Four years into the Iraq war — “hard to believe,” eh, Mr Wolfowitz? — don’t expect the U.S. media to dwell on the conceptual foundations of this catastrophe. That may be because the media was rather complicit in laying those foundations. But the more interesting question, today, I think, is where the Iraq adventure is going, because its narratives have clearly unraveled, and its strategic purpose — in the sense of attainable goals rather than fantasies — is now far from clear. To be sure, today, Washington is clear only on what it wants to prevent in Iraq, and even then its chances of doing so are slim. Still, as Bush says, that doesn’t mean it can withdraw.
It’s worth noting, in passing, that the decision making structures in the United States are fundamentally dysfunctional to its imperial project — its system of government is democratic (in a plutocratic sort of way), and distributes its flow of information and decision making across a number of bureaucratic command centers that are seldom on quite the same page, and compete for authority and resources — a competition that occurs partly in the public eye, via “leaks” to the media, whose source is invariably the bureaucratic rivals of those who are made to look bad by the story. The executive decision makers are always vulnerable to the limited appetite of the electorate for costly imperial adventures, and the electorate gets to express its impatience every two years by using the ballot box to limit the authority of those directing the current imperial expedition.
The patience of the enemy out in the field, meanwhile, is invariably far deeper than that allowed by U.S. election cycles. Ho Chi Minh knew that; so do the Iraqi insurgents and the Shiites and the Iranians, and the Palestinians and Syrians and everybody else Washington is fighting. The Iraqis are intimately aware of the debate in Washington over withdrawal, and they know that despite the surge of troops, the U.S. will in the near future be forced by domestic pressure to withdraw most of its infantry from Iraqi streets. (No wonder frustrated hawks like Max Boot and Michael O’Hanlon are suggesting that the U.S. military begin outsourcing expeditionary warfare to the satrapies, offering green cards for four years service — just as the British wherever possible sent Indians or Ghurkas to do their fighting.) But even that won’t overcome the bureaucratic internecine warfare. Ask a question as simple as “How could the U.S. occupy Iraq without having a coherent plan?” and the answer is simple: There was a plan, but it was trashed because it had been developed in the State Department, whose personnel hadn’t drunk the Kool Aid of permanent revolution in the Middle East, and therefore couldn’t be trusted. While the neocons might have believed their fantasies about Iraq tranforming itself immediately into a willing and happy satrap of the U.S., the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld had no inclination to back a long occupation. So, Paul Bremer was sent in without a clue, armed with some old manuals from the occupation of Germany in 1945 (no jokes!) and a civil administration recruited largely from the intern echelon of neocon think-tanks. (Again, no jokes!)
Then there’s the question of the media’s failure to challenge the conceptual frameworks in which the public was prepared for war. I’ll resist the hubristic temptation to reprise the predictive highlights of the 487 pieces of analysis I’ve written for TIME.com over the years on Iraq, but suffice to say that you didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to establish (at the time, not only in retrospect) that the war was based on false premises: Not only the premise that Saddam had some unconventional weapons, but that even if he did, that invading and occupying his country was a wise response. (Think about it, would Iraq be any less of a mess today if the U.S. had actually found a couple of sheds full of mustard gas and even a refrigerator stocked with botulinum toxin?) Nor was it that hard to establish the inevitability that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would stir a nationalist resistance that would be hard to contain — people don’t like being occupied; it makes Arab people feel like the Palestinians, and that inspires them to resist. All this was lost on the coterie of “experts” who have dominated the milquetoast media discussion of Iraq even after they’ve been proved so spectacularly wrong (Kristol, Boot, Krauthammer, Beinart, Hitchens, Packer and so on).
But there’s no value in reprising the morbid jig that sent America lurching into this mess.
The more interesting question, I think, is what is Iraq now? What is the U.S. doing there? What are its objectives, and which of them can be salvaged? And the reason those questions are so interesting is that the original bundle of impulses and objectives that took America into war has now completely unraveled in the brutal reality of Iraq. Not only that, the U.S. long ago lost its ability to shape the outcome, and the agendas of others limit what Washington is able to achieve.
Bush sounded almost comical Monday when he appealed for patience, saying it would take months to secure Baghdad. Perhaps, but pacification of the capital via a massive injection of new troops, four years into the war, is not much of an achievement — and even then, it will happen relatively quickly because the Shiite militias have simply gone to ground to let the U.S. forces sweep their areas unimpeded, and concentrate on the Sunni insurgents.
The Shiite and Sunni political-military formations will be there months from now, and there’s no sign that the current government is able to achieve an accord that would resolve the conflict. Nor is there a credible alternative to the present government — if the best hope is the wannabe-thug Iyad Allawi, suddenly returned from London to try and forge a new coalition, you know Maliki is as good as it gets. And, of course, some of the things Maliki has to do to stay in power are likely to intensify the conflict — not only his alliance with Sadr, but his dependence on the support of the Kurds, who are pressing to complete their takeover of Kirkuk this year, which the Sunni Arabs and Turkey are unlikely to accept. Breaking up the country will cause regional chaos, holding it together offers simply a more contained chaos.
Still, Bush is not wrong in saying that retreating from Iraq will empower forces hostile to the U.S. all over the region. Of course he omits to acknowledge that it already has, but a withdrawal would certainly underscore the image of epic defeat, and would likely plunge the region into chaos as various regional powers moved to secure their stake in the resulting vacuum. So, while there’s not much that can be achieved, cutting bait could result in greater setbacks.
Iraq, then, may no longer simply be a place or a project; instead it has become the morbid condition of contemporary imperial America.
The decision to invade Iraq is not reducible to any single cause or impulse, as both the Administration hacks (including Christopher Hitchens!) and the conspiracy theorists and vulgar-Marxists would have us believe. Just as political power itself rests in a complex web of relations and balances spread over a range of different institutions with different interests and objectives, so must the decision to go to war be explained as the confluence of a range of different impulses into a kind of “perfect storm.”
Even before 9/11 created an easily exploited climate of fear and crude belief among those in power in the necessity of retribution (inspired by the sort of vulgar Orientalism of the Bernard Lewis brigade — funny how those who tell us that “the only language Arabs understand is violence” are those most inclined to converse with the Arab world in that tongue), there were other impulses:
Plainly, much of that vision lies in tatters. The question is how much of it can be salvaged, and at what cost — or even more gloomily, how can Iraq be managed in ways that limit the extent to which it weakens and imperils U.S. global interests. (It’s no longer plausible to see it as advancing those interests.)
The Baghdad security plan is clearly triage, aggressive defense designed to prevent the capital outside the Green Zone from falling entirely into the hands of insurgents and militias. It’s being tied to political conditions set for the Iraqi government, although it’s already clear that the government is unlikely to meet many of those — the idea of national reconciliation they envisage may not be plausible for the foreseeable future. Interestingly enough, one of the most urgent “benchmarks” set for the Maliki government is the passing of a new oil law. The oil law is characterized in most of the U.S. media simply as a mechanism for fairly sharing oil revenues among the various regions and therefore sects and ethnic groups — but the far more significant portion of the legislation is the fact that it offers up ownership of Iraq’s reserves to foreign oil companies, meaning that, in fact, the revenues available for sharing will be considerably reduced — but the imperial objectivce of acquiring control of Iraq’s oil reserves will be ensured. Although Maliki’s cabinet has accepted the law, it remains to be seen whether the parliament will adopt it. Iraqis are not stupid, and won’t that easily sign away their patrimony no matter how good Christopher Hitchens tells them it will be for them. (Who’d have imagined the Trotskyist contrarian of old not only flakking for the Administration, but also as a shill for Big Oil…)
But whether it’s the troop surge or the oil law, what we’re seeing now are panicky improvisations. And many questions simply remain unanswered — the Administration has studiously dodged ever stating clearly its intentions, or even desires, apropos the permanent bases it has constructed in Iraq. (But Washington is still pouring billions of dollars into constructing them.) But the fact that there’s still no sign of an Iraqi air force or any other military capability to defend the country’s borders tells you that Washington has made no plans to leave Iraq independent, in the sense of capable of defending its sovereignty, any time soon. (Even the Hillary Clinton types talk of pulling U.S. forces out of the cities and deploying them on the borders, as if Iraq is to remain a U.S. protectorate in perpetuity.)
But there simply is no U.S. plan constructed in a modular way that allows maximal aims to be jettisoned in order to ensure the realization of core objectives. It simply unravels, messily.
Much of the U.S. coverage of the troop surge is centered on whether or not it will “work,” with Democrats insisting it won’t and neocons saying it already has. But that depends, very much, on what we mean by “work.” Obviously it won’t defeat the insurgency or the Shiite militias: The commander in charge, General David Petraeus, is a smart counterinsurgency thinker, and he has made clear himself that no action by the U.S. military can secure Iraq — the critical dimension, he insists, remains political: the ability of a new political order to integrate the Sunnis, and to negotiate compacts with the Shiite leadership to whom the militias answer. So, when Petraeus is asked, for example, whether the Mehdi army of Moqtada Sadr could have a legitimate role as a community security force protecting Shiites, he is open to the idea even if Washington’s political echelon isn’t.
It strikes me that Petraeus envisages his mission as a holding operation, to prevent Baghdad from collapsing into anarchy in the hope that freezing the current balance of forces between the sectarian rivals largely in place, the U.S. can create space for a new political compact. While the failed social engineers in Washington may be hoping to remake the political center in Baghdad, their prospects for doing so look increasingly grim. Petraeus is unlikely to be as naive as the political wing of the Administration in imagining that Maliki can be sidelined or Sadr eliminated.
Instead, he’s more likely to encourage discussion with the insurgents, and also the diplomatic process Iraq’s government has initiated with its neighbors, forcing Washington into engaging with Iran and Syria (or creating cover for it to do so). If Iran and Saudi Arabia are able to achieve a compact that stabilizes Lebanon, then such regional horse-trading may yet have something to offer in Iraq. The problem, of course, is that both the domestic political process in Iraq, and the regional diplomacy, are beyond Washington’s control.
What Iraq is, in short, after four years, is an exercise in damage-limitation. The only certainty now is that the U.S. will emerge from the conflict considerably weaker as a global power than when it went in. “Hard to believe,” eh Wolfie, “hard to believe…”