both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have said that the killing of Shiites does al Qaeda no good, only the killing of Americans. An Iraq without a major American presence would thus be of little value to al Qaeda's grand strategy, and its jihadists would more likely follow the American deployments out of the country than seize Baghdad.
Which brings me to the question of withdrawal. I've long been skeptical about the calls for it, for two main reasons: First, it seemed irresponsible to walk away from the mess the United States has made, repeating on a larger scale the elder Bush's abandonment of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to Saddam's tender mercies. And second, announcing plans for withdrawal seemed likely to create dangerous incentives for all political actors to game the schedule. But those reasons now pale in comparison to the problems posed by not withdrawing. It seems the height of strategic irresponsibility to remain in a place where there is not only no realistic plan for victory, but also every indication that the American presence is making things worse.
At this point, focusing solely on coming up with a strategy for "victory" does not make sense, because no such strategy is out there. The United States does not need to defeat insurgents or jihadists in hand-to-hand combat to prove its mettle, and indeed, the more it tries to impose its will in Iraq now the worse the results are likely to be. Washington's credibility is so low, its presence so inflammatory, that virtually any initiative under an American brand name will generate resistance. For these reasons, therefore, I have regretfully come to the conclusion that-although much would depend on the terms, context, and execution of it-a gradual U.S. withdrawal seems like the least bad option still available.