After Iraq, then what?

I have been meaning to write this entry for a while, but vacation got in the way. In addition, I was not quite sure what to write. This is a particularly hard topic for me to think through. After we lose in Iraq, how do we go on and actually win the larger war on terror?

My assumption is that our exit from Iraq will not be particularly pleasant. I do not know how much longer it will be before we formally throw in the towel, but I am convinced that we will throw in the towel. If I had to guess, I would bet we would be mostly out by the end of 2007. The 2006 midterm elections should sober Washington up, assuming it takes that long. As I suggested some months ago we are likely to see a replay of Vietnamization in Iraq. The first three acts have been the same. It remains to be seen if the final act will be a repeat too. At some point, even the polite fiction that we can maintain some sort of rough control in Iraq will be blown either literally or figuratively away. While we can, we might maintain some bases in Iraq to leverage force in particularly lethal battles. However, Iraq is more likely to devolve into a civil war. In this case, since we could not choose sides our forces would be useless. It is very unlikely that brigades of terrorists will launch frontal assaults on Iraqi cities. That is not their modus operandi.

Therefore, although the end is easy to see, exactly how things will play out in the final act remains a guessing game. However only fools or high stake gamblers will bet that we will leave Iraq with a peaceful and democratic government that can maintain control for the long term. There will be a natural tendency to want to bring the all our troops in Iraq home and to make noises, but take little in the way of effective action, against al Qaeda and its agents. This would be a mistake.

I have outlined some pragmatic steps that we should take elsewhere. Many of these I lump for my convenience into a set of “birth control” strategies. It is premised on my belief that like the Cold War, the problem of Islamic extremism is not going to fade away. Consequently, we need effective long-term strategies that lesson the likelihood that new generations of terrorists will arise eager to destroy America. Even the Bush Administration is starting to understand that a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the best long-term use of our time and money. By some estimates, we will have squandered more than a trillion dollars before we leave Iraq. Yet we support Israel’s national security at a cost of about ten billion dollars a year. Surely a few billion dollars a year invested in Palestine to build quality housing and schools would be money well spent. This money needs to be tied to meaningful metrics, like the end of terrorism and a gradual withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank.

We also need better understand how the Islamic world thinks and behaves. You can get a sense of how clueless we are from our actions in Iraq. After more than two years, we still do not even really know exactly who the insurgents are that are fighting us and who is funding them. We guess they are mostly ex Ba’athists and al Qaeda sympathizers, but much of the time we are clueless. No wonder we are so ineffective dealing with them. A good place to start understanding Islam is by engaging Muslim America. We treat Islam as something of a curiosity, rather than the full-fledged religion with over a billion adherents that it is. We tend to fear that which we do not understand. As a result, we get radio talk show bozos like Michael Graham who paint the religion of Islam as “a terrorist organization”.

Sorry Michael. Al Qaeda is no more like modern Islam than Eric Rudolph typifies mainstream Christianity. (Although after Pat Robertson’s bizarre remarks today, you have to wonder at least a little if mainstream elements of Christianity are having a case of al Qaeda envy.) Just as Islamic nations needs to understand us better, so we need to be coaxed into learning more about Islam. In America, we seem almost proud of our ignorance of the rest of the world. In any event, it is clear that we cannot effectively deal with a problem that we do not understand both intellectually and with some degree of empathy. We are using 20th century tactics against terrorism and it clearly is not working. Our military force can and should be leveraged, but they should be used selectively. This war is more likely solved more through winning hearts and minds, and through good intelligence, than through conventional weapons and armies. Therefore, rather than recoil at the plan to put Al Jazeera International on our cable system, maybe we should welcome it.

A more Machiavellian strategy might suggest a policy of containment. While I am not advocating it, I will put it out there for what it’s worth. This strategy suggests that unstable Islamic countries should be isolated politically, culturally and economically from the West. It is based on the assumption that Muslims have to work through their own problems and our assistance is counterproductive. If they are going to kill people, the thinking goes, far better for them to kill each other instead of us. If Islam must go through its own dark ages and reformation like Christianity, why not start now? Just stay to the sidelines and let the Muslim nations implode.

On the other hand, I do not advocate its opposite either. While I think engagement is useful, I think part of the reason 9/11 happened is that we either deliberately or inadvertently introduced too much change too fast into the Islamic world. Yes, PCs and satellite dishes are undeniably convenient. However, we did not have to market to these countries. Moreover, we do not have to go around proselytizing democracy. This strategy does not have much success with Jehovah’s Witness adherents, so it probably will not work for us either. If democracy is inherently good, wayward countries will eventually knock on our doors asking for assistance. Jimmy Carter’s low key approach has been very successful.

As for short and medium term strategies, securing nuclear stockpiles is a fairly easy and inexpensive problem to solve. It is also a lot more doable than trying to impose democracy on unstable countries. I do not feel terribly hopeful that we can restrain the development of atomic weapons, although I certainly think we should continue to try. The price of joining the nuclear club is a lot lower than it used to be. Nevertheless, certainly we can stop doing asinine things like providing nuclear equipment to India, as President Bush did recently. (India has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.)

Clearly, Iraq caused us to lose focus against our real enemy: al Qaeda and those who support it. We can certainly refocus on finding and killing Osama bin Laden. That will not solve the problem of terrorism, but it will send an important signal. I am somewhat puzzled why we found it perfectly okay to invade Afghanistan, but we somehow feel as if we cannot send a single troop across the Pakistani border without permission. We need to be clear that any nation that gives sanctuary to our enemy, either deliberately or inadvertently is subject to attack. I am certainly not recommending that we overthrow the Pakistani government, but we should feel free to attack suspected al Qaeda hideouts in that country without advance notice and with impunity.

There are branches of al Qaeda in Indonesia and elsewhere. We should continue to feel free to help governments there find, capture and kill these people, or to do it ourselves if necessary. Nevertheless, we should be judicious in our use of force. Where possible our strikes should be short and surgical. Our footprints should be minimal. Ideally when these counterstrikes happen we should profess ignorance and disclaim responsibility.

There is also nothing wrong with changing policies even if they may appear to be appeasing terrorists. I have pointed out many times that our support for Israel is counterproductive. It buys us far more enemies than friends. I think Israel can and should be weaned off American aid. I do not see why we need so obnoxiously promote American values either. What is the point of rattling the saber when it just riles up those already inclined to hate us? Why do we have to have the equivalent of giant neon billboards associated with our country? Would more mainstream values like greater support for the United Nations and an agreement to join the International Criminal Court really be that bad for the United States? Some of us remember a time when the United States was the U.N.’s biggest supporter. Of course, we are not going to agree with many member countries. However, the point of the U.N. is to have a forum for countries to air their grievances peacefully, instead of through armed conflict. After more than fifty years, it is still an organization that helps keep the world peaceful. We are better off as friends and supporters of the United Nations than openly hostile to it.

Therefore, I think our war against Islamic extremists needs to be fundamentally rethought. If we bring home the troops from Iraq, we could use the time for a devising new and effective strategies to combat Islamic terrorism. It is very clear that our current course is counterproductive. We need new and pragmatic leadership, not leadership that cannot see beyond their prejudices or will not try new strategies when the old ones fail. President Bush is right in one thing: this is not a war that will end anytime soon. However, in time it can end by embracing effective short, medium and long-term strategies. We should be inviting Islamic scholars like Juan Cole to help draft these policies. To win this war we must avoid knee jerk reactions. Instead, we must think with our forebrains.

One response to “After Iraq, then what?”

  1. Common Sense on Iraq

    Occam’s Razor-wielding Mark makes a lot of sense in After Iraq, Then What?
    Al Qaeda is no more like modern Islam than Eric Rudolph typifies mainstream Christianity. (Although after Pat Robertson’s bizarre remarks today, you have to wonder…


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