11 January 2007

Why the Bush Iraq plan will fail

I realize the title sounds presumptuous, but hear me out. The President's plan for Iraq won't work primarily because it relies on a military solution, though even its economic elements are shaky. The main problem here is that the United States lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis, and thus cannot be an honest broker in whatever peace process may exist.

The most problematic element is the U.S. military presence in Iraq. These forces made fast work of overthrowing the admittedly nasty regime of Saddam Hussein, and then became an occupying force backed up by what was essentially a colonial government in the form of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). While many Iraqis undoubtedly had no lost love for Hussein (as evidenced by the circumstances around his execution), it is incredibly unlikely that they wanted a foreign force to come in and essentially replace him. Think of the American Revolution led not by the colonists, but by the French, who then installed their own regime while we got our act together. It wouldn't be so popular, would it?

President Bush wants more troops in order to stabilize the country, particularly Baghdad and its environs. Yet because our forces lack legitimacy (meaning no Iraqis in theater ever invited them in), they cannot possibly fulfill the role of a stabilization force. Such forces require some degree of impartiality, which an invader turned occupier force simply cannot truly exercise. This is why a phased withdrawal combined with a robust capacity building program is essential to American strategy in Iraq. American forces are, and always will be, targets of insurgents bent on driving the Americans out of Iraq.

Similar arguments can be made for U.S. attempts at restoring/sparking Iraqi economic growth. Here again, American actors lack the legitimacy and impartiality needed to be seen as acting in good faith. While I am pleased that the Administration is coming around to the need for non-military measures, the tactics laid out lack the key element of legitimacy and thus cannot be sustained. On a slightly different note, the connection made between codifying a law on oil resources and promoting national reconciliation is a bit bizarre. If anything, the debate over how to divide Iraq's oil wealth among its constituent groups is the most contentious issue in the country. Only if some sort of agreement were reached that somehow managed to satisfy Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds could there be some moves towards reconciliation. Yet given the broader political climate in the country, this outcome seems unlikely for many years.

Furthermore, the President's plan relies heavily on playing rough with Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria. That simply will not work. You cannot seek support for rebuilding a country while simultaneously alienating two adjacent countries. Like it or not, the autocrats in Damascus and Tehran will have to be engaged in this process. As we have seen in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, American tough talk and belligerence will only be met by the same from the other side.

I don't have a plan for Iraq myself. Obviously the President and other policymakers have tremendously more resources at their disposal than some lowly grad student. Yet I feel like there can be no success -- at least defined as anything beyond getting our forces out in mostly one piece -- without some sort of internationalization of the effort. Have the Iraqis ask some respectable third part to come in. Of course in present circumstances that will be nearly impossible, not only because Iraq is now the hot potato of the world, but also because the world's peacekeeping/peace enforcement capacity is stretched pretty thin. Additionally, the U.S. is unlikely to want to deploy troops to other places as part of other international missions, even if it totally withdraws from Iraq. While I'm reluctant to use the word quagmire, I would classify the present situation we're in vis a vis Iraq as a bit of a pickle.

If you're interested, compare and contrast the President's speech tonight with the Iraq Study Group and Joint Chiefs of Staff (if you can find it) reports that came out last month.

UPDATE: Here is a nice chart from NYT comparing different proposed plans with the Bush speech.

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