In the twelve-course meal that is the war in Iraq, America has just been served the first entree. The fight with Iraq’s state armed forces was merely the amuse-bouche. The subsequent guerilla war with the Baath, as distasteful as we found it, was still just the appetizer. Over the past two weeks, we have been presented with the first of the main courses, Fourth Generation war waged for religion. If, as is traditional, this is the fish course, our reaction suggests it is flounder.
Frankly, I was surprised how quickly this dish arrived. It seems Mohammed’s kitchen is working rather more speedily than usual. While a broadening and intensifying of the anti-American resistance was inevitable, I did not think it would reach its present intensity until this summer. The fact that is has erupted so early has political as well as military implications. The full scope of our disaster in Syracuse — er, sorry, Iraq — may be evident before the party conventions, as well as prior to the fall election. Might Bush do an LBJ and choose not to run? Will a Kerry who voted for the war be a credible nominee? Military disaster can displace all sorts of certainties.
It is not yet a disaster, some may say. On the tactical level, that is true, although it may not be true much longer. But on the strategic level it is not just one disaster, it is four:
- The pretense that we came to "liberate" the Iraqi people and not as conquerors is no longer credible. Faced with a popular uprising, we effectively declared war on the people of Iraq. The overall American commander, General Abizaid, "gave a stark warning for the Iraqi fighters, from the minority Sunni as well as the majority Shiite populations," according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "’First, we are going to win,’ Abizaid said, seated at a table in a marbled palace hall…’Secondly, everyone needs to understand that there is no more powerful force assembled on Earth than this military force in this country…’" That is the language of conquest, not liberation, and it destroys the legitimacy of America’s presence in Iraq, both locally and around the world.
- We have now picked a fight with the Shiites, who control our lines of communication and who make up a majority of the Iraqi population. I thought that even the Valley of the Blind that is the CPA would have better sense than to make this final, fatal strategic blunder, but it seems they can always find a new ditch to stumble into. We did it over the utterly trivial matter of Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper printing lies — this from an American administration that long ago won the Order of Pinocchio, First Class, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. While many Iraqi Shiites don’t much like al-Sadr, they like seeing Americans kill fellow Shiites even less.
- The Marines threw away the opportunity to de-escalate the fighting with the Sunnis in Fallujah and instead have raised the intensity of anti-Americanism there. For months, the Marines trained for de-escalation. But because of one minor incident of barely tactical importance, the killing of four American contractors, the de-escalation strategy was thrown out the window and replaced by an all-out assault on an Iraqi city. The Marines may have been given no choice by the White House, but it also looks as if their own training did not go very deep; the Plain Dealer quoted a Marine battalion commander in Fallujah as saying, "What is coming is the destruction of anti-coalition forces in Fallujah. They have two choices: Submit or die." That is hardly the language of de-escalation.
- Finally, our whole "say good-bye at the end of June" strategy depends on the reliability of the Iraqi security forces we have been busy creating. But when faced with fighting their own people on behalf of Christian foreigners, most of them went over or went home. This was utterly predictable, but its effect is to leave us without any exit strategy at all.
So what comes next? The current violence may follow a sine wave, ebbing and then flowing again, with the whole curve gradually trending up. Or, it may rise in a linear, accelerating curve, in which case we will soon be driven out of Iraq, possibly in a full-scale sauve que peut rout. The former appears more likely, but it still leads to the same ending, if taking a bit more time to get there.
Unlike traditional twelve-course dinners, this one does not finish with a dessert or a savoury. It ends, to borrow one of John Boyd’s favorite phrases, with the "coalition" getting the whole enchilada right up the p— chute. You cannot get anything you want at Mohammed’s restaurant.