Who Lost Iraq?


Apr 16, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on April 16, 2007.

As Iraqi and American public opinion pushes the United States inexorably toward the exit, a debate over who lost Iraq is already gaining momentum. There is no shortage of culprits.

Already the Defense Department is blaming the State Department, and State is blaming Defense. One top general after another is quoted as saying "there is no military solution to this conflict" — in other words, "don't blame us if we fail." Soldiers claim, rightly enough, that they are the only ones mobilized for this war, and decry the paucity of civilian experts deployed in Iraq.

Diplomats, for their part, argue that they have seen to the drafting of a constitution, organized elections and installed a new Iraqi government. They complain that the military has failed to establish a secure environment in which these democratic institutions can take root.

A similar debate is taking place within the U.S. defense establishment between advocates of traditional manpower-intensive counterinsurgency doctrine, like the current commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and those who favor a greater emphasis on "foreign internal defense" — that is, Iraqi forces — like his predecessor, General George Casey.

The media are examining their own shortcomings. The New York Times has apologized for its prewar coverage of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Tom Ricks, the Washington Post's senior defense correspondent, has castigated his own editorial page for its early and consistent endorsement of the war. Some TV journalists have acknowledged that their initial coverage of the war focused on dramatic pictures of victorious U.S. troops and gave too little time to what might come next.

In Washington, there is a growing consensus among experts that the entire system for managing national security affairs is broken and needs to be revamped. That structure, built around the National Security Council and its staff in the White House, was established in 1947 to handle the incipient Cold War. Something new and much larger is needed, so this argument goes, to successfully marshal all elements of American power for the new long war against Islamist terrorism.

Democrats tend to blame the Republicans for failure in Iraq, while Republicans prefer to blame the Iraqis. There is also dissention within the parties.

Among Democrats, antiwar activists criticize those who voted for the war, as well as those who continue to resist legislating an end to it. Among Republicans, the neoconservatives blame the conservatives, in particular former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but also President George W. Bush, for not committing adequate manpower and money to the task.

The looming debacle in Iraq has also cast a critical light on U.S.-Israeli relations. Respected academics have complained about the inordinate influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States.

Interestingly, there is a similar debate underway in Israel, where some Israelis believe that their country's policies have become too closely linked to those of the United States.

In truth, there is more than enough blame to go around. America went into Iraq united to a degree uncommon in U.S. history. Congress authorized this war by an overwhelming majority, something that had not occurred for the Gulf War a decade earlier, nor in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia or Kosovo, all of which were highly controversial.

Many leading Democrats thought the intervention in Iraq was a good idea. The press was uncritical, and the American people were hugely supportive.

Precisely because responsibility for this misguided enterprise is so widely shared, the temptation to lay the blame on the Iraqis may prove irresistible, and not just for Republicans. We gave the Iraqis a chance, so this argument goes, and if they failed to seize the opportunity to build a peaceful democratic state, whose fault is that? Yet the Iraqis are what they are. If they failed to live up to American expectations, shall we fault their reality, or our illusions?

The Bush administration, like the American public, now recognizes that the occupation of Iraq was mismanaged. Its response is a determination to do better next time. Many Americans are more likely to conclude that we must not do it at all next time. In fact, both these conclusions are valid. By all means let us henceforth avoid invading large hostile countries on the basis of faulty intelligence with the support of narrow, unrepresentative coalitions.

But let us also recognize that not all conflicts are avoidable. Iraq may have been a war of choice, but Afghanistan was not, and both conflicts left America with a heavy burden of nation building.

Through the 1990s the Clinton administration slowly learned how costly such missions could be. In Somalia it turned tail at the first sign of opposition. In Haiti it set an early departure deadline, thereby ensuring that any improvements it introduced would be short lived.

In Bosnia President Bill Clinton set an even shorter deadline, promising to have all American troops out of the country within 12 months of their arrival. But he was at least wise enough not keep his promise. It was not until 1999 — seven years into his administration — that Clinton finally acknowledged the open-ended nature of the American commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo.

It has taken the Bush administration a similar amount of time to learn that nation building cannot be done on the cheap. The surge of troops into Baghdad is a belated acknowledgment that rebuilding a failed state takes an enormous commitment of manpower, money and time.

This realization probably comes too late to rescue the American venture in Iraq. But by succumbing to the temptation to scapegoat the Iraqis for an American failure, we could lose sight of this important, if unpalatable, realization altogether.

James Dobbins, a former assistant U.S. secretary of state and special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

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