- The long-awaited reports of General David Petraeus and
Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Iraq played this week to very skeptical Washington,
American and global audiences. The Washington Post summed up their first
rounds as "an exercise in kicking the can down the road." That
analogy is brutally apt, because in real life kids often kick the can
until it becomes no longer recognizable as a container. As Petraeus and
Crocker make their rounds in an effort to convince us that staying in
Iraq is a good idea, Iraq looks more and more like the much-abused can.
The New York times was no less critical, calling the reports "Empty
Calories". The Post left its readers with what it called "the
larger questions--what will be the future size and mission of the American
footprint" in that country. However, the Iraq reality poses many
serious and pressing questions, especially for the Iraqi people themselves.
- Why are we there? Having riffled through a card-shuffling
panoply of reasons, all of which have been abandoned or discredited, the
Bush administration clings to them anyway. Finding no weapons of mass
destruction or even any substantial military capabilities, the Bush team
settled for just getting rid of Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, there are
literally millions of people in the region- not all of them Iraqis-who
think that was a poor idea.
- Why do we stay? The superficial reason currently given
is in two parts. One is to keep the Iraqi people from destroying themselves.
As the Iraqis descend ever more deeply into civil war and self- destruction,
that rationale becomes less and less credible. Since our troops constantly
attack anybody who fights back against the American presence, we end up
flitting from one side to another in the civil war, while that war itself
shows little sign of abatement. The second leg of this rationale is to
make Iraq free of terrorism. Since we have defined any Iraqi who resists
the American occupation as a terrorist, Iraq has filled up with terrorists
since Saddam was deposed. That our occupation and we are the ultimate
terrorism generators in Iraq is presently beyond dispute.
- How long will we stay? The typical Bush team response
to this question has been somewhere between silence and a waffle. In their
statements on Monday, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker continued
the tradition, while suggesting that in mid 2008 force levels would be
no less than pre-surge strength, meaning about 130,000 troops. In further
statements on Tuesday, they asserted that the United States would have
forces in Iraq for years to come. There were no hints that US officials
discussed this plan with Iraqi leadership or sought the approval of the
- Who profits from the Iraq campaign? The first to profit
from it is George Bush. That sounds odd, because his ratings are so low,
but he has used the war to keep the national political system enslaved
by the idea of military victory, rather conversely, by the fear of who
would take political blame for military defeat. The broadband profiteers
are the military industrial complex whose enterprises profit from a US
military budget that is larger than all other countries military budgets
combined. Within that spectrum is the American private security industry
the principal firms of which, such as Blackwater, have grown fat on Iraq
field support for US forces and civilian personnel. Private security enterprises
now have capabilities that equal or exceed those of many national governments.
Ultimately, the main beneficiary of the Iraq enterprise is Israel, because
that country is able to maintain its military domination of the Arab countries
under the umbrella of both US forces and US funding while steadily expelling
the Palestinian people from their homeland.
- How are Iraqis reacting? Because of the American/Coalition
presence and the violence sustained around it, Iraqi demographics are
shifting. Estimates initiated by the British medical journal Lancet suggest
that a million Iraqis have died because of the war. Because of deaths
and departures, more and more Baghdad neighborhoods are becoming Shia
as the Sunni seek sanctuary elsewhere. More widely, however, Iraqis are
simply packing up and leaving their neighborhoods or leaving the country.
Iraqi security concerns have deepened in 2007; as an ABC News/BBC survey
found, six in ten Iraqis think security in the country has worsened since
the surge, while only one in ten sees some improvement.
- Where does al Qaida fit? Before the US/Coalition invasion,
Iraq experienced little to no terrorism. Even though the Bush team clings
stubbornly to a contrary view, Saddam was not associated with al Qaida,
and he suppressed rigorously all violence in Iraq except that perpetrated
by his forces to keep the factions in line. The so-called "Iraqi"
al Qaida sprang up essentially to combat the American occupation; it is
an Iraqi insurgency, and its affiliation with Osama bin Laden's group
is incidental. Especially in Anbar and nearby provinces, US forces have
attacked al Qaida vigorously without destroying it. Qualified experts
predict, however, that the moment the US withdraws al Qaida will decline
and disappear. In effect, al Qaida Iraq is a mirror image of the American
- Isn't Iraq the central front in the War on Terrorism?
As its house of cards collapsed, the Bush team, actually a few neocon
ideologues, invented the idea of moving the War to Iraq. The Bush administration
accomplished this through a jerky process of translation: /Anybody who
resists our forces in any country is a terrorist. Iraqis are resisting
our presence in Iraq. They are terrorists. We will move the War on Terrorism
to combat them./ The team will not explain this rationale, and Americans
in general will never know the difference. As Iraqi resistance intensified,
international media generally referred to it as an insurgency, an entirely
reasonable Iraqi response to occupation. Thus, if al Qaida had not appeared
on its own-and some people dispute that it did- somebody had to invent
it. In the administration lexicon, al Qaida and the War on Terrorism are
- How can we leave while civil war rages? In the estimate
of virtually all observers, Iraq has been coming apart for many months.
The occupation has become both a participant in that civil war and a cover
for it. As noted earlier, occupying forces engage anybody who shoots at
them, threatens them or explodes bombs in their vicinity. It is often
impossible to tell whether a given challenge is part of the insurgency
or part of the civil war. Figuring out how to capitalize on the American
cover is an artful dodge of both the insurgents and the militant combatants.
In essence, either the Americans are in the way and being shot at, or
they are active contributors to the violence. There is no indication
that Americans can correct this anomalous role by any move other than
- What will help the Iraqi people? The Bush team constantly
asserts that Iraq will come apart if we leave. As noted above, however,
Iraq _is_ already coming apart. Out of a population of roughly 25 million
at the beginning of the war, about five million people are dead, displaced
or exiled. Internally, family, communal and tribal structures are collapsing.
The prospect that anyone can correct those damages anytime soon is slim.
Every day of additional occupation and combat contributes to this disaster.
There obviously is no way to stop the accumulating problems without stopping
the fighting. That will not happen until the American forces and their
small cadre of allies leave. Non-military support from outsiders will
be vital. Outsiders acceptable to the Iraqi people will be essential for
any successful recovery.
- Where do the neighbors fit? The Bush team constantly
has argued that if Iraq fails it will take the neighbors with it. Logically,
as the Bush argument goes, therefore, the United States should stay in
Iraq to keep it from coming unglued and ungluing the whole region. At
this moment, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and other countries face severe
effects of the conflict in Iraq. Syria, for example, harbors more than
a million Iraqis. The number in Jordan is smaller but not a simple matter
for Amman. Turkey must deal with the swirling ambitions of the Kurds to
recreate their ancient homeland. Iran must cope with complex clan, religious
and historical linkages to the Shia majority of Iraqis. Saudi Arabia,
at least some Saudis, feel impelled to help the embattled Sunni minority.
By staying in Iraq, the United States only adds to the difficulty and
the probable duration of those regional problems.
- Are the neighbors involved in the conflict? The answer
is yes, inevitably. The Americans tend to take that fact personally, but
it is simply unavoidable. Regional involvements along ethnic and religious
lines would occur no matter who invaded Iraq. That pattern has repeated
itself numerous times over regional history. Regional governments have
straightforward choices. They can look the other way while their nationals
help ethnic, tribal or religious group members in the war zone. They can
actively take a role in the conflict in order to control the trans-border
consequences of it. In extremis, they can close their frontiers. Some
combination of the first two is most likely, and the Bush team should
have considered that prospect in mounting this engagement. The challenges
for those regional governments are how to limit involvement, avoid exposure,
confine domestic political effects, and contain damages, including diplomatic.
Responses and results inevitably are imperfect.
- What is in the conflict for Iran? From the beginning,
the Bush team has tried to make Iran an active enemy in the Iraq conflict.
An obvious Bush goal is to make Iran the fall guy for American failure.
In his report, Ambassador Crocker issued a threatening appraisal. "Iran
would be a winner if Iraq falls into chaos or civil war," he said.
However, Iraq _is_ in chaos and civil war while under a combative military
occupation. It is difficult to see how matters could be much worse. Iran's
rewards for this are constant trans-border disturbances-including covert
US operations, threatening rhetoric from the United States, occasional
US taking of Iranian hostages, attempted entrapment by the United States
Navy, and threats of attacks, including nuclear, by the US and Israel.
The mix also includes active measures of the United States to use Iraqi
dissidents in the US-designated international terrorist group MEK (the
Iranian Mujahadeen-e-Khalq) to overthrow the Iranian government. If these
are "rewards", one might ask the Ambassador what he would consider
- How much capacity to influence does Iran have with Iraqi
Shia? That presents a cloudy and, from an Iranian perspective, a probably
unsatisfying picture. Iranian and Iraqi Shia have much in common, religiously
and ethnically. However, Iraqi Shia are not all on the same side politically
or religiously, and many Iran friendly Iraqi Shia do not want to be ruled
by Iran. Conflicts among Iraqi Shia are very much a part of the present
Iraqi mess, and the Iraqi Shia themselves have to mediate those conflicts.
In part, these are internal Iraqi political power squabbles, and Iran
cannot fix them. Neither can the US.
- How important is Syria? In addition to Iran, the US regularly
accuses Syria of active meddling in the Iraq conflict. One of the oldest
trade routes in history passes through Iran and Iraq to and through Damascus.
Tribal mixes along that route are functions of time and place. Family
ties and loyalties are deeply rooted. That these people would not help
their friends, families and tribal connections in a conflict is virtually
unthinkable. None of the borders involved has ever been closed, and sealing
one of them would be a major enterprise. In any regional conflict situation,
the attitudes of governments are likely to center on containment- which
is achievable-rather than avoidance-which is simply unlikely. A small
Shia minority rules Syria, but its immediate problem is that one out of
every twenty people in the country is an Iraqi refugee. That may not be
all bad, because the list includes many of Iraq's best and brightest,
but it is a real problem for Damascus to provide food, shelter, health
care, and eventually employment, to say nothing of law and order.
- How important is the US military situation in Iraq?
In his report, General Petraeus indicated that "the military objectives
of the surge are, in large measure, being met." He does not explain
what those objectives are. General Petraeus states that: "The fundamental
source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian
communities for power and resources." One can reasonably ask, therefore,
just what is the US military mission? What he describes is a matter between
Iraqi ethnic, religious and sectarian groups, and how or why the US military
should have a role in it is by no means clear. It is clear in any case
that the US military presence in Iraq has opened and is sustaining a horrifying
can of worms.
- How real is the likelihood of regional chaos if the US
withdraws? Ambassador Crocker asserts that US withdrawal or drastic curtailment
of activities would result in failure. He says we all already understand
what that means, but he does not tell us. He predicts human suffering
well beyond what has already occurred in Iraq, the evaporation of "gains
made against al Qaida," and the establishment of terrorist strongholds
in the region for "regional and international operations." While
he does not say so, such outcomes would require that regional governments
collectively either fail or collude in the growth of terrorist activity.
That is a judgment for which there is little evidence, and he presents
- When will the US withdraw from Iraq? The subject of a
complete US military withdrawal was not on the Petraeus/Crocker agenda.
In addition to Crocker's predictions of long-term trouble if the US abandons
Iraq or drastically curtails US efforts on behalf of Iraq, General Petraeus
painted a picture for the future that prohibited any promises or plans
respecting future US force levels beyond a possible drawdown to pre-surge
levels in mid 2008. Neither mentioned the major US military bases in Iraq
or the Embassy colossus that is growing on the Tigris in Baghdad. Silence
on the status of those facilities is consistent with a plan to stay in
Iraq. General Petraeus recommended to the Congress that the US forces
in Iraq remain essentially in a combat role for the indefinite future-rather
than move to a combat support role for Iraqi forces. He thus envisions
a US presence in Iraq for the long run.
- Is the US consulting the Iraqis about any of this? Such
consultations, if any, do not show in the two reports. Judgments about
US force levels and the timing or nature of changes are unilateral US
decisions about which the Iraqis learn when their US counterparts are
prepared to tell them. This US approach to the Iraqis has a minimum effect
of perpetuating Iraqi dependence on US forces. It is now an American vassal
state, and it will remain one as long as American forces remain in country.
Meanwhile, US doubts about Iraqi readiness to assume combat and law enforcement
roles appear to stand in the way of US decisions to change roles in Iraq.
- What is the situation now? The most that one can say
at this point is that US combat forces and their support are in Iraq for
the indefinite future. What may happen, subject to conditions that develop
over coming months, is that US forces in Iraq in mid 2008 will be back
to about where they were in numbers at the beginning of 2007. In the meantime,
work on the new US Embassy colossus and four, maybe five, US bases will
be completed. It seems likely that the Iraqis know of those plans, but
the fledgling Iraqi leadership under Nouri Al Maliki or any near future
successor is likely to be too weak to object.
- What lies in the Future? Recent Maliki comments suggest
he would be happy to see US forces leave. Many other Iraqis reflect that
view; thus, it is no surprise that the ABC/BBC survey shows most Iraqis
are not opposed to insurgent attacks on US forces. In that respect, the
next crisis in Iraq may be over the collision of Iraqi expectations with
US intentions. As their history shows, the Iraqis have never been comfortable
under occupation. It seems virtually certain that Iraqi nationalists will
continue to resist such a prospect and that more Iraqis will join the
effort. This suggests that conflict in Iraq will turn more toward insurgency
and away from internecine warfare in the coming months. Such a prediction
bodes ill for our troops. It strongly favors putting UN or other third
country peacemakers in place and gracefully taking our leave as soon as
- How Americans take all this on board is a challenge.
The first task is for the Bush administration to accept that the situation
is thoroughly fouled up, and the responsibility for that lies with American
leadership. Our country has the moral and ethical responsibility for putting
things right in Iraq, but our leadership has questionable competence to
do so. We must view the reports of the past few days in that light, and
creditable readings do not come easily. Borrowing a thought from the English
poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge-advice he gave for believing in a fairy tale,
yesterday Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that to believe what we are
hearing requires our "willing suspension of disbelief." Hopefully
our leadership in both parties will aspire to a higher standard of truth.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman
of the Department of International Studies of the National War College
and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency
Planning. He will welcome comment at <mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org.