Thu, 02 Oct 2003

American policy in Iraq is reaching crisis point

Jonathan Schell, Visiting Fellow, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, New Haven

American policy in Iraq is reaching a moment of crisis. American troops are stretched thin, and the United States is considering calling up more reserves. The American team sent to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq reportedly have found none. The Bush administration's request for US$87 billion for the war has met with public rejection. Bush's approval ratings have declined.

But most important are events in Iraq itself. It's commonplace to say that the U.S., having won the war in Iraq, is now in danger of losing the peace. This view, however, is forgetful of the most famous saying of the theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz -- that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Military victory, he is saying, is not sought for its own sake, but to achieve a political goal. If that goal is lost, the war is lost. In other words, to lose the peace is to lose the war.

The Vietnam War, which I observed as a reporter, offers an illustration. The U.S. defeated the enemy in almost every battle in Vietnam. For more than a decade, the U.S. won and won and won, monotonously -- until it lost. The reason was that its military victories were untranslatable into political victories.

And without political victory -- without the creation of a regime in South Vietnam that was satisfactory both to its own people and to the United States -- the moment of withdrawal had to be the moment of defeat. Since the American public was not prepared to let its government fight in Vietnam forever, the defeat was foreordained, and protraction of the conflict brought only unnecessary bloodshed.

True, Iraq is not Vietnam. In Vietnam, the communist opposition had been resisting foreign occupation for the better part of a century, was in charge of half the country, and enjoyed the backing of two major powers, China and the Soviet Union.

The Iraqi resistance enjoys no such advantages. (However, it does enjoy support from the global extremist Islamic movement.) But a fundamental similarity is still present: To be able to withdraw from Iraq without defeat, the U.S. must somehow oversee the creation of a government in Iraq that satisfies both the Iraqi people and itself.

Regime change requires regime-creation -- a requirement that our offshore Robespierres in Washington seemed until recently to have overlooked. Absent this, the choice will be the same as the one in Vietnam: Indefinite occupation or withdrawal and defeat.

That is why one needs to pay closer attention to political developments than to the latest rocket attacks on American forces or car-bombings. Guerrilla war is not always successful. Only if the guerrillas enjoy the political support of the population can they become a decisive force.

Otherwise, their own society rallies against them, and they are defeated or reduced to a chronic nuisance. On the other hand, an aroused popular will can be hugely effective without any guerrilla arm at all, as the Solidarity movement in Poland -- to give just one example -- demonstrated.

So far, almost no spontaneous, active political support for the American occupation of Iraq appears to have developed. A story by Anthony Shadid in the Washington Post illustrates the apparent trend of events.

In the town of Khaldiya, an officer who was part of a force just trained, equipped and financed by the U.S. told Shadid, "In my heart, we are with them against the occupation. This is my country, and I encourage them." When the people you recruit support your enemies, you are in deep political trouble. You may in fact be training the force that is attacking you.

The political development of the U.S.-appointed governing council tells the same story. Its most prominent members, including the Pentagon's favorite, Achmed Chelabi, are demanding that the occupation authorities quickly hand over sovereignty to the council. The council seems to appreciate that its future in Iraq will be dim if it doesn't align itself with the public's dislike of the continued occupation.

The sentiment of the officer in Khaldiya is of a kind that proved almost universal in the 20th century -- the longing of peoples to expel foreign invaders and run their own countries. In Iraq, it contends in many Iraqi hearts and minds with gratitude to the U.S. for destroying the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, but if other news reports are correct, the resentment is swiftly gaining the upper hand.

In politics, gratitude is a short-lived phenomenon. When the Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, a leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, which was savagely suppressed by the Hussein regime, was murdered along with more than a 100 others in a bombing in Najaf, his brother, Abdel-Aziz Hakim, a member of the governing council, declared, "The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled."

In sharp contrast, a recent Gallup poll taken in Baghdad showed that 67 percent of the people thought their lives would be better five years hence than they were under Hussein. Curiously, the same poll found that President Jacques Chirac of France enjoyed a 42 percent favorable rating, while President Bush stood only at 29 percent . Whatever the validity of these confusing findings, which run contrary to most other firsthand accounts by reporters, they serve as a reminder to pundits or others that the will of a people that has lived under dictatorship for decades is not a simple thing to read.

But doesn't the U.S., in any case, want exactly what the Iraqi people want -- independence and freedom for Iraq? And hasn't the U.S. already embarked on a program of Iraqization? The word recalls Nixon's policy of Vietnamization, and, like that policy, conceals a difficulty.

The U.S. doesn't want just any Iraqization; it wants Iraqization that suits American interests. Would the U.S. accept an Iran-style Shiite-dominated Islamic republic in Iraq? "That's not going to happen," Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has already said. What about partition of the country -- as happened peacefully in Czechoslovakia and bloodily in Yugoslavia?

What if the Iraqi people, eyeing Iran's nuclear program and Israel's nuclear arsenal, democratically decide to build nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction? It's one thing to want Iraqis to take control of their own country, but quite another to accept the Iraq that they create for themselves.

Even if democratic procedures are successfully implanted in Iraq, the choices that the Iraqi people make may be dramatically at odds with any or all of the purposes that sent the U.S. into Iraq in the first place.

Already, the signs of growing political divergence from American wishes are clear. It may be that the longer the occupation lasts, the less influence the U.S. will have. In one respect, however, the administration seems to be correct. One way or another, the Iraqi people really will decide their own future. Whether the result is one the administration cares for is another question altogether.

The writer is the author of The Real War, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People". This article appeared in YaleGlobal Online, ( a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and is reprinted with permission.