Iraq: What Next?

Of all the exasperations of this war, the most stinging is that its beginning is not all you need to know about its ending. The high reasons for the war were attended by fantasy, ignorance, and deceit. This cannot be denied. And in view of such origins, the temptation to insist upon a swift evacuation is very great. Almost 3,000 Americans have been killed, and more than 20,000 Americans have been wounded; and 150,000 Iraqis have been killed, according to the Iraqi government, in the fratricide that the war unleashed. 150,000: we are approaching a Saddam-like magnitude for the murder of innocents. If savagery at this scale continues, and the quest for Iraqi democracy suffers blow after blow at the hands of the Iraqis themselves, the overthrow of the dictator will have to be considered, morally speaking, almost a wash. Who would not want us to get out of this carnage and chaos? It is also perfectly understandable to wish to see the architects of this enterprise--Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and a variety of local neoconservative legends who are now explaining, for the sake of their ideological pristinity and their earning power, that this was not, alas, the war they had in mind--pay a price. But what price would Iraq, and the United States, pay, were we simply to withdraw?

For a long time I shared the view that it was the refusal of the United States to send more troops that was responsible for the failure to establish stability and decency (but not democracy, which cannot be established by force or by fiat) in Iraq; that all that stood between us and our grand objectives was Rumsfeld and his outside-the-box boorishness; that he was the box. I still have no doubt that more American troops would significantly improve the security situation in a few central and nasty places. But the security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called "the foreigner's gift," belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not be only given, they must also be received. I say this without condescension. Quite the contrary: the denial of the historical agency of the people of Iraq is the real condescension. For three-and-a-half years, the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom? Yes, the fledgling institutions of some sort of democracy have been established; but the story of liberated Iraq is hardly one of a struggle for liberalism--our kind of liberalism, their kind of liberalism, anybody's kind of liberalism. It is a grisly tale of tribal butcheries, of ethnic and religious wrath, of fear bred by vengeance and vengeance bred by fear. Sunni violence cannot be explained only by Shia violence. Shia violence cannot be explained only by Sunni violence. (Sistani is the new Khatami, the reasonable and pragmatic holy man, the Madisonian mullah, who turns out to be unable or unwilling to restrain anything.) After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself. There seems to be only communitarian love and communitarian hatred; the death of universalism, or the failure of universalism to be born; and death. Also, more than a million Iraqis have left the country: immigration is another sort of universalism.

The perplexity for the United States is that the Iraqi era of armed identity has significant strategic consequences. Iran, too, has been given the foreigner's gift, and so has Al Qaeda. The fracturing of Iraq represents the fulfillment of one of Iran's fondest dreams; and all the ancient and fascinating differences between Najaf and Qom notwithstanding, I find it hard to believe that the collapse of the Iraqi state would not leave Iraqi Shiism in the orbit of Iran, which is skillfully in pursuit of regional hegemony. And whether or not an American departure from Iraq would leave a vacuum for Al Qaeda to fill--there are no vacuums in Iraq, which is the problem--the war has already had the opposite of its intended effect of diminishing terrorism. Inside Iraq, state terrorism has been replaced by nonstate terrorism; outside Iraq, the war has inspired terrorist networks and terrorist attacks.

Does all this pessimism warrant withdrawal? I will confess that I wish it did. Since I was a supporter of the war, I have its consequences also on my own conscience. I do not believe that American troops should die for some heartless Kissingerian notion of American credibility in the world, or the like. (Anyway, it is the war itself that is doing the most damage to American credibility. After terrorism, the most immediate problem for American foreign policy in the age of Bush is anti-Americanism.) Even if we withdraw from Iraq, we will be a spectacularly powerful country whose enemies should still beware. And moral reasoning about such matters should be efficient: in the lag between the conclusion that we should withdraw, if that is what we conclude, and our withdrawal, Americans will pointlessly perish. For all these reasons, I am not inclined to dismiss all the antiwar voices in Congress and elsewhere as a depraved isolationism or another Peter, Paul, and Mary concert. This war has not been a glittering success, and its costs have been considerable. And I have never felt comfortable with the America in whose name this administration has conducted this war: in times of danger one tries to overlook differences about other issues and other challenges, but I do not agree that only a state preemptive of civil rights, treaty obligations, and international alliances--that only the preemptive state--can adequately defend itself.

Yet I am unable to conclude that we should quit. We cannot quit on moral grounds, because we have an obligation to assist the secular democracy-builders in Iraq, the heroes in the wreckage, whose cause is not yet lost, and we have an obligation to protect the Kurds. And we cannot quit on strategic grounds, because of the gains to Iran and to the terrorist international. So what should we do? Briefly, anything and everything. An increase in troop deployments for the mastery of Baghdad, upon which a great deal depends (if order is not established, nothing good will be established); reform of the Iraqi military, or of what passes for the Iraqi military; redeployment to less provocative locations; a federal arrangement of the Iraqi state; an international conference (but about Iraq, not Palestine); an attempt to flip Syria to our side, which is not beyond the diplomatic imagination; anything and everything. If we leave, or if we stay the bleeding course, things will get even worse. I am not sure that an administration as clumsy and rigid and self-adoring as the Bush administration is capable of the dexterity that this crisis now requires. (Rumsfeld was not fired for the results of the war. He was fired for the results of the election.) And I am not sure that any or all of this will work. We are at the mercy of Iraq, where there is no mercy.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.