Dissenting Thoughts on President Bush's Latest Iraq Speech

Last week during a national prime time television address, President Bush offered the latest defense of his Iraq policy.  Timed to coincide with General Petraeus' report to Congress, the President's speech was a challenge to opponents of the war to
"agree we must defeat Al Qaeda, counter Iran, help the Afghan government, work for peace in the Holy Land, and strengthen our military so we can prevail in the struggle against terrorists and extremists." 
I wholeheartedly agree with these goals.  It does not follow, however, that the current War in Iraq is the best way to promote them.
 
First, despite the President's rhetoric to the contrary, the fighting in Iraq is not primarily between American forces and "terrorists," but among warring ethnic factions.  The President's own Benchmark Assessment Report  dated September 14, 2007, describes the conflict in Iraq as
"a complex security situation whose main elements include a communal struggle for power and resources between the Shia majority and Sunni, Kurd, and other minorities." 
In this situation, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda "act as accelerants for ethno-sectarian violence."  But the conflict itself -- the impetus behind the car bombs and IEDs and death squads -- is rooted in a violent power struggle among the various ethnic groups that make up Iraq.  In other words, a civil war.

Consequently, it is deeply misleading for the President and his supporters to speak of the War in Iraq as a fight against terrorists.  While this is part of the story, it is secondary to the President's main mission:  to use American troops to enforce the peace among Iraq's warring factions, and thereby provide a more secure environment for Iraqis (supposedly) "to bridge sectarian divides" and build a "free" and "democratic" society. 

This was the rationale behind the vaunted "surge."  The surge was not intended to beef up American forces to fight against terrorists, but to quell sectarian violence.  In other words, American troops are being used as peacekeepers -- essentially super-powerful policemen -- not combat forces whose aim is to "destroy the enemy."  Yes, the surge appears to be working.  But all this proves is that if you flood an area with enough cops, crime goes down.  It does not prove that we are "winning" the war against terrorism.

Second, in his speech, the President described the War in Iraq as one of those rare moments in history "that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people."  This may be true of Iraq itself -- but the President was speaking of the United States.  I simply cannot share the President's belief in the significance to the American nation of the current conflict in Iraq.  True, this war has dominated President Bush's tenure in office and largely defined his presidency, for better and for worse.  But from a broader historical perspective, the importance of this war pales in comparison to the Vietnam and Korean Wars, let alone the World Wars, or even the Spanish-American War.  The major reason the War in Iraq carries the weight it does is because President Bush continues to invest his -- and the country's -- political and military credibility in what happens there post-Saddam.  In poker, they call this a "bad play."      

Moreover, do the President and his advisors truly believe that the War in Iraq is a test of the American people's "character" and determination to fight terrorism?  If so, I find the implicit assumption that opponents of the war have failed this test to be arrogant and insulting.  Not to mention, wrong.  Yes, there are large numbers of people in this country, including most of the leadership of the political left, who not only oppose the War in Iraq, but reject the entire War on Terror.  These people -- the political heirs of the anti-anti-communists of decades past -- either deny the reality of militant Islam or pretend it can be pacified (not defeated) through appeasement and accommodation. 

Yet there are plenty of folks in this country who are prepared to take a strong stand against militant Islam, but who nevertheless do not agree with the President's policy in Iraq.  The President only belittles his own character, not to mention weakens his support, when he lumps these folks together with the left.

Third, I agree that a "free" and "democratic" Iraq would be a good thing.  Of course.  But there is no reason to believe that an open-ended commitment by the United States to police that country's cities, towns, and regions -- even if such a commitment were possible, which it is not -- will result in the creation of such a society.  Wishful thinking is not enough.  Despite a military engagement lasting more than four years (longer than both the American Civil War and our involvement in World War Two), and more than two and one-half years after Iraq's historic elections, the Benchmark Assessment Report concedes that "political progress at the national level has still been disappointing."  Why?  Not surprisingly, because of the inability of the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds to agree "on a set of decision-making processes and power sharing arrangements."

To this observer, it appears that Iraq lacks the demographic and cultural preconditions to become a stable democratic society.  Putting aside the question of whether Islam is compatible with freedom and democracy as we understand these terms, the fact remains that Iraq is "a society divided along sectarian, ethnic, and other lines."  Violently divided.  See Benchmark Assessment Report at 6.  It is not possible, however, to maintain even a rudimentary democratic society where the bulk of the citizenry holds incompatible views on fundamental questions of individual and community life. 

Does this not describe Iraq?  It is widely assumed, for example, that if American troops pull out of Iraq, there will be a "humanitarian nightmare" (in the President's words) as the competing ethnic factions resume their bloody war of all against all.  This is one of the arguments frequently made in favor of our remaining in Iraq.  On the contrary, it seems to me that this should tell us something about the unsoundness of the very goal we are fighting for.  I continue to maintain 
that marrying U.S. foreign policy to the prospect of a "free" and "democratic" Iraq is a strategy that, almost by definition, will lead to failure.  A failure of President Bush's making.

Fourth, the War in Iraq has clouded our ability to perceive who and what the real enemy is.  As President Bush recognized immediately after 9/11, the real enemy is militant Islam and the threat that terrorists will obtain and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies.  Plainly, our current engagement in Iraq is doing very little to address these concerns.   

We know that Iran continues to develop its nuclear weapons program.  More recently, it was confirmed that Syria also is seeking to enter the nuclear club.  Given the nature of these two regimes -- which are actively opposing us in Iraq and have close relations with Islamic terrorist groups -- destroying their nuclear weapons programs should be a much higher priority than policing the streets of Baghdad.  (The Israelis understand this, and recently bombed a Syrian nuclear weapons facility.)  Frankly, I think the likelihood that Islamic terrorists will detonate a nuclear weapon on Israeli or American soil in the next ten years is far greater than the prospect that, as President Bush stated in his speech, "a free Iraq will marginalize extremists, unleash the talent of its people, and be an anchor of stability in the region."  Yet rather than taking decisive action to eliminate these clear and present dangers (including the specter of full-scale nuclear war in the Middle East), President Bush is bogged down in the quixotic pursuit of a "free" and "democratic" Iraq.

Moreover, the President's justifications for continuing his Iraq policy are unconvincing.  He says "a free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven."  Perhaps.  But even if true, there are plenty of other "safe havens" available throughout the world to Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups.  There is no reason to believe that not being able to use Iraq as a base of operations will impede these groups' terrorist activities.  Furthermore, terrorist camps in Iraq can be dealt with the same way that we deal with terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, and elsewhere -- through targeted air strikes and special forces operations.  Due to Iraq's location and terrain, terrorist camps in that country should be even easier to identify and destroy.     

The President also says that "a free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran."  Really?  Does he envision an Iraq with a Saddam-like military capability, one that it will deploy against Iran?  Even if Iraq builds such a capability (which is extremely unlikely), why would the Shia majority use it against their co-religionists in Iran who are providing the Shia militias with weapons and IEDs?  And why would the President of the United States, the most powerful nation on Earth, place any reliance whatsoever in the ability of a small, weak country like Iraq to "counter" Iran? 

If Iran poses a threat to U.S. national security, either through its nuclear weapons program, its activities in the Persian Gulf, or its support for international terrorism, then we should address this threat directly, using American military, diplomatic, and economic power.  The idea that we will eliminate this threat indirectly through a "free" and "democratic" Iraq is not just ludicrous, it is dangerous.  

Lastly, President Bush says that "a free Iraq will set an example for people across the Middle East."  There is no evidence on the ground in the Middle East to justify this belief.  Despite holding their own elections, much of Lebanon is controlled by Hezb'allah, and Lebanese public opinion is pro-Hezb'allah, anti-Israel, and Anti-American.  The Palestinian Authority is an open terrorist state.  And Iranian opposition groups remain powerless.  So much for the nascent flowering of Middle Eastern democracy. 

More importantly, even if, many years into the future, Iraq succeeds in building a stable democratic country, how will this deter the current Iranian and Syrian regimes from building nuclear weapons and giving them to terrorists?  Or the Saudi regime from funding radical mosques, madrassahs, and Islamic community centers throughout the West?  Or the terrorists already in our country from planning and carrying out their attacks?  It won't.

The President's obsession with Iraq is distracting him from the real danger, which extends far beyond the streets of Baghdad.  Just as the Twentieth Century was marked by a civilizational struggle between communism and freedom, we now find ourselves in a civilizational struggle between Islam and freedom.  This struggle is expressing itself along demographic, political, and military lines.  It requires a comprehensive strategy, one that encompasses immigration, commercial, and security measures.  Whether or not Iraq someday becomes a democracy will have little impact on the outcome of this struggle.  On the other hand, the longer we stay in Iraq, and the more lives and resources we expend on Iraq, the more we will degrade our ability, and commitment, to join this larger battle. 

It is long past time to re-think our policy in Iraq.  We are fighting the wrong war.

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky  
Last week during a national prime time television address, President Bush offered the latest defense of his Iraq policy.  Timed to coincide with General Petraeus' report to Congress, the President's speech was a challenge to opponents of the war to
"agree we must defeat Al Qaeda, counter Iran, help the Afghan government, work for peace in the Holy Land, and strengthen our military so we can prevail in the struggle against terrorists and extremists." 
I wholeheartedly agree with these goals.  It does not follow, however, that the current War in Iraq is the best way to promote them.
 
First, despite the President's rhetoric to the contrary, the fighting in Iraq is not primarily between American forces and "terrorists," but among warring ethnic factions.  The President's own Benchmark Assessment Report  dated September 14, 2007, describes the conflict in Iraq as
"a complex security situation whose main elements include a communal struggle for power and resources between the Shia majority and Sunni, Kurd, and other minorities." 
In this situation, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda "act as accelerants for ethno-sectarian violence."  But the conflict itself -- the impetus behind the car bombs and IEDs and death squads -- is rooted in a violent power struggle among the various ethnic groups that make up Iraq.  In other words, a civil war.

Consequently, it is deeply misleading for the President and his supporters to speak of the War in Iraq as a fight against terrorists.  While this is part of the story, it is secondary to the President's main mission:  to use American troops to enforce the peace among Iraq's warring factions, and thereby provide a more secure environment for Iraqis (supposedly) "to bridge sectarian divides" and build a "free" and "democratic" society. 

This was the rationale behind the vaunted "surge."  The surge was not intended to beef up American forces to fight against terrorists, but to quell sectarian violence.  In other words, American troops are being used as peacekeepers -- essentially super-powerful policemen -- not combat forces whose aim is to "destroy the enemy."  Yes, the surge appears to be working.  But all this proves is that if you flood an area with enough cops, crime goes down.  It does not prove that we are "winning" the war against terrorism.

Second, in his speech, the President described the War in Iraq as one of those rare moments in history "that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people."  This may be true of Iraq itself -- but the President was speaking of the United States.  I simply cannot share the President's belief in the significance to the American nation of the current conflict in Iraq.  True, this war has dominated President Bush's tenure in office and largely defined his presidency, for better and for worse.  But from a broader historical perspective, the importance of this war pales in comparison to the Vietnam and Korean Wars, let alone the World Wars, or even the Spanish-American War.  The major reason the War in Iraq carries the weight it does is because President Bush continues to invest his -- and the country's -- political and military credibility in what happens there post-Saddam.  In poker, they call this a "bad play."      

Moreover, do the President and his advisors truly believe that the War in Iraq is a test of the American people's "character" and determination to fight terrorism?  If so, I find the implicit assumption that opponents of the war have failed this test to be arrogant and insulting.  Not to mention, wrong.  Yes, there are large numbers of people in this country, including most of the leadership of the political left, who not only oppose the War in Iraq, but reject the entire War on Terror.  These people -- the political heirs of the anti-anti-communists of decades past -- either deny the reality of militant Islam or pretend it can be pacified (not defeated) through appeasement and accommodation. 

Yet there are plenty of folks in this country who are prepared to take a strong stand against militant Islam, but who nevertheless do not agree with the President's policy in Iraq.  The President only belittles his own character, not to mention weakens his support, when he lumps these folks together with the left.

Third, I agree that a "free" and "democratic" Iraq would be a good thing.  Of course.  But there is no reason to believe that an open-ended commitment by the United States to police that country's cities, towns, and regions -- even if such a commitment were possible, which it is not -- will result in the creation of such a society.  Wishful thinking is not enough.  Despite a military engagement lasting more than four years (longer than both the American Civil War and our involvement in World War Two), and more than two and one-half years after Iraq's historic elections, the Benchmark Assessment Report concedes that "political progress at the national level has still been disappointing."  Why?  Not surprisingly, because of the inability of the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds to agree "on a set of decision-making processes and power sharing arrangements."

To this observer, it appears that Iraq lacks the demographic and cultural preconditions to become a stable democratic society.  Putting aside the question of whether Islam is compatible with freedom and democracy as we understand these terms, the fact remains that Iraq is "a society divided along sectarian, ethnic, and other lines."  Violently divided.  See Benchmark Assessment Report at 6.  It is not possible, however, to maintain even a rudimentary democratic society where the bulk of the citizenry holds incompatible views on fundamental questions of individual and community life. 

Does this not describe Iraq?  It is widely assumed, for example, that if American troops pull out of Iraq, there will be a "humanitarian nightmare" (in the President's words) as the competing ethnic factions resume their bloody war of all against all.  This is one of the arguments frequently made in favor of our remaining in Iraq.  On the contrary, it seems to me that this should tell us something about the unsoundness of the very goal we are fighting for.  I continue to maintain 
that marrying U.S. foreign policy to the prospect of a "free" and "democratic" Iraq is a strategy that, almost by definition, will lead to failure.  A failure of President Bush's making.

Fourth, the War in Iraq has clouded our ability to perceive who and what the real enemy is.  As President Bush recognized immediately after 9/11, the real enemy is militant Islam and the threat that terrorists will obtain and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies.  Plainly, our current engagement in Iraq is doing very little to address these concerns.   

We know that Iran continues to develop its nuclear weapons program.  More recently, it was confirmed that Syria also is seeking to enter the nuclear club.  Given the nature of these two regimes -- which are actively opposing us in Iraq and have close relations with Islamic terrorist groups -- destroying their nuclear weapons programs should be a much higher priority than policing the streets of Baghdad.  (The Israelis understand this, and recently bombed a Syrian nuclear weapons facility.)  Frankly, I think the likelihood that Islamic terrorists will detonate a nuclear weapon on Israeli or American soil in the next ten years is far greater than the prospect that, as President Bush stated in his speech, "a free Iraq will marginalize extremists, unleash the talent of its people, and be an anchor of stability in the region."  Yet rather than taking decisive action to eliminate these clear and present dangers (including the specter of full-scale nuclear war in the Middle East), President Bush is bogged down in the quixotic pursuit of a "free" and "democratic" Iraq.

Moreover, the President's justifications for continuing his Iraq policy are unconvincing.  He says "a free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven."  Perhaps.  But even if true, there are plenty of other "safe havens" available throughout the world to Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups.  There is no reason to believe that not being able to use Iraq as a base of operations will impede these groups' terrorist activities.  Furthermore, terrorist camps in Iraq can be dealt with the same way that we deal with terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, and elsewhere -- through targeted air strikes and special forces operations.  Due to Iraq's location and terrain, terrorist camps in that country should be even easier to identify and destroy.     

The President also says that "a free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran."  Really?  Does he envision an Iraq with a Saddam-like military capability, one that it will deploy against Iran?  Even if Iraq builds such a capability (which is extremely unlikely), why would the Shia majority use it against their co-religionists in Iran who are providing the Shia militias with weapons and IEDs?  And why would the President of the United States, the most powerful nation on Earth, place any reliance whatsoever in the ability of a small, weak country like Iraq to "counter" Iran? 

If Iran poses a threat to U.S. national security, either through its nuclear weapons program, its activities in the Persian Gulf, or its support for international terrorism, then we should address this threat directly, using American military, diplomatic, and economic power.  The idea that we will eliminate this threat indirectly through a "free" and "democratic" Iraq is not just ludicrous, it is dangerous.  

Lastly, President Bush says that "a free Iraq will set an example for people across the Middle East."  There is no evidence on the ground in the Middle East to justify this belief.  Despite holding their own elections, much of Lebanon is controlled by Hezb'allah, and Lebanese public opinion is pro-Hezb'allah, anti-Israel, and Anti-American.  The Palestinian Authority is an open terrorist state.  And Iranian opposition groups remain powerless.  So much for the nascent flowering of Middle Eastern democracy. 

More importantly, even if, many years into the future, Iraq succeeds in building a stable democratic country, how will this deter the current Iranian and Syrian regimes from building nuclear weapons and giving them to terrorists?  Or the Saudi regime from funding radical mosques, madrassahs, and Islamic community centers throughout the West?  Or the terrorists already in our country from planning and carrying out their attacks?  It won't.

The President's obsession with Iraq is distracting him from the real danger, which extends far beyond the streets of Baghdad.  Just as the Twentieth Century was marked by a civilizational struggle between communism and freedom, we now find ourselves in a civilizational struggle between Islam and freedom.  This struggle is expressing itself along demographic, political, and military lines.  It requires a comprehensive strategy, one that encompasses immigration, commercial, and security measures.  Whether or not Iraq someday becomes a democracy will have little impact on the outcome of this struggle.  On the other hand, the longer we stay in Iraq, and the more lives and resources we expend on Iraq, the more we will degrade our ability, and commitment, to join this larger battle. 

It is long past time to re-think our policy in Iraq.  We are fighting the wrong war.

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky