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Iraq: Facing Today's Realities By: Barry Rubin
Global Research in International Affairs | Friday, September 24, 2004


President George W. Bush and his opponent Senator John Kerry agree on very little except regarding one important foreign policy issue: the United States should stay in Iraq until there is a stable government, violent extremists are defeated, and U.S. credibility assured.

This seems a responsible stand. But is it a correct one? Bush wants to prove his decision to attack Iraq was correct and can still bring victory. Kerry wants to show he is a tough protector of U.S. interests.

Nevertheless, this bipartisan strategy is based on some doubtful assertions. Though they at first seem obviously true, these ideas neglect the specific realities of Iraq. Unless they are seriously reexamined now, whoever becomes America's next president is going to face a much bigger disaster there.

First, that the American presence will give the new government in Baghdad time to become strong enough to let foreign forces leave within a year or so and still keep power.

In reality, though, the current regime is unlikely to rule Iraq without a large-scale coalition presence, having no coherent interest group, army or mass base of supporters ready to fight to the death for it. There are just too many others who want the job for themselves and will do anything to get it. The regime is not steadily getting stronger. No matter how well it governs or what decisions it takes, legitimacy will be elusive. Six months or a year from now it is likely to be equally dependent on foreign forces. 

Second, that by continuing to fight terrorist forces the United States will eventually defeat or suppress them.

Equally, another year or two of combat by American military force is not going to stop the violence. Yet it is the foreign forces' presence which lets the terrorists survive, recruit, and fight by using nationalist and Islamic appeals against the "occupation." This argument so often wrongly applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually fits Iraq. The Palestinian leadership's goal is to destroy Israel and it uses terrorism toward this end. But Iraqi terrorists are fighting a civil war, treating the Shia majority like the Palestinians treat Israelis.

Only the foreign presence is stopping the majority from destroying them by means far more violent, but effective, than the coalition forces can apply. The main Iraqi political forces don't view the terrorists as their champions or as fellow Arabs or Muslims. They want to wipe the terrorists out in self-defense, then take over the country for themselves. They want American forces to get out of the way so they can begin this dual offensive. Equally, though, they have no interest in supporting the interim government which also keeps them from power and cannot eliminate the terrorists.  Only when the coalition forces leave and this civil war takes place will the violence end.

Third, that if the United States leaves Iraq its worst enemies--Saddam loyalists, Iran's clients, or al-Qaida's allies, will be in control.

In fact, though, these forces are quite weak. The violence which will take place after the coalition leaves will be messy but at the end of it any survivors of these radical forces would be lucky to be in an American prison compared to what their fellow Iraqis would do to them. The al-Sadr clan, whose patron is Tehran and has caused U.S. forces the most problems, is not a contender for ruling the country, which is why it has attacked the coalition now, realizing this is their only hope for posing as the Shia community's heroes.   

The American presence is preventing an all-out civil war by staying in Iraq but it is also sustaining a different kind of civil war. And it is only the post-American civil war that will settle the country's future. 

Fourth, that by refusing to leave Iraq, the United States will ensure that it retains a high level of credibility. To leave sooner, as apparently happened in Vietnam, or to let its allies be defeated--as in the shah's Iran--would signal radical forces that they could attack U.S. interests with impunity and disregard its threats.

This sounds like a persuasive argument but in fact the United States is so over-extended in Iraq--and its enemies know it--as to be incapable of taking action on any other issue. Forget about a tough response against Iran getting nuclear weapons or Syria sponsoring a war against America in Iraq, the United States is too preoccupied to do anything. The United States may have thrown Saddam Hussein out of power but is not making other regional dictators tremble today.

The same situation applies to the war on terrorism. Sunni Muslim terrorists have moved their main operational front to Iraq where they seek to relive their glory days in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. No matter what happens they will claim to have driven the Americans out of the country, but they will be too busy fleeing hundreds of thousands of Shias out for revenge to spend much time gloating.

The point is that there are serious arguments for the United States to seek an early withdrawal from Iraq, not due to cowardice or foolish appeasement but as the result of a more sophisticated strategic concept.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography and Hating America: A History (Oxford University Press, August 2004).  Prof. Rubin's columns can now be read online at http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/column.html.


Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.


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