Regular readers know that while I have not been an enthusiastic backer of the calls to withdraw from Iraq, I've come to see it as the best of the bad options. But I see the withdrawal question as something deserving serious public debate, not as an obviously resolved question. To push the debate forward a bit, I want to look more carefully at some of the main arguments on each side of the issue. Last week I presented a recent public opinion survey which I believe undermines the argument that the US must stay in Iraq because that's what Iraqis want. Today, I want to focus in on another frequently posed reason: the need to prevent al-Qaeda from winning.
Here's how Vice President Cheney framed it yesterday:
This enemy also has a set of clear objectives. The terrorists want to end all American and Western influence in the Middle East. Their goal in that region is to seize control of a country so they have a base from which to launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands. The terrorists believe that by controlling one country, they will be able to target and overthrow other governments in the region, and ultimately to establish a totalitarian empire that encompasses a region from Spain, across North Africa, through the Middle East and South Asia, all the way around to Indonesia.
Is this scenario, which I would call the "Baghdad Caliphate" position, a strong argument against withdrawal? I don't think so. Al-Qaeda can not seize control of Iraq because of the ethnic and regional balance of power, regardless of America's presence. The majority Shia, backed by Iran, would fight tooth and nail against it. So would many Sunnis - probably with the backing of the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Syrians who see al-Qaeda as a direct threat to their own security and survival. The al-Qaeda role in the insurgency has always been exaggerated, with the bulk of what we call the insurgency rooted in the local Sunni community (as just one example, recall the Nawaf Obayd presentation which put the foreign religious presence at about 7% of the insurgency; for a more in-depth discussion, read Ahmed Hashim's richly detailed book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq).
Indeed, America probably strengthens al-Qaeda in Iraq by offering a justification for its presence which resonates with some considerable portion of the Iraqi and Arab public. If the Americans left, al-Qaeda would likely soon follow because killing
other Iraqis does them little good - it is fighting and killing
Americans which sells videos and wins recruits. As Hezbollah's experience demonstrates, resistance to a perceived occupation resonates in ways which a sectarian player in a civil war does not. While some of the most extreme jihadis may see killing Shia as an end unto itself, for bin Laden and al-Qaeda Central Iraq is a means to a wider end of mobilizing Arab and Muslim attitudes against America, against secular regimes, and towards Islamism. Without a major American presence, the insurgency would continue, but Iraq would lose its pride of place in the current jihadi universe. I'd go so far as to say that the homegrown Iraqi insurgency does indeed want the US out of Iraq, but al-Qaeda wants us in.
Another intriguing point to consider is that America taking the lead role against the insurgency allows Iran to free ride. Far better, from Tehran's perspective, to have the Americans and al-Qaeda shed each other's blood in defense of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government. A more active Iranian military role in fighting against the insurgency in defense of the Shia government (assuming an American departure) could complicate its own efforts to build popular Arab support across Sunni-Shia lines. A while back, I pointed out the "Arab turn" in Iranian policy, which has proven as popular with the Sunni Arab public as it has proven worrisome to Sunni Arab leaders. Vali Nasr is right that rising Shia influence (Iran and Hezbollah) frightens the Sunni Arab regimes, but the popular level is a gaping hole in his analysis: if Sunni-Shia divisions dominate Arab politics, why the yellow Hezbollah flags in the streets of Sunni Cairo? Why were Ahmednejad and Nasrallah two of the three most popular personalities in Saad Eddin Ibrahim's recent survey of Egyptian public opinion? It's at least possible - though of course by no means certain - that a more active Iranian role in support of the Iraqi government after the Americans pull back would undermine Iran's appeal with this Arab public opinion. (And just for fun, imagine a situation two years from now in which Americans ridicule and dismiss Iranian claims about al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq as propaganda designed to justify Iranian military interventions in Iraqi affairs.)
Don't get me wrong - the jihadis in Iraq are a nasty piece of work, and a genuine danger to the Iraqis around them as well as to American troops, and should be battled against on all levels. But that doesn't mean that they could actually seize control of Iraq given the realities of power in the region. In his recent book, Fouad Ajami quotes David Petraeus, the much-admired American commander in Iraq, as constantly asking his colleagues "how does this story end?" Can anyone offer a plausible story which ends in an al-Qaeda state in Iraq?
I suspect that the President's men know this, and that's why Bush has shifted away from the "Baghdad Caliphate" argument to the failed Iraqi state argument: "A failed Iraq would make America less secure. A failed Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will provide safe haven for terrorists and extremists." (How this failed Iraq would put oil revenues in the hands of terrorists, as Bush also argues in that press conference, I do not know.) In this scenario, al-Qaeda would set up a "mini-emirate" in the Sunni areas of a failed Iraq, and this would become the functional equivalent of the Afghanistan base. But al-Qaeda's Afghan base only worked because the Taliban permitted and encouraged it. It is difficult to believe that a post-American Iraqi government would tolerate such an al-Qaeda entity in its midst - which brings the argument right back to the "Iran helping the Shia-dominated government" discussion from just above.
Given the unlikelihood of an al-Qaeda physical victory in Iraq after an American withdrawal, I suspect that the real issue is that it would hand a political victory to al-Qaeda, which could claim victory over America even if it never came close to seizing power in Baghdad. That's how Cheney is really framing the issue:
I realize, as well, that some in our own country claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone. But the exact opposite is true. Time and again over the last generation, the terrorists have targeted nations whose behavior they believe they can change through violence. In fact such a retreat would convince the terrorists, once again, that free nations will change our policies, forsake our friends, and abandon our interests whenever we are confronted with violence and blackmail. They would simply draw up another set of demands, and instruct Americans to act as they direct or to face other murders. A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations, and a ruinous blow to the future security of the United States.
Never mind that nobody that I can think of has every actually argued that retreat from Iraq would satisfy the terrorists... a classic straw man diversionary tactic. Cheney's real claim is that American reputation would suffer from a withdrawal from Iraq and that others would see us as weaker and be tempted to take advantage. Is that true? While it's a core of the hawkish worldview, it actually receives little support in the academic International Relations literature. The best known book on reputations in international politics, by Jonathan Mercer, argued that reputations do not in fact form or work in the way feared by the hawks: potential adversaries tend to think situationally, judging the capabilities and interests of their rival in a particular issue of concern, rather than drawing inferences from other domains. Therefore, "a nation’s reputation is not worth fighting for." If a withdrawal from Iraq freed up American military capabilities and allowed the United States to focus its energies elsewhere, those factors would likely matter more than the "Iraq example" in the calculations of its potential enemies.
I'm not entirely convinced of Mercer's argument, since I do think that there's a lot of public argument and politicized interpretation which goes into these evaluations - jihadists, like everyone else, scrutinize American actions and words for clues about American intentions. An American withdrawal might be interpreted as an American defeat, but it doesn't have to be - the terms of the withdrawal would be open to intense, serious public political argument within the global public sphere as well as within Islamic and American publics (and I hope that should it come to that Cheney and Bush would be arguing on the side of defending American reputation and strength). But Mercer's combination of Realism and social psychology does at least offer a serious challenge to Cheney's argument.
One other point on the reputational argument: much of the force of Cheney's argument rests on the implicit assumption that al-Qaeda wants us out - an assumption I challenged above. But there's another twist here. Cheney makes much of the less-clever-than-it-sounds point that withdrawing from Iraq wouldn't end the struggle with al-Qaeda since we weren't in Iraq on 9/11. But Cheney draws exactly the wrong lesson: just as withdrawing from Iraq would not end al-Qaeda's grievances (which nobody claims), neither does staying in Iraq have anything much to do with al-Qaeda's grievances. Al-Qaeda objects to American culture, power, and policies across the board: Iraq is only one manifestation of a plethora of American ills. Withdrawing from Iraq wouldn't affect al-Qaeda's attitudes towards America much... but who cares? What matters is whether withdrawing from Iraq will reduce al-Qaeda's ability to mobilize anger against America, win new recruits, and push its clash of civilizations narrative. Cheney argues that a withdrawal would embolden America's enemies in the region, but pays no attention at all to how it might reduce the number of Arabs and Muslims receptive to al-Qaeda's pitch. (Bin Laden also talks frequently about how al-Qaeda's goal is to bankrupt America by luring it into costly confrontations in places like Iraq - most directly in his October 29, 2004 video - but Cheney never seems to mention the need to reject that part of al-Qaeda's plan.)
The upshot: the "we must stay in Iraq to prevent al-Qaeda from winning" argument works on three levels: al-Qaeda seizing control of Iraq; al-Qaeda establishing a mini-emirate within a failed Iraqi state; and al-Qaeda claiming political victory and eroding American credibility. I find the first level completely unrealistic and the second unlikely. The third is a more serious argument, which taps into perennial International Relations debates about balancing and bandwagoning and falling dominoes, which I find unpersuasive though others might reasonably disagree.
Even if I'm completely right (unlikely!), that still wouldn't mean that the case for withdrawal is even close to being made. "Preventing an al-Qaeda victory" is one of the primary public reasons offered by the administration for refusing to consider withdrawal, but there are others... which I'll hopefully take up in later posts.