Underestimating the role that Iran plays inside Iraq is a potentially fatal mistake.
January 2, 2006
With Responses From
Jan 2, 2006
5 Min read time
Underestimating Iran's role is a mistake.
Barry Posen is right to make the case for a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (though I continue to argue for a withdrawal that, unlike his, is complete, speedy, and generous to Iraqis and other non-Americans financially and politically). He is right to diagnose the present situation as, essentially, one of a “stalemated counterinsurgency.” And, crucially, he is right to argue that the longer the administration delays making a public commitment to a substantial drawdown of troops, the greater the political and financial costs. Having said that, however, the course he advocates remains deeply unsatisfactory—even unrealistic. This is for two main reasons: first, Posen misreads key aspects of the situation inside Iraq, in particular the role that Iran already plays in its politics; second, he almost completely ignores broader trends in a global political system of which Iraq—both the country and the issue—is nowadays a part.
Posen dubs his plan a “disengagement” strategy. But what he proposes is very far from a disengagement: he argues for a continuing U.S. military role inside Iraq that, in the event of an open civil war, would play a “balancing role” among the antagonists with the goal of achieving what he describes as a “stalemated civil war.” (His model for this is the role of the UN and NATO in Bosnia—not a very encouraging precedent for anyone involved.) Since mid-November, it has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration has indeed decided to adopt a “troop drawdown plus (largely) off-shore balancing” policy similar to that advocated by Posen. But this policy is already doomed to failure. As in the case of Israel’s lengthy pursuit post-1985 of a “small force inside plus threat of massive strikes from outside” policy in Lebanon, if the United States tries to pursue this kind of policy in Iraq it will continue to find itself facing powerful opposing forces there; and it will eventually—after how many more American and Iraqi deaths?—conclude that a complete or near-complete withdrawal from the country is the only viable path.
Both non- and anti-U.S. forces inside Iraq draw strength in part from their longstanding ties to supportive neighbors. (I’m referring to Iran, in the case of the 60-plus percent of Iraqis who are Shias, and to the Sunni Arab world in the case of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis.) Underestimating the very strong role that Iran already plays inside Iraq is a potentially fatal mistake. Posen’s misunderstanding of Iran’s role is evident throughout this piece; for example, when he writes, “Neighbors—including Syria, Iran, and Turkey—need to be quietly warned about the . . . price they might pay for . . . actions against the Iraqi government.” Why would the Iranians take actions against the pre–December 15 Iraqi government when roughly two thirds of its members—just like two thirds of the members of the post-December government there—are already, effectively, in their pocket?
Washington’s second post-invasion viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, completely disbanded the country’s armed forces and national police. That action, coming on top of the U.S. military’s earlier failure to prevent the looting of ministries and much other vital national infrastructure, completed the effective dismantling of the Iraqi state; and despite the billions of dollars poured into rebuilding projects since then, the occupation forces have completely failed at the politics of postwar national reconstruction. This failure had many consequences, including crucially the failure of the United States to reconstitute any national-level Iraqi security forces that have the motivation, unit cohesion, and leadership required to hold the country together. Instead, we now have well-developed but segregated militias in the Kurdish and Shia areas that have been armed, supplied, and bankrolled by the United States for many months.
The political failure of national reconstruction created a big opportunity for subnational efforts at reconstruction. Two forces seized this opportunity: in the north, the coalition of two Kurdish parties; in the south, a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Along the way, the broader coalition of Shias-plus-Kurds captured all the positions of national-level “leadership” contested in last January’s election; and they will certainly dominate the national elections of December 2005. Not that these national-level positions have ever been connected to any structures capable of effective nationwide governance and service provision. Instead, they have been used almost purely like government positions in any failed-state kleptocracy: as opportunities for massive graft, patronage, and political intimidation.
The amount of power that Iraq already wields within Iraq has three large implications for Posen’s analysis. First, it makes no sense to try to justify the presence of U.S. forces in the region by the argument that they are needed to deter moves against the Iraqi political order. Second, inside Iraq, the United States can no longer even aspire to be the hegemonic power: it does not have the capacity to redraw the country’s internal balance, as Posen suggests. Third, control of the oilfields at the head of the Gulf is already much closer to being “concentrated”—and in pro-Tehran hands, too—than Posen stipulates as being in the U.S. “national interest.” So at the level of Gulf-wide geopolitics, as in Iraq, the United States is much weaker than Posen suggests. All this against a global strategic background in which the thus-far peaceful, rules-based rise of the two emerging Asian powers, China and India, is already starting to challenge U.S. hegemony elsewhere.
The “stakes” in Iraq for U.S. national security (as defined by Posen and most other American strategic commentators) are therefore much larger than he implies. This is just one reason why the “Bosnia-like” strategy that he proposes seems willfully wrongheaded. Ten years of stalemate might be bearable for the United States regarding 1990s Bosnia but not regarding a key Persian Gulf nation today.
For my part, I do not define the U.S. national interest in terms of a hegemonic (or even simply “balancing”) U.S. military presence in the gulf region. The best interests of Americans will be served if we and our leaders build a relationship of equality, nonviolence, and cooperation with the 96 percent of the world’s people who are not Americans. We need an end to Bush-style unilateralism—which I read Posen as seeking to perpetuate, both in Iraq and in the Gulf. It needs to be replaced with a renewed commitment to multilateral, UN-based action to confront the challenges posed by the political and geopolitical shifts that are already underway in Iraq and the rest of the Gulf region. The Bush administration has done a huge amount to shred the capabilities of the international body (which also has its own pressing internal problems). But the kind of rules-based international mediation that the UN alone can provide may well be the only factor capable of helping extricate the United States from George Bush’s disastrous imbroglio in Iraq. Posen’s misnamed “disengagement” offers no such promise.
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