An alternative approach would respect Iraqi rights to self-determination.
January 2, 2006
With Responses From
Jan 2, 2006
5 Min read time
We must respect Iraqi rights to self-determination.
It seems almost certain that by late 2007 there will be a significant reduction of troops in Iraq. What remains debatable is the logic of withdrawal and the ends that it will serve. On these issues, I believe Posen’s proposals are consistent with the conventional wisdom in the foreign-policy establishment—and both flawed and objectionable.
When the antiwar movementcalls for withdrawal, it is part of a larger effort to reduceAmerican dominance in the region to increase the capacity of itsresidents for self-determination. For Posen—and policy wonks inboth parties—withdrawal is to be carried out in a manner thatpreserves U.S. dominance. It is no surprise, then, that Posenrecommends that other instruments of U.S. military power—SpecialOperations, intelligence operatives, and the Air Force—remain inplace. Though he doesn’t directly say this, I assume he alsorecommends the maintenance of military bases, though perhaps fewerthan the hundred-plus that currently dot the Iraqi landscape.
Posentakes the goal of defending U.S. interests to be self-evident.Iraq’s stability and territorial integrity matter mainly becausetheir absence could allow regional powers or local actors to takecontrol of oil revenues and use them to undermine U.S. interests. Thecharge of the Special Operations and intelligence forces would be toensure that no one side gets an undue advantage over another, helpingthe weaker ones by arming them and providing logistical support,using air strikes when necessary. The United States is to induce astalemate among Iraqi factions and repel any attempts at influence byother powers, regional or global.
Posen’s guiding concern isprotecting U.S. interests, not the interests of the local population.Nothing new there. Similar concerns have been guiding Western policyin the Middle East since the great powers carved up the region afterVersailles. Posen’s means are conventional as well, the only recentaddition being the recourse to routine air strikes. But air strikeshave now been a part of Iraqis’ lives for 15 years, and they areprobably used to them, too.
That being so, there are twoquestions we can put to this proposal: is it workable, and is itjustifiable? Posen thinks the two issues are distinct. I think theyhave much stronger links than he allows.
Is it workable? Maybe, butthe risks are greater than Posen lets on. His main worry is that uponthe troop withdrawal there could be a slide into civil war. Hissolution is to neutralize the military superiority of any one side byincreasing the military capacity of the others. This would haveseveral effects that Posen doesn’t discuss. First, it would meanthat the United States would remain embroiled in Iraqi affairs. Thereis no reason at all to assume that this wouldn’t pull Americanforces into greater involvement over time. Once the United Statesdeclares a stake in local outcomes and is steering their course,there is no automatic brake to keep the involvement within bounds.Posen acknowledges this risk in his analysis that the currentoccupation prevents local factions from hammering out some kind ofcompromise. Isn’t it also possible that continued involvement willhave a similar effect? If American force is available to each side,then won’t each side have an incentive to draw on thatforce?
Second, Posen’s solution would likely harden cultural andethnic divisions, since it encourages a greater militarization of theconflict. It is very possible that the United States would have tointervene to suppress inevitable movements for secession or greaterlocal power. At the very least, the Middle East would be saddled withanother country that is armed to the teeth and enmeshed in domesticturmoil. Increased militarization can only weaken other civicinstitutions and political tendencies. Countries where imperialpowers have a steady history of intervention and clandestinemanipulation—Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Bosnia—don’t give usmuch reason for optimism.
Do weaker representative institutions andincreased militarization of Iraqi society present a problem for U.S.dominance? They might, since they would only strengthen theassociation of American policy in the region with undemocraticregimes and military bases, both of which curtail popular power.Every administration since Truman’s has assumed that this is not aproblem, that as long as regional elites are maintained as wards, theArab masses, no matter how radicalized, can be handled.
It might betime to rethink this approach. Posen’s proposals amount to limitingIraqi political institutions and sovereignty. While for Posen thefear of a civil war after withdrawal justifies these outcomes,consider for a moment that there may be no civil war. Posen’s ownarguments suggest this possibility, acknowledging that as troops moveout all sides will have a greater incentive to reach some kind ofagreement. Yet if we accept Posen’s approach, just as Iraqis cobbletogether a stable and democratic compromise the United States mayhave to reign it in, or even undermine it. A stable and unified Iraqcould deepen its relations with Iran or China or Russia; it couldexclude American companies from contracts; it could strive to act asa counterweight to the Saudis in OPEC or to Israel in regional powerconfigurations. It is hard to see how such actions would be toleratedby the U.S. administration. Respecting Iraqi sovereignty only as longas Iraqi policy is consistent with U.S. interests will simply add tothe simmering resentment toward the United States in the Middle East.If Posen is worried about the potential for terrorist attacks, thishardly seems the recipe for reducing it. Posen is to be lauded forrecognizing that the occupation has disastrously eroded whatevergoodwill there might have been toward America after 9/11. He needsnow to recognize that the problem lies not just in the occupation,but in the basic thrust of American policy.
An alternative approach would be based on respect for Iraqi rights to self-determination—and on international law. I think it’s fair to say that American political elites and their advisors would not accept the decline of their control of the region and its peoples that this approach would require. But it is something various forces in the United States are pressing for, among them the antiwar movement, elements of the labor leadership, human-rights groups, and the anti-globalization movement. If a change in policy is going to come, it will most likely be a result of such mass mobilization. It seems that in order to decrease the power of the American government over the people of the Middle East, Americans will have to increase their power over their government.
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