The Magazine

The Consequences of Failure in Iraq

They would be awful. But failure can still be averted.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What would be the consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq? Trying to wrap one's mind around the ramifications of a failed Iraq--of an enormous, quite possibly genocidal, Sunni-Shiite clash exploding around American convoys fleeing south--is daunting. In part, this is why few have spent much time talking about what might happen to Iraq, the region, and the United States if the government in Baghdad and its army collapsed into Sunni and Shiite militias waging a battle to the death. Among its many omissions, the Iraq Study Group's stillborn report lacked any sustained description of the probable and possible consequences of a shattered Iraq.

Before embarking on such an inquiry, a few remarks are in order about American attitudes and about the continuing reasons for hope in Iraq. Americans, for whom foreign policy has always been loaded with moral imperatives and ethical restraints, don't like staring into a bloody moral abyss that we largely dug. The growing bipartisan endeavor to blame the mess in Iraq on the Iraqis is, among other things, a human reaction to screen out all ugly incoming data. For most of Washington, if not the country, Iraq is already Vietnam--no possibility of success, thousands of wasted lives, a grim conviction that it would be best to let the ungrateful, pitiless foreigners take their country back. As the pro-war New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently: "Adding more troops makes sense only if it's to buy more time for positive trends that have already begun to appear on the horizon. I don't see them."

In other words, if one can't envision victory--a political solution where Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq live peacefully with each other--then trying to forestall the ghastly consequences of an American flight from Iraq isn't necessary. If we don't have a workable definition of "success," then we don't have a moral obligation to prevent a catastrophe, even one that is largely our fault. The morality of this reasoning is precarious: Should we never try to stop massive slaughters, or try to stop them only when we didn't provoke them, or try to stop them only when we can't get hurt in the effort? Seeing positive trends is difficult when physical security in Baghdad has been declining, primarily because then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals John Abizaid and George Casey didn't see this elementary duty of an occupying power as their mission.

But the quintessential American pragmatism of Friedman's reasoning is beyond doubt. And the Bush administration has been remiss in neglecting to describe what's probably over the horizon if we win, and if we lose. Senior administration officials have remained largely quiet about the good, the bad, and the truly calamitous possibilities, allowing the president almost alone to sally forth in Churchillian speeches. And those speeches have usually lacked what Churchill's had in spades: acute appreciation of the hardships and vivid descriptions of what failure would mean. Rhetorically, Iraq has become too difficult to handle.

Iraq overwhelms. Yet it shouldn't. Even a pessimist can still look at the place and believe it isn't beyond hope. The counterinsurgency plan proffered by retired four-star General Jack Keane and the military historian Frederick Kagan offers a decent chance of success--probably the last one the Bush administration will have before Iraq cracks up. If the president commits the necessary resources along the lines recommended by Keane-Kagan, the radicalization of Iraq can likely be reversed. The political and democratic possibilities in Mesopotamia remain greater than most in Washington's foreign policy establishment imagine. Post-Saddam Iraq was never going to be a liberal democratic country dominated by Westernized, secular Iraqis. The great Iraqi accomplishment will not be the establishment of a model for peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. That possibility died in the autumn of 2003. But the odds of Iraq's becoming a profoundly imperfect yet functioning democracy, where power changes hands through elections, remain at least as good as those favoring the birth of a Shiite dictatorship--provided the United States adopts the right tactics.

Post-Saddam Iraq has become for us and the Iraqis an act of tenacity. It is overwhelmingly the story of one community, the Shia, endeavoring to adopt a democratic political arrangement while being bombarded by Sunni Arab insurgents and holy warriors, and dismissed as disloyal Arab Muslims by the Middle East's Sunni Arab intellectual and religious classes. The Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera has its virtues--watching Arab religious fundamentalists and pan-Arab nationalists scream at each other is an unalloyed good in the Middle East--but its coverage and commentary on the Iraqi Shia have been on the whole disgraceful, a nonstop apologia for murderous anti-Shiite bigotry.