What to do about Iraq

Last week, at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, I asked the left what its solution is to Iraq, arguing that “just as you cannot abandon the Iraqis to this mess we got them into, you cannot abandon policy to those who made the mess.” Some, quite predictably, dismissed this.

But not Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor of The Guardian. In a long and, predictably, thoughtful response on the third anniversary of the start of war, he argues that I’m right to challenge the left to offer its solutions, but he fears there is no solution short of waiting out 15 years of war.

Tempting as it may be to suggest that those who got us into this mess should get us out of it, Jeff is basically right. If we leave it to them the chances are that they will only lead us deeper into the mire, so it’s reasonable to ask opponents of the war (and anyone else, for that matter) how they would proceed from here.

Demanding to know how they would actually solve Iraq is a different matter, however. The question implies that a solution does exist, if only someone could come up with the necessary bright idea. What this demonstrates, I fear, is that the hawks, even liberal ones like Jeff, are still failing to understand the real nature of the conflict, otherwise they would see that there is no solution.

If this sounds like a way of evading the question, it isn’t meant to be. Patients may demand a cure from their doctors, just as Jeff does with Iraq, but sometimes the doctors can’t help. Once we have got over that hurdle and admitted that there is no known cure for Iraq we can start to think rationally about what to do next.

One of the items on Whitaker’s lines on his to-do list is to initiate “criminal proceedings against Bush, Blair and their cohorts” to give “a strong, clear signal.” And, preditably, he brings the matter back to Israel and the Palestinians. That is quickly reaching the level of cant.

Otherwise, I find Whitaker argument unpleasant but compelling:

The US-led invasion unleashed ethnic and sectarian rivalries that the Ba’athist regime had kept bottled up – brutally – for decades. Assuming that Iraq does not totally disintegrate (though that is a distinct possibility), we can reasonably expect the war will take between 10 and 20 years to run its course. A midway point between these two figures would be 15 years – the length of the Lebanese civil war, which is quite a useful comparison….

The Iraqi war will end when the parties involved have fought themselves to a standstill, either through exhaustion or by reaching a stalemate. That doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying issues will be resolved by fighting but the power struggle will eventually shift – as it did in Lebanon – from the military to the political sphere.

Though the shift may still be a decade or more away, any framework of political institutions that can be preserved in the meantime will be useful when the time comes. For that reason, if no other, we should try to keep the parliament and some semblance of a government running, but let’s not pretend there is a democracy in the making.

As the war takes its tragic but now inevitable course inside Iraq, our first concern must be to stop it spreading beyond the country’s borders. In particular, we must do everything we can to prevent Iraq’s internal rivalries – between Sunni, Shia, Kurdish etc – from infecting the rest of the region. This is an increasingly urgent problem.

More readers added their responses at Comment is Free. Among them, Leon Green suggests: “The United Nations in my view is the answer. Hand over control (with the Iraqi ‘government’ on the steering group) to the UN.” James Hamilton responds:

1. You are going to need a very large number of peacekeepers, probably in the hundreds of thousands, and you are going to have to train them in their work, which will take 2-3 years …

2. If the UN is going to be running Iraq’s assets in trust, then it is going to have to undergo considerable reform itself to avoid any hint of a repeat of the Oil For Food fiasco….

3. You might not like the record of “western” superpowers, but you would probably admit that they’ve made a better fist of Afghanistan than the Russians did, and that the continued state of Chechnya is an argument against looking to non-Western powers for better consequences. …

Read the rest at Comment is Free, including many who argue that I set the wrong rule. I said that just getting the hell out of there is not the answer.

Here at Buzzmachine, there were more comments, some with venom, which I wish wouldn’t happen but I’m not so unrealistic as to assume that’s possible. But Andrew Tyndall has a wise response:

Imagine militias escalating current death squad activity into all-out sectarian warfare. Image if the Shiite militias of the Interior Ministry start fighting one another on faultlines such as maximal-vs-regional power, or various degrees of clerical control.

If those dangers are realistic, then the current US policy of arming and training local army and police forces is a recipe for disaster. All that does is make all potential sides in such civil conflict even more skilled at killing.

Yet that policy — arming and training — is announced as the essential pre-requisite for withdrawal….

If the cause of the violence in Iraq is resistance against foreign occupation, then the principled thing is for the occupier to leave.

If the cause is sectarian vendettas, then the principled thing is for the occupier to step into the middle.

If the cause is terrorist cells seeking to disrupt civil society, then the principled thing is for the occupier to help arm and train the government.

If the cause is warlordism, then the principled thing is for the occupier to help defuse and disarm all factions, including those operating, for the time being, under government colors.

Well this is the horns of a dilemma!

Robert Feinman says:

If you assume, as I do, that the goals of the invasion were:

1. Establish permanent bases in Iraq to replace those lost in Saudi Arabia

2. Install a client government that will agree to favorable oil deals

3. Intimidate surrounding Arab states

4. Limit China’s ability to purchase mid-east oil

Then future US policy is clear.

1. The permanent bases are almost complete. Murtha’s misunderstood suggestion about withdrawal wasn’t from Iraq, but just to the bases.

2. The client government is still a work in progress.

3. Arab states have become more compliant, especially Syria and Libya

4. China is now making oil deals in much less favorable places because of lack of access to prime oil nations….

There’s much more.

We can’t end the war now. Leaving doesn’t end the war. The solution, whatever it is, is not as simple as a bumpersticker.

The point is, this is what we must be discussing now: future tense over — not instead of — past tense.