No issue has so shaped America’s recent politics or defined its present role in the world as the Iraq War. NR asked a symposium of military experts, geopolitical thinkers, Middle East scholars, and conservative writers the two paramount questions: Are we winning; and, if not, how can we? Here is what they had to say.
Resident Fellow David Frum
The U.S. has not yet lost in Iraq, but it is on the verge of losing at home. Public opinion has turned strongly against the war, driven both by a torrent of bad news over the past three years and, especially, by the explosion of sectarian violence in Baghdad this summer. What’s most urgently needed now is a strategy to restore order and government authority in Baghdad. A visible success in Iraq’s highly televised capital would in turn strengthen resolve at home.
Will 4,000 U.S. troops redeployed from elsewhere in Iraq suffice to do the job? I don’t know anyone who thinks that they will. Not for the first time, we are left to wonder: Does the Bush administration truly believe Iraq is as important as it says it is?
If we are to believe the administration’s words--if Iraq is truly the central front in the war on terror--then what’s needed now is a reinforcement of enough U.S. troops to retake Baghdad sector by sector and block by block, as the French retook Algiers in 1959. The operation would have to be conducted sensitively, with Iraqi forces visibly in the lead. At the same time, the U.S. would have to undertake a much more serious effort to sever the connections between Iran and its proxies in Iraq: not only doing a better job sealing the border, although that is important, but also engaging in political action to remove pro-Iranian officials from Iraqi ministries and security services.
A dramatic and visible success in the capital would restore morale in the U.S.--and enhance the credibility of the elected government in Iraq.
But make no mistake: A fight like that would represent a major escalation of the U.S. commitment to Iraq, a reversal of an 18-month-long policy of de-escalation and de-commitment. And if the Bush administration, for its own reasons, cannot or will not do what is now necessary to win--well then, it had better begin seriously contemplating a fallback position, a Plan B. As it is, the sacrifices of U.S. troops and the effusion of U.S. treasure are succeeding only in slowing the pace of U.S. failure.
Senior Fellow Newt Gingrich
Today, Iraq is certainly not where, in early 2003, we had hoped it would be. If the current violence, instability, and confusion are measured against the planning assumptions of that period, this campaign to create a free and stable Iraq is clearly failing. What is still neither understood nor accepted is that Iraq is only one campaign in an emerging Third World War. Iraq is to our generation what Guadalcanal and North Africa were in the Second World War--important, but part a much bigger picture.
In that context, we must “think and act anew” to deal effectively in the much larger global conflict against the forces of terrorism and dictatorial regimes. Within that framework, we need a new commitment to winning in Iraq as one of the key campaigns in winning the larger war. The first step is to face some hard truths about Iraq, so we can fix the problems for the wider war:
- Our enemies’ communications campaign is radically better than our own and all of our efforts to improve have been trivial compared with our opponents’ agility and pervasiveness.
- Our intelligence capabilities inside Iraq remain weak five years after 9/11.
- Our language capabilities remain minimal.
- Our civilian instruments of national power remain lethargic and expensive.
- We have failed to deliver on our promises to the people of Iraq.
- We remain confused about our goals. Senior leaders continue to use terms with neutral connotations (“civil war”) or positive ones (“insurgency”) to describe the actions of uncivilized, brutal killers who are trying to defeat a government for which 80 percent of the Iraqis voted.
America has historically adapted quickly to the realities of war, and we can again--but it requires frankness from our elected leaders. The American people will support what it takes to win if offered a coherent, grounded path toward victory. It starts by ending the failures they see every day in the news.
Freedom Scholar Michael Ledeen
Are we winning? No, if by “winning” you mean “ensuring stability all over Iraq.” There are many areas where things are getting worse. Yes, if you mean “expanding areas of stability.” Many areas, Kurdistan above all, are quite peaceful. But the “no” part is more important than the “yes” part, because, in key areas such as Baghdad and Basra, things are alarmingly bad.
What to do? First, recognize that the Iraqi enterprise rested on a failure of strategic vision: It was never possible to secure Iraq so long as Iran and Syria were left free to wage terror war against us. Our military, and some Iraqi units, are terrific, but you can’t win a regional war by playing defense in one place. It is, as I have said ad infinitum, a sucker’s game. Ergo, work for regime change in Iran and Syria, the only way to win the war. Mostly this requires vigorous support of revolution, although we have waited too long and it is more difficult than it once was. If we continue to dither, we will soon face two terrible options: surrender or bomb.
Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
The U.S. is losing in Iraq because American politicians and the general public have not decided they want or need to win. Many congressmen look at Iraq through the lens of the 2006 election: They care neither how their words embolden the enemy nor how their grandstanding impacts Iraq. Meanwhile, many commentators have cast accuracy aside to cater to, and cash in on, public ennui.
Iraqis are now as pessimistic as they have ever been. Corruption and organized crime run rampant. True, some metrics are positive: Oil production is on the rebound, shops are opening, agricultural production is up, and defense-ministry forces are increasingly trained and competent. But the corrupt police are running rampant.
While U.S. diplomats have become masters of their cubicles, Iranians have become masters of Iraq. We hold sway over the Green Zone; they hold sway over the rest of the country. Their dominion includes, increasingly, Kurdistan. Why? Because they have provided overwhelming force, patronage, and staying power.
Militias exist to impose through force what they cannot win through the ballot box. Iran exerts its influence through militias, and the U.S. fails to counter them. Left alone, they metastasize. While USAID takes weeks to allocate a paperclip, and months more to study its impact, the militias create elaborate charities to establish themselves in society. Thus Iran is replicating the Hezbollah strategy. It is no accident that Iran’s current ambassador to Iraq was formerly Tehran’s liaison to the Lebanese terrorist group.
How to win? We’re suckers if we trust Iran. In Iraq, we need to cut the supply lines to the militias, roll up Iranian intelligence, and replace Iranian charities with our own patronage. We’ve got to treat the commanders of Iran’s revolutionary guard as the combatants they are. If imposing firm demands pushes Iran toward a fight, we cannot shrink from it. In the Middle East, projecting weakness leads to defeat. Unfortunately, the Rice State Department is all about weakness.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI. Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at AEI. Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.