The Magazine

The Struggle for the Middle East

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: Iraq, Iran, and democracy.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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LET'S TAKE THE ABOVE ISSUES in order of importance. Iraq comes first. Senior officials, particularly within the Pentagon, ought now to be waking up each morning and telling themselves that the United States may well lose in Iraq in the next 6 to 12 months unless serious course corrections are made. And if the United States loses in Iraq, the repercussions will seriously weaken America everywhere. If we lose in Iraq, neoisolationism in both the Republican and Democratic parties--the disposition is actually stronger on the left than on the right--will in all probability skyrocket. And if such a retreat could be catastrophic for the West--bin Ladenism and other nefarious forces in the Middle East would be supercharged; Beijing might make a play to squash once and for all democratic Taiwan--then failure in Iraq could conceivably define the post-Cold War world, replacing 9/11 as the signal event of our era.

The Bush administration ought to admit to itself two obvious facts. First, we are losing the "war of the roads" in Iraq. If the Sunni insurgency controls the principal arteries in and out of Baghdad and can kill with ease on major thoroughfares elsewhere, there is no way the United States and its Iraqi allies can win a counterinsurgency campaign in the country's heartland.

The administration really should not use here the refrain, of which it is becoming ever more fond, that "only Iraqis can secure their country." Clearing the roads adequately, which means suppressing the occasional bombings, brigandage, and assassinations, really has nothing to do with "standing up" Iraqi security forces. If there is one kind of military operation that does not require much local knowledge, it's undertaking roadblocks, observation posts, and ground and air patrols. The military personnel required to perform this function 24/7 isn't small, but it is certainly within the capabilities of forces already present in Iraq if the Pentagon so chose to allocate these resources. It beggars the mind to believe that the U.S. military cannot deploy sufficient forces to secure the highway between Baghdad and the capital's international airport. Insurgents and brigands--it's very difficult often to tell the difference--now own this short stretch of highway, which regularly sees ordinary Iraqis robbed and shot, often in carefree, outrageous ways. What is worse, official Americans, authorized contractors, and the few lucky Iraqis who have the right friends can chopper overhead, traveling the same route in relative security. (That is, until the Iraqi insurgents and their foreign supporters, emboldened by their success and the failure of the Americans to counter them more aggressively, start using better ground-to-air weaponry.)

Anyone who has spent any time at all with Iraqis--be they Arab Sunni, Arab Shiite, Kurd, pro-or anti-American--knows that the vast majority of Iraqis have wanted to see many more U.S. military checkpoints and patrols on the highways. As the insurgency has warped into constant street crime and hostage-taking, a gut-level bitterness towards Americans, who seemed omnipotent after the downing of Saddam, has surged. It is a surreal experience to listen to the Iraqi Sunni elite, "vacationing" in Amman, Jordan, castigate the Americans for their failure to provide basic street security while simultaneously expressing the hope that their Sunni Arab brethren, both foreign and domestic, blow the Americans and their "Shiite sympathizers" out of Iraq.

It is certainly true that many Iraqis--many very pro-American Iraqis--are indignant about the careless use of American firepower when insurgents strike and Americans respond. The U.S. Army is a stunningly powerful machine, and the spooky nature of combat in Iraq--you never know when you will get hit, and combatants and noncombatants are often indistinguishable--naturally inclines U.S. soldiers to view all Iraqis with suspicion. The military brass and their civilian bosses deserve praise for understanding the risks of deploying too much power in this counterinsurgency. And the ethic of force protection--probably the strongest ethic in the U.S. military--is reflective of America's larger familial sensibilities.