Friday, May 11, 2007

Before OIF, our 3 choices vis-a-vis Iraq

This post is a comment I left in Belmont Club last month. My thoughts are an expansion of one of my first blog-posts, Perspective on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Cleaned up and used again here.


cedarford's comments strike me as (political science) "realist", rather than "liberal". Domestic opposition to OIF has been so strong because it mixes pressure from influential political theory from both the political left and right.

In 2006, was the voters' message in support of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, as spun by OIF opponents, or simply a message of discontent against the GOP? The two don't imply the same thing. The voters' message may actually be for our nation's elected representatives to lead better than the GOP-led government has done. I point at Lieberman vs Lamont. The Conn election was the definitive case of an OIF supporter who's not a GOPer and is critical of the Bush admin running against a candidate defined by OIF opposition. Lieberman won. So, what does that say? Is the consensus of the American people that we want out of Iraq NOW, no matter what, or do we actually want our nation's leaders to *succeed* in Iraq, and then get out?

BDS as Bush Defender Syndrome - I'll indulge. I am an OIF supporter who, since 2002, had grave doubts but supported OIF because I believed we were caught in a set of bad choices. That set of choices was not the fault of President Bush.

During my 97-01 Army service, as we tracked the Iraq situation, it was pretty much consensus that our returning to Iraq was a matter of "when" and "how", not "if" ... and it was going to be a hard, ugly affair when we went back.

I served mostly in Korea. At the time, USFK constituted supposedly our most forward deployed units that were prepared to go to war as-is at any moment with nK. Therefore, *nothing* that has gone wrong in Iraq surprises me. Everything that has gone wrong is what I predicted would go wrong in Korea if we went to war with nK. Even as a lower enlisted GI, it was obvious to me we could win the war (though I would die, most likely), but we had little-to-no planning nor institutional system for ops beyond Phase 3. Worse, the military was culturally opposed to prepare for operations other than war beyond the most cursory level required to manage a hand-off to the hypothetical next guy, whoever that might be. That's an older and deeper systemic issue than the current President; problems with our Army revealed in Iraq were not caused by him. If the Bush admin can be faulted regarding the state of the military, it should be as a war-time Commander in Chief not micro-managing enough in terms of systemic reform, and not acting quickly and aggressively enough to push deep - even radical - changes of the military as our weaknesses, hidden by peace-time, have been (skillfully) exposed by real-world enemies in real-world situations. The same can be said of our diplomatic failings - the negative international reaction to President Clinton's Op Desert Fox in 1998 is eerily similar to negative international reaction to OIF.

In other words, President Bush was dealt a losing hand. He inherited our problems with Iraq and the region in general, a military designed for major combat and little else, and an international community already unwilling to resolve the Iraq dilemma. Meanwhile, 9/11 forced Bush - all of us - to reevaluate the US relation with the entire region, starting with our mission in Iraq. I won't blame President Clinton (my CinC, when I served), either. Clinton inherited the disarmament, then containment/punitive Iraq mission, too. Blame Bush the elder? Coming out as the victors of the Cold War and leaders of the Free World in 1990, what choice did President Bush the elder have other than intervene in Iraq-Kuwait? Maybe if the international community had been better able to protect the Shah in Iran (Carter) or intervene in the early 1980s (Reagan) to stop the Iran-Iraq war before it escalated ...

Be that as it may, it's amazing to look back now and recognize that so much of our fate after Desert Storm depended on compliant behavior from Saddam Hussein. When we didn't get that from him, no surprise, the course to 9/11 and where we are today was pretty much charted.

9/11, by itself, didn't radically change our relationship with Iraq. 9/11 just forced us to confront what we had done our best to avoid - the negative development of our relationship with the region during the decade we managed the US/UN mission in Iraq.

It's easy to forget now that the original post-Desert Storm disarmament mission wasn't about regime change or even containment. It had the defined and finite goal of de-fanging Saddam Hussein enough so he could remain in power to 'stabilize' Iraq and balance Iran without again threatening regional stability. But the disarmament regimen, as we all know, collapsed. By 1998, US policy for Iraq was re-set at "Iraq liberation". President Clinton, in announcing Op Desert Fox, effectively made the crossover from disarmament to containment/punishment when he stated "Iraq has abused its final chance". Whereas the original intent had been for Saddam to bail himself out of trouble on our terms, which would have been the best outcome for us, over the years, the US/UN mission had evolved to the point that it was practically impossible for Saddam to submit to the terms of the international community and retain power, even assuming he was willing and able to do so. If Saddam was willing and able, his best chance to meet the conditions of his 'probation' was in the early 1990s, but even before the US and UN piled on the conditions, it's debatable whether Saddam compliance was a realistic prospect after the 1991 Shia uprising. We were demanding of Saddam that he weaken himself at the same time he needed all the strength he could muster to stay in power. If there was any room to resolve the situation with Saddam in power, it was certainly gone by 1998. Saddam was stuck indefinitely and he made the best of the situation, the best way he knew how. Unfortunately, we were indefinitely stuck, too, until Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After Op Desert Fox set the bar, we only had 3 choices - all bad - concerning Iraq:

Choice A: Continue the status quo containment/punitive mission indefinitely.

Choice A, the pre-OIF status quo, incorporates the unwillingness both to set Saddam free and to immerse ourselves in the violent and age-old conflicts of the region. However, what was the end-state of the pre-OIF mission in Iraq? By 2002, certainly not disarmament any longer. That ship had sailed. If the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act can be accepted at face value, the end-state was to weaken the Baathist regime to the degree that civil war could take place, which implies sectarian violence, Iranian intervention, Kurdish separation, Sunni extremist intervention, secondary effects of Iraq collapse ... basically, all the doomsday stuff applied to the current situation in Iraq, except without our (attempt at) managing the post-Saddam Iraq and any secondary regional effects. Note, when the Shia did revolt, after we encouraged them, the US declined to support the revolt out of fear of the consequences of an Iraq collapse.

BTW, Muqtada al-Sadr's father was one of the revolutionaries who was killed for believing in broken American promises. Keep that in mind when we consider breaking more American promises and the cost of betrayal.

What was the long-term forecast for Choice A? The best outcome, assuming we could sustain the containment/punishment mission in perpetuity, was that the "Iraq liberation" end-state would never be reached. Saddam and we would have found a comfort zone - an unoffical agreement - whereby he stayed in control of Iraq, while not threatening his neighbors, and the US/UN containment/punishment mission could have continued, well, forever. In that outcome, we accept in perpetuity all the costs, harm, secondary effects, and risks that came with the status quo mission.

Choice B: Unilaterally end the containment/punishment mission and (possibly) seek to make Saddam a 'secular' security partner in the region.

Choice B, in a post 9/11 evaluation, would have recognized that the costs of the containment/punishment regimen outweighed the benefits, and opted for diplomacy to negotiate with Saddam so we could end our pre-OIF mission in Iraq. Choice B is what a lot of folks *rhetorically* prefer now, but was it ever a realistic choice, considering where we were? Or even a wise choice, considering who we're talking about and the implications and consequences of this choice?

Choice C: Give Saddam a hard deadline to comply with the US/UN conditions, and if he failed to do so, move ahead with regime change.

Like Choice B, Choice C recognizes that post 9/11, the costs of the containment/punishment regimen outweighed the benefits, but unlike Choice B, Choice C is not willing to forgive/forget the preceding decade of Saddam's failure to comply and give American sanction to a re-empowered, victorious Saddam. As well, Choice C, in theory, holds forth that the international community can mitigate the end-state consequences of Choice A by managing an Iraq post-Saddam transition, as opposed to the uncontrolled Iraq collapse implied by the Iraq Liberation Act.

** Choice D, made possible only with OIF: End the containment/punishment regimen, remove the Saddam threat, and rather than pay the costs of managing Iraq transition, heap all responsibility onto a political scapegoat (President Bush) for any consequences from abandoning Iraq.

No matter what choice - A, B, or C - we made, it was going to be a hard one, but they were the only choices we had left.

OIF has been derided as a war of choice, but the status quo of Choice A was a choice, too. If 9/11 hadn't happened and spotlighted the Iraq mission, I believe President Bush would have settled for maintaining Choice A and passed on the Iraq dilemma to the next guy, spun as a successful containment mission. At least, that's how Clinton spun Iraq and how Bush spun it when he first took office. Like it or not, after over 10 years of disarmament/containment/punishment, we were already sharing much responsibility and bearing costs for a bad situation in Iraq. One of those costs was the Al Qaeda phenomenon that focused next-generation Islamic extremist rage on the US, no matter how justified the pre-OIF Iraq mission may have been in our context as a world leader.

When I talk to anyone who opposes OIF (Choice C), I ask them to choose either Choice A or Choice B and defend their decision. Even knowing what we know now, should we have maintained the pre-OIF status quo in Iraq in perpetuity or 'diplomatically' withdrawn from Iraq and empowered a victorious Saddam? For me, what emerges from that debate is that Choice C is the best, or at least most responsible, of a set of bad choices. Our fault lies not in making the choice, but not reforming our systemic weaknesses fast enough and not executing the mission well enough. For me, the right answer is to make the necessary improvements in order to succeed in this mission, whoever leads our nation, not Choice D.

In 2007, we can now make a new choice, Choice D. Or we can reaffirm our commitment to Choice C and do what we must, reform/change what we must, in order to successfully achieve the end-state described by President Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003: "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq."

We've been victorious in overcoming tough circumstances before. At the same time, we've also surrendered, broken promises, and abandoned allies to their deaths before, too.

You can be a harsh critic of President Bush and still advocate for victory in Iraq - SEN Lieberman proves that. To paraphrase Peter Parker in Spiderman 2, there are bigger things happening in the world concerning us than the local competition between Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps, the biggest decision as an American people that has been thrust upon us by OIF is whether we choose to be a world leader, with all the costs and responsibilities that implies, or not.

4/13/2007 01:05:00 PM

Note: comment is slightly amended for clarity.


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