Moment of Truth
James Kitfield, one of the most respected defense reporters in the business, has a round-up of reflections of some of the best strategic thinkers in the country on our progress in Iraq in the current National Journal. The consensus seems to be that the Bush Administration overreached in its war aims and/or undercommitted to providing adequate resources for success.
One particularly harsh example:
“The United States lacks good options [in Iraq], although it probably never really had them in the sense the Bush administration thought,” Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, concluded in a recent analysis. “The option of quickly turning Iraq into a successful, free-market democracy was never practical, and was as absurd a neoconservative fantasy as the idea that success in this objective would magically make Iraq an example that would transform the Middle East.”
The neocons are hardly popular within the defense intellectual community, which is dominated by traditional Realist thinkers. Certainly, this position was taken by most of them before the war. Still, there has been little to persuade them to come off their original assessment at this stage of the game.
A somewhat milder reaction:
“The Bush administration’s notion of creating in Iraq something that even vaguely resembles a Wilsonian-style democracy, in a country where security has traditionally come not from the ballot box but from force of arms, was always a very high-risk, high-payoff type of gamble that you might expect from a Texas oilman,” said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “Going against such strong cultural currents demanded a very innovative strategy and a long-term, high-level commitment of at least a decade, if not decades.”
This is more in line with my own thinking on the issue. I’ve never been confident that Western-style democracy was going to be the end game in Iraq, especially in the short term. Not so much because Arabs are somehow unsuited for democracy–although I do think fundamentalist Islam and our vision of democracy are mutually exclusive–but because that change needs to come from internal forces rather than imposed from outside. I thought–and still maintain–that the gamble was worth taking if we were committed to the excercise. President Bush emphasized time and again that this was a long-term struggle and I fully expected us to maintain a heavy presence in Iraq for years to come. The signals have become decidedly mixed on this front in recent weeks, however.
It’s hard to conceive of a situation in Iraq worse than we faced with Saddam or his sons in charge. Regime change was worth the price paid. But we’ve paid a far higher price for the follow-on mission of stabilization and democratization, goals which we are a long way from achieving. I hope our commitment to finishing the job remains strong. I don’t expect to turn Iraq into Norway, but a stable country with a government and some reasonable measure of freedom for its citizens has to be in place before we can leave.