Iraq: The Way Ahead

I spent much of the day traveling to and attending the “Iraq: The Way Ahead” panel at Heritage today.

It was chaired by James Phillips, Heritage Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs. The panelists, who appeared in order of decreasing enthusiasm for the “Surge,” were Fred Kagan, Kenneth Pollack, and Anthony Cordesman.

Both video and audio of the event are already available for download.

Overall, a pretty interesting discussion.

Kagan, as one might expect from the guy who wrote a study that largely inspired the Surge plan, was enthusiastic that it could work given the proper commitment. He said this was a long overdue change in direction and noted that he had long been critical of the administration’s handling of the war.

At the same time, he thinks this particular plan could not have been undertaken back in 2004 or 2005 because neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi military were yet in place in a form that would have been capable of supporting it. On that front, he is pleased by the level of support we’re seeing from Maliki and company and sees many positive trends.

He dismissed the argument that Iraq is a “distraction” from the larger war on terrorism and against al Qaeda in particular as “ridiculous.” Indeed, he says much of the sectarian violence we’re seeing in Iraq now is a direct result of calculated attacks by those same terrorists. Further, he sees a situation much like Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the mujahadeen were a non-factor regionally and globally because they were busy fighting the Soviets; one that war ended, and they were free for mischief elsewhere, they suddenly became a huge threat.

In Q&A, asked if he supported an “open-ended commitment” to Iraq, he said that he did. He argued, correctly I think, that one either commits to fighting a war until victory is attained or no longer attainable, or one sets timetables and virtually guarantees defeat.

Pollack thinks the Surge likely to fail but at the same time thinks it the only possible strategy that has even the slightest chance of staving off disaster at this point. Thus, if he were still in government, he would reluctantly support it.

Historically, sectarian civil wars tend to spin out of control with catastrophic regional impact. While he doesn’t know how bad things could get in Iraq if we fail, he knows he doesn’t want to find out.

He likes the “strategic concept” behind the Surge but is dubious that we have the capacity to carry it out. He thinks it good that we’re moving the emphasis from “Killing Bad Guys to Protecting Good Guys.” He notes that the concept has already worked in various parts of Iraq with commanders particularly adept at counterinsurgency-stability operations.

At the same time, he fears failure because we are unlikely to sustain troop levels long term. Going in and cleaning up villages does no good if the enemy can simply “go to ground,” as many of the militias have already done, only to re-emerge months later. If we’re not willing to stay long enough to prevent that, the successes of the Surge will be short-lived.

Moreover, we simply lack the technical expertise in the Federal Government to take care of all the needs we’ve identified in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. The pat answer seems to be to “hire contractors,” a prospect that fills him with dread given their spotty record in Iraq to date.

Ultimately, Pollack thinks it quite possible that we’ve passed the “point of inevitability” that historians are always able to identify in studying civil wars of the past but that we can seldom spot as they unfold.

Cordesman made Pollack look like an administration cheerleader. While he’s happy that we finally have a SECDEF willing to deal with reality, he doesn’t see much hope in Iraq. Indeed, he thinks that the concept of “winning” may be totally meaningless.

The war is seen as illegitimate by many at home and by much of the world. That will be magnified if we leave Iraq in shambles. There’s no way to spin walking away as anything other than a “huge defeat” for us and a “huge victory” for the enemy. On the other hand, he’s not sure that really matters long term, other than for the propaganda value AQ will get.

He argues we need to “think beyond the next election cycle” and figure out what our goals are in the Middle East and start mending fences.

He’s been around awhile and notes that his first visit to Iraq as a government official was way back in 1971. Contrary to myth, it has always been a failed state. Saddam didn’t turn it into one, nor did the U.S. invasion. Indeed, the sectarian tensions that are now manifesting themselves were evident on that trip.

Contra war supporters, he thinks Iraq is a mess even outside Baghdad and Anbar Province and that’s not likely to change in the next 10-15 years no matter what we do. Iraq is a “kleptocracy” and American experience and expertise is virtually useless in dealing with that type of society.

Ultimately, he thinks whatever happens in Iraq will be determined by the Iraqis themselves. “We can’t impose a plan on them.” We should help all we can with economic aid and the like but our influence will be marginal.

My own views are somewhere between Pollack’s and Cordesman’s. Like Pollack, I think the Surge may be too late to do any good but I think it’s the best among a series of bad options. Cordesman may well be right, though, as to our overestimation of the degree to which Iraqi society is a budding Western democracy just dying for the chance to succeed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    James, in spite of your education, you bandy about the term “civil war”. What civil war? What we have in Iraq is a series of crimial acts limited in scope, designed to keep our media focused on the violence. In civil wars, there a battles with opposing forces. Show me one pitched battle. Where is it that the forces representing the Sunni faction have faced those who represent the Shite faction. We have kidnappings, murders and random bombings. Sniper attacks and roadside bombs but where is the civil war? When the civil authority becomes strong enough to catch and punish the perps, this violence will deminish and eventually end. I ask again, James. Where is the civil war?

  2. Anderson says:

    For purposes of comparison, here’s a link via Drum to Rolling Stone’s roundtable on Iraq, with such beloved figures as Juan Cole and Richard Clarke.

    Drum fronted this great line from former JSC general Tony McPeak:

    America has been conducting an experiment for the past six years, trying to validate the proposition that it really doesn’t make any difference who you elect president. Now we know the result of that experiment. If a guy is stupid, it makes a big difference.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I started to take a look at the RS piece yesterday and got sidetracked. It doesn’t look like I missed much…

  4. Hal says:

    Well, sure. A round table filled with people who were flat out wrong in every conceivable way about Iraq in the first place, and continued this record consistently for the next 3 years is so much more useful.

    It’s like watching a train wreck.

  5. Eneils Bailey says:

    I read the RS piece.

    One of their most notable members was was:
    Zbigniew Brzezinski
    National security adviser to President Carter.

    It’s also laughable that he would pass judgment on any situation in the Middle East.

  6. James Joyner says:

    A round table filled with people who were flat out wrong in every conceivable way about Iraq

    Well, certainly, Cordesman has been a war opponent from the outset. And he was talking about guerrilla war by the summer of 2003 if not before.

    Pollack’s analysis has been pretty solid overall, I think. It’s not as if the administration followed his advice along the way. Chris Suellentrop, writing in early March 2003:

    Six months after The Threatening Storm’s publication, however, Pollack’s book reads as much like an indictment of the Bush administration’s overeagerness to go to war as it does an endorsement of it. A more appropriate subtitle for the book would have been The Case for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Destroying al-Qaida, Setting Israel and Palestine on the Road to Peace, and Then, a Year or Two Down the Road After Some Diplomacy, Invading Iraq. In interviews and op-ed articles, Pollack himself still supports the war, saying that now is better than never. But it’s fair to say that his book does not—or at least not Bush’s path to it.


    Pollack has even stated that an invasion, if not carried out skillfully enough, could be disastrous. In an October Policy Review piece co-authored by Ronald D. Asmus, Pollack wrote that toppling Saddam could “even be counterproductive” if the effort was “pursued in isolation.” Pollack and Asmus argued that Saddam’s removal should be the United States’ third priority in its bid to transform the Middle East, after rebuilding Afghanistan (the “first place to start”) and getting the Arab-Israeli conflict “under control.” That same month, Pollack told NPR’s Fresh Air that he worried that the Bush administration had not laid the proper groundwork for an Iraq invasion, adding that, “if we do it wrong we could create as many problems as we solve.” In The Threatening Storm, Pollack cautions the United States against behaving as a “rogue superpower” that does whatever it wants, whenever it wants: “If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convince much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control. Rather than increasing our security and prosperity, such a development would drastically undermine it.”

    Kagan is the only neocon on the panel and he’s a true believer, to be sure. He’s also had substantial impact intellectually on the war. Even he, though, has been a long time critic of the handling of the war, albeit one from the right.

  7. Eneils Bailey says:

    This is like pulling The Majestic Madame Madelaine Albright off the trash heap of failed diplomacy
    to tell us what Bush is doing wrong in North Korea.

    What’s that again, you said he was going to use the reactors for peaceful purposes, but he lied to you.
    Welcome to the world of regimes that would kill you and your family and then sleep soundly at night.

  8. Anderson says:

    Btw, Zelsdorf, over at Lawyers, Guns, & Money, they thought you were a liberal spoof. I assured them of your sincerity.

    Zbigniew Brzezinski
    National security adviser to President Carter.

    Evidently, there are 2 kinds of people — those who think that’s an argument, and those who don’t.

    The RS piece was actually not all that different from Pollack/Cordesman, but more colorful-like.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Not only is there no evidence of civil war in Iraq. I defy any of the liberal posters to define what disaster this war has been. Not that every live is not valuable but we lose more people on the freeway every year to drunk drivers than we have lost in Iraq. So it cannot be that we are suffering unsustainable losses. The economy is booming so that is not the issue. What must it be? I know. It is necessary for the left to oppose any policy by this President regardless if it were the stated purpose of the previous, democratic, administration to remove Saddam from power. It cannot be allowed for the policy of this President to find success. No matter the cost of loss to this Nation. Politics before national interest. Anyone who uses Rolling Stone Magazine as a source for any serious discussion of anything besides music has been eating the wrong or depending how you look at it, right kind of mushrooms. You”re trippin. I don’t care how many letters you have behind your name. If you are published Rolling Stone consider your audience there Dr. Hook.

  10. Eneils Bailey says:

    “Zbigniew Brzezinski
    National security adviser to President Carter.

    Evidently, there are 2 kinds of people — those who think that’s an argument, and those who don’t.”

    I will stand by my opinion, it is not an argument, and you, can stand by your opinion.
    The carter administration will not go down in history as the most glorious days of American foreign policy and will not gain a reputation of protecting the US national security.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    He argued, correctly I think, that one either commits to fighting a war until victory is attained or no longer attainable, or one sets timetables and virtually guarantees defeat.

    The problem with this idea is that “victory” is apparently defined as: “a stable central government (preferable democratic, but we’ll take what we can get)”

    That being the case, military force alone is woefully deficient for “victory”–we should also be applying signficant diplomatic efforts in an attempt to at least find some common ground for the largest and strongest contending factions in Iraq.

    But we’re not. Not even close. Ergo, the surge will fail. Miserably.