The Magazine

The Battle for Iraq

From the October 11, 2004 issue: Forget gradualism and Iraqification--send in the Marines.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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WHAT SHOULD WE DO IN IRAQ? The U.S. presidential election will likely be won or lost over the war and its aftermath. If the United States fails in Iraq--if it is driven out by violence, and the country descends into internecine strife--then former ambassador (and current Kerry adviser) Richard Holbrooke may well be right: Iraq will be "a mess worse than Vietnam." It's a good bet that few people in the administration, as in the country at large, think the counterinsurgency is going well. It is quite striking to listen to President Bush's speeches about Iraq--about its centrality to the war on terror and the future of America's security--and then talk to officials in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House who would rather change the subject. If nothing else, America's second Gulf War will test whether the president of the United States can successfully commit the country to an enormous undertaking--the democratization of an important Muslim state--about which many, if not most, of his diplomats, intelligence officials, and senior soldiers are, at minimum, ambivalent.

President Bush may have seen the necessity of removing a genetically aggressive, weapons-of-mass-destruction-loving Saddam Hussein from a post-9/11 world. He certainly went on to see the essential need to transform the dysfunctional political culture of the Middle East--the nexus between autocracy and Islamic extremism--and the unavoidable task of trying to aid the Iraqis in building a democracy in the Arab world, the birthplace of bin Ladenism. But probably relatively few of the "foreign-policy professionals" and "intelligence experts" below the president see the world similarly. Washington's foreign affairs and intelligence bureaucrats are more or less at one with Senator John Kerry: President Bush has been a rash revolutionary who, among other things, has committed them to an unwanted task that will likely unsettle if not rack them for years to come.

President Bush's strategic vision aside, do his administration's tactics in Iraq make sense? Are any of Kerry's criticisms of the president's plan valid? Is the senator's game plan in any way more astute? The likely answers to these questions are not encouraging.

There is a decent chance that the tactics now in use in Iraq will produce the opposite of what is intended: The insurrection in the Sunni triangle will deepen, and the clerical rebel Moktada al-Sadr and his Sadriyyin followers may well roll forth again, with even more force, from their Baghdad Shiite stronghold. Many American officials certainly hope, and appear to believe, that the "gradualist" course now chosen will eventually win the day: If U.S. forces abstain from the siege-and-conquest of truly difficult insurgent towns in the Sunni triangle in favor of behind-the-scenes, Iraqi-led negotiations backed by CIA largesse, aerial bombardment, quick ground assaults, and the gradual deployment of more Iraqi paramilitary and police units, an inglorious but lasting victory will follow. Yet the administration may well be setting itself up for a perfect storm of Arab Sunni intransigence, fundamentalism, and betrayal. The White House should take little comfort in knowing that Kerry's ideas are even worse. Kerry's plan, when not surreal--the French and the Germans, who tried to ease sanctions on Saddam Hussein, and who opposed the war on nationalist, internationalist, European, pacifist, and capitalist principles, have little desire to aid America now--is unsound, precisely because it repeats and amplifies the bad counterinsurgency ideas of the Bush administration.