Compounding the Folly


Iraq under study

The Iraq Study Group Report is out, the first of more reports on Iraq to come from various organs of our government. This report and the ones to follow signal the first stage of a U.S. attempt to extricate itself from Iraq with the least damage to its position.

The Report has some good points. The fact that it was produced at all is a plus. No matter what the Report recommends, it provides an alternative establishment voice that openly is questioning existing policy, even if only tangentially. The Report usefully aggregates and summarizes information from many persons in an official way. The main plus of the report is its frank description of the current situation. Coming from whom it does, this is a small step forward in the public debate over Iraq.

With or without negotiations, the U.S. cannot exit from Iraq without deciding to exit. Despite occasionally warming up to the idea of an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, this Report does not recommend a pullout from Iraq or even a long but clear roadmap to that end. Instead it agrees with President Bush in still seeking a one-state Iraq political structure with a "representative government," that is, a democracy. The Report wants to see a central government that controls all of Iraq’s oil revenues: "The United States should support as much as possible central control by governmental authorities in Baghdad, particularly on the question of oil revenues."

But U.S. control over Iraq’s political future is an impossible hope and always was. Iraq is not West Germany or Japan in 1945. The Iraqi people are not homogeneous, and Iraq and Baghdad are historically at or near the epicenter of numerous empires. (See here.) A U.S.-style or U.S.-assisted democracy in Iraq cannot submerge deep rivalries based on religion, history, revenge, power, and oil. The only way that Iraqis might have conceivably chosen a single or several governments for themselves was for the U.S. to have left Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein. But the U.S. stayed on, and now its failed attempt to impose its own idea of order has turned into a serious wound to both Iraq and the U.S.

The Report’s presumptions

The Iraq Study Group Report echoes President Bush’s belated recognition that democracy in Iraq "will depend primarily on the actions of the Iraqi people," yet it still holds to the discredited theory that the U.S. armed forces, wealth, and assistance can help determine the sex of and give birth to a new and unified Iraqi democratic state. But if a people does not want a government or a democracy that fits U.S. specifications, what can the U.S. do about it short of imposing such a government, an action that, as in Iran, can only lead to long-run problems? And should the U.S. be in the business of encouraging the modern, over-powerful, and dysfunctional welfare state anyway?

If this Report’s writers and top Administration officials have their way, a pullout will be very slow. They are still seeking outcomes beyond U.S. control and attainment, such as a stable Iraqi state ruling a peaceful Iraq. The Report calls for a temporary increase in U.S. armed forces in Iraq along with numerous other measures that not only do not remove the U.S. from Iraq, they increase American involvement and commitment.

Strangely, the Report maintains the hope of American success in Iraq even as it views as "implausible" that the Iraqis will avert an "unfolding civil war." While recognizing and spelling out the hopeless situation, the Report nevertheless calls for a last ditch and concerted effort to salvage something out of the Iraq debacle. Playing poker or the stock market in this way, by failing to cut losses, leads to bigger losses. Only the illusion that one controls the game, the market, or the Iraq situation is what keeps the player in a losing game, meeting every raise and raising the stakes even higher. The U.S. political establishment, as reflected in this Report, still thinks it has what it takes to win the game of shaping the world to U.S. tastes. It fears that if it loses this hand in Iraq, the U.S. will be set back for many years to come. If this and succeeding administrations keep increasing the size of the pot, and there are no indications that they will not, then, unless the American people see the light, the prospect of financial ruin will provide the last and final sanction to terminate the excessive and unrealistic U.S. ambitions.

If you do not at first succeed

The Report stresses that neither American policy-makers and soldiers nor the Iraqi government control events in Iraq. It stresses the long odds against the U.S. being able to achieve its official goals. But the Report fails to grasp that as long as the U.S. continues to look for success on its terms in Iraq, it will be held hostage to events on the ground in Iraq that are initiated by a variety of armed and hostile factions that the U.S. has no control over. In blunt terms, the Iraqi factions will run circles around the U.S. The U.S. can’t win.

The U.S. had an opportunity over a year ago after the Iraqi elections to declare victory and begin a face-saving withdrawal. That option is gone. The U.S. can no longer withdraw without acknowledging defeat, even if it blames the Iraqis for sabotaging their newly-formed state. The U.S. never could get what it wanted in Iraq, and it still can’t. It could get illusory military victories, but it could not create a viable Iraqi democracy.

The more that the U.S. interjects itself in Iraq, the more that its fate depends on what the other Iraqi players decide to do. These other players have their own agendas and forces. They can outlast the U.S. The Report observes that 15,000 U.S. soldiers cannot control 6 million fighting Iraqis in Baghdad. "The results of Operation Together Forward II are disheartening. Violence in Baghdad — already at high levels — jumped more than 43 percent between the summer and October 2006." Despite these facts and years of negative experience, the Report says: "We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective."

The Report’s assessment

In the words of the Report, the situation in Iraq is grave, deteriorating, and dire. Violence is unchecked, underestimated, persistent, severe and growing more severe. Daily life is often unbearable. Almost 15 percent of the population has been displaced. Large numbers of Iraqis have died and are dying as a direct result of the war. The Report describes each of the factions warring in Iraq. The main Shia factions are the Mahdi Army (itself fractionated) of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The Sunni factions are less identifiable. Al Qaeda "is responsible for a small portion of the violence." There are also criminal gangs. The government of Iraq is weak and divided with some of its elements initiating and sustaining a great deal of violence. The Iraqi Army lacks leadership, loyalty, discipline, equipment, personnel, logistics and support. The Iraqi police, "organized under the Ministry of the Interior," are in even worse shape. They not only do not control crime, they "routinely engage in sectarian violence." The U.S. does not know who is in the police or where the money and equipment are going. All of the preceding and more concerning Iraq is stated in the Report.

As for the American situation in Iraq, the Report views it too as extremely negative. We are told that Americans in the U.S. military are being killed and wounded in Iraq at an undiminished rate. U.S. forces are heavily taxed and overstretched. Equipment is fast wearing out, leading to shortages in the U.S. The rotation system interferes with efforts to learn the local scene and earn the population’s trust. The cost of the war is unsustainable. The Report admits that the American presence in Iraq fosters resentment among Iraqis. It makes plain there is no military solution in Iraq: I quote: "As another American general told us, if the Iraqi government does not make political progress, u2018all the troops in the world will not provide security.’ Meanwhile, America’s military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence. Increased deployments to Iraq would also necessarily hamper our ability to provide adequate resources for our efforts in Afghanistan or respond to crises around the world." Like Democrat leaders, the Report wants increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan: "…the United States should provide additional political, economic, and military support for Afghanistan, including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved out of Iraq."

Which way to jump?

Where the Report comes up short is in its lack of analysis. Since it accepts the basic assumptions and thrust of U.S. policies worldwide, it cannot ask searching questions. It cannot grasp the deep-seated reasons for U.S. failure in Iraq. It cannot see the contradictions in U.S. policies. It really does not yet admit that the U.S. has failed in Iraq, and therefore it cannot really analyze the causes of this failure. While it is true that Iraq’s government depends on the Iraqis, the Report nowhere seriously questions the numerous U.S. errors in thought and deed that brought about today’s problems in Iraq. If U.S. foreign policies are not subjected to the most severe and searching scrutiny, then how can the erroneous assumptions that go into their making ever be rooted out? If the U.S. does not understand the basic reasons for its Iraq failure, will it not repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, such as in Afghanistan or Somalia?

The most important conclusion of the Iraq Study Group is that the U.S. should not pull out of Iraq. Its main reasons are that a single national state is not guaranteed at this time, U.S. prestige and influence will suffer, Iraq will lurch toward chaos, and sectarian killing will increase. If the U.S. did not accurately predict the results of attacking Iraq in 2003, can the Study Group now accurately predict that the results of rapidly withdrawing U.S. forces will be unambiguously dire? Clearly not. One sure result of withdrawing is an end to American deaths and injuries. Another sure result is the restoration of American military capabilities. A third result is to staunch the war borrowing, and this in turn can lead to a growth in America’s capital stock and income. A fourth result is that Iraqis will play a bigger role in deciding their own future. The killing and chaos in Iraq are already at very high levels. Can they go higher? Yes. Might they go lower if the U.S. pulls out? They might, and a pullout is what most Iraqis favor. Perhaps they know something that U.S. officials refuse to see. The U.S. prestige is already at a low ebb because its weakness is evident every day of the week in Iraq. The bargaining power of the U.S. with respect to other Middle Eastern countries is already at a low ebb because they know that the U.S. is inflexibly bogged down in Iraq. They can manipulate the U.S. by proxy explosions, attacks, and assassinations. A U.S. pullout actually can improve the prestige and position of the U.S. in these respects.

There are many potential scenarios that no one can predict. The positive results of pulling out of Iraq are highly visible, the negative results not so clear. Yet the Iraq Study Group fears the worst from withdrawing and hopes for the best in remaining. But if the U.S. implements the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the U.S. continues on an interventionist course whose outcomes have already proven to be negative and even predictably negative.

Intervention risk

The Study Group’s many recommendations are interventionist and far too optimistic. Most of them involve the U.S. doing this or that thing in Iraq or with Iraqis. Their main recommendation, for example, is to integrate American armed services personnel into Iraqi units. Did this work in South Vietnam? Can it work in a society as divided as Iraq’s where loyalties are highly uncertain?

In general, interventionist foreign policies are necessarily highly risky. Many unknown things can happen in the future where disputatious factions are involved. Interventions make America’s future depend on a game of super-roulette. In (American) roulette, any of 38 numbers can come up. In super-roulette, the possibilities are far greater. There is a significant dispersion in potential unpredictable outcomes, many of which are bad.

Since U.S. policymakers have to commit to a single policy at any given juncture, the odds of choosing a wrong policy are very high and the odds of choosing the single-best right policy are infinitesimal. The only way to hedge the interventionist risk is to choose flexible foreign policies that can be adjusted if bad outcomes transpire. However, the U.S. is not known for choosing flexible policies. The choice of war, in particular, forecloses numerous options. It is a commitment to a rather inflexible course. The U.S. is now paying for the folly of embracing the unacceptable risk of remaking Iraq in its image.


Americans at large have turned against the war, even if they have not acknowledged its folly much less changed their minds about America’s role in the world. And now that U.S. officialdom has begun to own up, even partially, to the dreadful spot that Iraqis and the U.S. are in, we are seeing the initial stages of an official desire for the U.S. to disengage from Iraq. This process has a very long way to go.

Doubtless, the supporters of American Empire will do everything they can to protect the hard shell of their paradigm. They will do this by placing the blame for Iraq on a variety of singular and unusual factors. They will blame everyone from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and neoconservatives to the Iraqis themselves. They will be quick to point out errors like dismantling the Iraqi Army and failings in the U.S. military. What they won’t do is question the basic policy of American Empire.

The Iraq War has been utter folly, prompted (among other things) by ignorance of Iraqi and Middle Eastern realities, erroneous perceptions of American strengths, oversimplified and outsized political hopes, and incompetent execution. Like all government programs, it has failed badly. The U.S. blindly rode into an impenetrable thicket, and got a cropper for its pains.

Now the Iraq Study Group Report proposes to compound the folly. It urges the U.S. forward into the thicket, based upon the same premises and erroneous assumptions that the U.S. held when it galloped into Iraq almost four years ago. Once again the cream of America’s political ruling class displays its ignorance of foreign affairs and its misperceptions of what the U.S. can accomplish. Once again we are given a set of impossible political blueprints and no reason to expect anything other than continued deficiencies in carrying out the plans.

It seems that no matter who they are, in government or out, new hands or old, the Washington jockeys who whip the American horses into battle wear the blinders, not the horses. Living and working in the center of the American Empire breeds a peculiar form of blindness of thought. Facts are seen but not understood. They do not result in appropriate action.

Unfortunately, the Iraq Study Group Report provides neither a serious break with existing U.S. policy nor the slightest hint of a major re-evaluation of the U.S. role in Iraq, the Middle East, or the world.