Posted: February 23, 2006
We keep hoping they'll come up with a Gerry Adams.
—"A U.S. intelligence official," Time magazine, September 26, 2005
n 2005, the U.S. government's "war on terror," as well as its operations in Iraq, were entwined in the same tortuous logic by which they had been conceived. After redefining the mission in Iraq from finding Weapons of Mass Destruction, to building democracy, to eliminating terrorists, to enabling the Iraqis to fight for themselves—and not being serious about any of these—the Bush Administration was arguing that to withdraw would be to admit defeat. But what would victory look like?
In December, pressed from all parts of America to address that question, President George W. Bush spoke, surrounded by banners that read, "The Strategy for Victory." Yet the speech, as well as the seven-point, 35-page White House document that accompanied it, simply reiterated hopes for a united, democratic Iraq and the beneficial influence this might have. It described efforts to bolster Iraqi armed forces, foster national reconciliation, and build up the country's infrastructure. None of this amounted to a strategy any more than it ever had, because wishes are a poor substitute for explaining why anyone should expect these actions to produce those outcomes. In short, the Bush Administration never attempted logically to balance ends and means, the things it desired with the things it was doing.
In this intellectual vacuum, the U.S. was coming to the end of its war in Iraq—and entering a more dangerous relationship with the sources of terrorism. U.S. armed forces had defeated Saddam Hussein's armies and reduced their remnants from guerrilla warriors to mere terrorists (who strike mostly at Iraqis, not Americans). But American soldiers were given no plans to eliminate the terrorists—only to endure them, while American feats of social and political engineering were supposedly fashioning a terror-free Iraq. Terror in Iraq was the manifestation of an ongoing struggle between the country's major groups, but President Bush imagined that the U.S. could involve itself in that struggle without choosing sides—even though parts of his administration were already doing so. Iraq's majority Shi'ite and Kurdish communities were poised to act decisively against the Sunni minority's Ba'ath party, but the United States restrained them. It refused to acknowledge that the majority's pursuit of its own interest provided the path to the only positive outcome of the war that had ever been possible for America. This outcome would also be a source of pressure against the remaining terrorist regimes.
In 2005, the U.S. government's dealings with these regimes, like its operations in Iraq, followed the logic of a so-called "peace process" rather than the logic of war. The Bush Administration exhibited weakness with Syria, implicit trust in Saudi Arabia, fear of Iran, and a deluded complicity with the Palestinian Authority. President Bush's policies taught these regimes that, to put it mildly, they were not risking a deathmatch with the United States. America's overall "war on terror" had become an unending hunt for individuals who mean nothing, combined with permanent, ineffectual security measures at home. The July bombings in London by native-born Muslims with ties to Arab regimes, as well as the autumn's violence by alienated Muslims in France and throughout Europe, highlighted America's inherent vulnerability as well. In short, the problem of terrorism is well beyond what Western governments have been willing to conceive, or make war against.
In fact, the widespread sense that "the war" had gone wrong encouraged Democrats to demand a quick, mindless withdrawal of American troops in Iraq. The Bush team's response drew from the well of patriotism; but because it did not deal with the underlying problem, it risked drawing down that well.
Meddling in Iraq
After capturing Saddam Hussein, installing a (nominally) sovereign Iraqi government, and enabling Iraqis to elect their representatives, the Bush Administration argued that America should remain in Iraq to fight terrorism so as not to suffer it at home. This was implausible. Why would terrorists intent on killing Americans choose to spend themselves against heavily armed U.S. troops, rather than safely bomb school buses in America? Besides, nearly all terrorist activity in Iraq was by Iraqis against Iraqis. The ulterior answer, that America had not yet set up Iraq as a fully functioning country, was obvious. But the fighting in Iraq among Iraqis was precisely over what kind of functioning country, if any, Iraq would be.
In practice, the U.S. government's objective was to cajole Iraqis into a "united, democratic Iraq." But our government's many versions of that vision were self-contradictory. More important, they clashed with the fact that the vision did not accord with that of any of Iraq's major groups. And although U.S. officials tutored, pressured, and subverted the Iraqis incessantly, in the end we could not supersede their will outright. Moreover, it was by no means obvious that the order Americans might arrange would be more advantageous to America than what the Iraqis might work out for themselves. In short, the United States's presence in Iraq by now had little to do with any "war on terror." Instead, it operated to hinder and distort the Iraqis' own settlement of their scores according to the balance of power among themselves.
The Bush Administration had understood its commitment to "regime change" to involve merely the removal of some 55 high-ranking Iraqis. It learned the hard way—and even then, incompletely—that Saddam Hussein's regime consisted of at least 2,000 persons who wielded the levers of power in Ba'athist Iraq. They never surrendered; on the contrary, they continued to fight for victory. Thanks to ready sanctuary in Syria; massive amounts of resources stashed as part of the regime's post-invasion strategy; and the U.S. Occupation Authority's opposition to de-Ba'athification—many party members, accordingly, were reinserted into the government—the Ba'ath party resumed its role as the country's most cohesive force outside the Kurdish provinces. Just as important, the party faithfully represents the deepest fears and hatreds of 20% of the population: the Sunni Arabs.
Contrary to what the administration wanted to believe, the Sunni population was the bedrock of the old regime. Although they had suffered almost as much violence at Hussein's hands as other Iraqis, he had given them powers and privileges that they had come to see as their birthright. And so the Sunnis fought to re-subjugate their fellow Iraqis. They murdered judges and intimidated witnesses at Hussein's trial, with the Arab world's tacit support. The Sunni view of America's role was summed up in a local newspaper cartoon that showed Uncle Sam's exit from bloody Iraq as passing over a bridge—controlled by a terrorist sitting at a negotiating table. The Sunnis fought to induce America into pressing their demands on other Iraqis, believing they could, by force of arms, obtain concessions from the U.S. that they could never obtain from their fellow Iraqis. They were correct. Iraq's majority, for their part, were dismayed that the American government was negotiating with their enemies behind the backs of the native people, even as it had decades ago in Vietnam.
The Bush team denied that America's interest lay in making war against the Sunni population. Indeed, the administration spent much of the year making sure that no one else would fight such a war, either. It sought not victory over the insurgency but compromise with the insurgency's leaders. U.S. troops entering Sunni areas would have rocks and curses thrown at them. They would see terrorists taking refuge there, but were forbidden to do more than go after them individually. U.S. officials knew the identity and location of some 35 key insurgent leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq itself. These men, with money and connections to Arab governments, provided the insurgency's organization and hope. But they were off limits.
Instead, the U.S. tried to seduce Sunni leaders into representing the insurgency politically, as Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams represents the Irish Republican Army. In short, the Bush team sought a "peace process" in which the defenders do not destroy their attackers but instead grant them powers, in exchange for the attackers' promise to negotiate. Alas, the attackers then sell that promise again and again, at ever higher prices.
The results of the January 30, 2005, elections disappointed the Bush Administration because they proved that the majority of Iraqis would not go along with America's wishes. The winner, with almost a simple majority, was a coalition of Shi'ite parties. In strong second place were the combined Kurdish parties. A very distant third was the group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister (appointed, financed, and assisted politically by the Bush team) who had led the longtime CIA campaign for an Iraq ruled by moderate Ba'athists. Allawi's group, however, had made itself massively unpopular by its corruption, its courtship of the Ba'ath party, its concessions to Sunni demands, and by its link with the Americans.
Still, the U.S. pushed its vision. In the formation of the new interim government, and thereafter as the committee it appointed drafted a constitution for the voters' approval in October, U.S. ambassadors John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad acted virtually as the Sunnis' political patrons. At American insistence, jobs in the government and seats on the constitution-writing committee were awarded not to those who had won the election but to Sunnis who had not been elected, who had worked to disrupt and discredit the elections, and who bore in many cases, as U.S. officials admitted, "blood on their hands." The more casualties Sunni insurgents inflicted and the more mayhem they caused, the more eager the government became to "draw them in." As Iraqis voted in December, President Bush said that the resulting government would have to be "inclusive." So much for a democratic Iraq.
The Bush team's actual (as opposed to rhetorical) position was that any decision by the Iraqi majority that is unacceptable to the insurrectionist minority is "divisive," likely to fuel the war, and hence against our interests. American officials objected especially to provisions in the constitution that allowed substantial autonomy for the Kurdish region, and the option for Shi'ites to enjoy a similar autonomy. Thus in October, even as a massive majority of Iraqi voters was about to approve that constitution over Sunni objections, U.S. officials extracted an amendment that effectively nullified the constitution's importance by letting it be amended without limit by future governments. American officials hoped that, with help from the Sunnis, they would get another chance to make the political system fit their model; maybe even revive Allawi. The Sunnis, however, voted nine to one against the constitution, which the U.S. opposed as insufficiently centralized and "inclusive." When Sunnis chose to vote in the December elections, American officials were overjoyed, and intended to leverage the majority's divisions in order to reinsert Allawi as prime minister. They did not imagine that the Sunnis' agenda was different from their own.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials extracted another concession from the government, at least on paper: former officers of Hussein's army would be allowed to join the new Iraqi army. Most would be Sunnis. The administration exulted that some 4,000 of these officers had offered their services to the new government. Most Iraqis, however, were terrified. The Shi'ites and Kurds believe, with much evidence, that among the military and intelligence officers promoted by the Americans are many who provide intelligence and help to the insurgency. After insurgents detonated bombs inside key institutions, American officers conceded that the insurgents had infiltrated the Iraqi army and intelligence. Nevertheless, they insist on not discriminating among Iraqis. Yet discrimination is the essence of civil war, and the Iraqi majority has little doubt about who the infiltrators are: Sunni Ba'athists. They blame the Americans for putting these spies in positions to do harm. Few readers of the U.S. media know that the Iraqi armed forces are under U.S. command for administrative as well as for operational matters, and that Iraqi intelligence is quite simply run by the CIA.
Thus at the end of 2005 the Iraqi majority's political strategy boiled down to trying to survive American meddling until the permanent government, to be formed in 2006, could demand its end. Already by November, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaffari called on American forces to restrict themselves to protecting infrastructure, e.g., pipelines, and to let Iraqis deal with Iraqis.
The Americans argued that they were in Iraq to prevent a civil war. Yet civil war was the best description of what had been happening since 2003. More precisely, this was war by, of, and for the Sunni population against the Kurds and Shi'ites. The U.S. had restrained the majority from retaliating. By the end of 2005, the resulting one-sided civil war had become unendurable.
Resolving the Conflict
In 2004 and 2005, roughly 30,000 Iraqi civilians—mostly Shi'ites—were killed by terrorist attacks. (On the scale of the United States, this would mean approximately half a million Americans dead and five million wounded.) The murders were often galling, including bombings of the holiest places on the holiest days; school bombings; and shootings of job seekers and the families of officials. The American military's procedures did not keep this onslaught from growing. Inexorably, this war hardened the divisions between Iraqi society's main groups.
By 2005, the U.S. military was taking casualties without a plan for ending the war, and was well on the way to losing 20 times as many Americans in Iraq's civil war as had died overthrowing Saddam Hussein. In October, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, said U.S. troops would try to clear Iraqi towns of insurgents, and then Iraqi troops would hold the towns. There was some dispute as to how new an approach this was, but everyone agreed that pursuing it seriously would require an open-ended occupation by an open-ended number of troops. But the approach assumed that Iraqi troops had a single purpose. They did not.
A few perceptive American commentators realized that continuing to try to reconcile the Iraqi irreconcilables would tilt the inevitable civil war in the wrong direction, and concluded that America's best option—what's more, its best chance of persuading the Sunnis to be nice—was to arm the Kurds and Shi'ites and let nature take its course. Indeed, the official American position on military operations in Iraq had long been that they were intended to enable the Iraqis to fight for themselves. That position, however, had always hidden the essential question: which Iraqis? Much of the Bush team's troubles stemmed from pretending that this question did not exist.
While the U.S. Senate voted to require the administration to submit a plan for ending the war, the majority of Iraqis pulled for the United States to give the answer it should have given three years before: let them go at it. They believed that they would crush the Sunnis quickly. The Sunni Arabs, for their part, believed the Shi'ites inferior, divided, destined to be ruled by Sunnis—and then likely to help in subjugating the Kurds, just as in the past. So the Sunnis, too, wanted the Americans to lift the lid on the civil war.
How, and how soon, the Bush team lifts that lid will matter. The State Department wants to keep it on, despite the bureaucrats' eagerness for withdrawal. So, as 2005 was ending, U.S. diplomats, following the views of the Democratic Party's shadow Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, were trying to arrange an offer by the Arab League to send troops to pacify Iraq.
But any American attempt to force troops answering to Sunni governments upon the majority of Iraqis would amount to throwing gasoline on a fire. Thus, in 2006, after three years of confused efforts, the Bush team can no longer prevent the conflict from ending in a way that has always been to America's advantage.
The Shi'ite-Kurdish government that emerged from the December 2005 elections is bound to try to recover practical sovereignty over its armed forces and intelligence service, before the untrustworthy members of the ranks get so numerous that entire Ba'athist-led units begin to defect. This purge, and the subsequent war, would be more cruel than any waged by the Americans. But it is likely to crush the Sunni insurgency. For better or worse, however, the U.S. government will try to prevent the majority from carrying out the wholesale butcheries needed to force the Sunnis into a united Iraq dominated by their former underlings.
The new Iraq would be united only nominally. Effectively, there would be two Iraqs. Kurds and Shi'ites would continue to stand together, because the Kurds are a racial island, the Shi'ites, a religious one, set apart from neighboring Iranian Shi'ites by race; and also because the embittered Iraqi Sunnis are sure to commit themselves to the Arab world's hostilities against Kurds and Shi'ites. So the Sunni side will be poor, hostile, and allied with America's enemies, while the oil-rich Iraqi majority will want a privileged relationship with America in exchange for help against the Arab world.
Many American elites, however, would find it difficult to take up the offer because the conventional wisdom is that America cannot afford to side against the worldwide Sunni Muslim majority. Others will be unwilling to involve themselves in what will seem a new extension of the Iraq war, which by 2006 will fast be fading into the past, unlamented.
Yet to think this way is to continue to ignore why destroying Saddam Hussein's regime had always been very much in America's interest: namely, that any number of Arab regimes, each in its own way and for its own purposes, has promoted the idea that killing Westerners in general, Americans in particular (and Shi'ites, Christians, Buddhists, etc., in the bargain), is good and profitable. This is the political cause on behalf of which terrorists terrorize. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Bush team emphatically did the right thing. Alas, they made a mess of it and taught America's enemies that they have little to fear.
"We are making the same mistakes we made in Vietnam," a U.S. Marine told the New York Times as he fought to take an Iraqi village that was part of the insurgency's supply line from Syria. He was referring to treating Syria as a "sanctuary" from which the enemy could safely wage its war. But Syria was more troublesome than that, and the mistakes were worse. Absent Syria, the Iraqi insurgency would not have amounted to much. Directly and through Hezbollah and countless groups and subgroups headquartered in Damascus, the Syrian regime had spread terror from Lebanon to Israel and the West. Worse, Syria's role as a major promoter of anti-American terror was no secret. Hence Syria inspired even more terror than it manufactured.
After the 2003 invasion, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had pressed a helpless Syria to change its ways—so gently that he did not even mention its occupation of Lebanon. The regime answered with contempt. By 2005, President Bush cited Syria as standing in the way of a presumed democratic tide in the Middle East, and declared that Lebanon should be free. Suddenly, the leading Lebanese advocate of independence, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated. The Lebanese protested for Syria to leave them alone. The United Nations indicted the regime, which withdrew its regular troops from Lebanon but inserted more irregulars and stepped up its assassination of opponents. Syria's Ba'athists were as firmly in control as ever, playing by what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls "Hama rules."
Bush's rules proved no match. He insisted that Syria had become intolerable, and his administration briefly considered aiming at "regime change." But during summer 2005, the State Department and CIA prevailed in an intramural struggle much like the one that had preceded the invasion of Iraq. Bush decided that there was "no good alternative" to the regime, and hoped that indirect pressure would lead moderate Ba'athists to replace immoderate ones. The U.S. government, in short, preferred enduring the regime's enmity to the cost of making war on it. And so it tolerated what it had called intolerable. When Secretary of State Condolezza Rice visited Lebanon she let herself be photographed, smiling, with Syria's puppet, Emile Lahoud, whose ouster had been the cause for which Mr. Hariri had given his life. Bush spoke loudly but the contrast between success and failure, resolution and reticence, integrity and hypocrisy, was lost on few outside Washington.
In November, Secretary Rice went to Saudi Arabia to undertake what she called a "strategic dialogue." In America's name, she asked the Saudi royal family to make a basic choice against terrorism by curtailing the massive flow of money from the kingdom to anti-American forces around the world. But there was no chance of this request being taken seriously. The administration had not prepared, or even thought about, what it might do to compel the Saudis. Moreover, given the symbiotic relationship between the royal family, the Wahabi sect, and the kingdom's massive oil revenues, the Saudi government could not have complied with the request even if motivated to do so.
The Bush Administration knows that the terms "fundamentalist Islam" and "Islamofascism," which many use loosely to explain today's terrorism, are really references to some of the effects produced on Muslims by the Wahabi sect. This sect is a heresy that seeks to conquer the Islamic world—and only incidentally make war on the rest of us. Most mosques built in the world today, including in the United States, are Wahabi. Using Saudi billions, the sect has taken control or is close to control of Islamic organizations from West Africa to the American prison system, from Western Europe to the Pacific islands. In Pakistan, where a generation ago only 1% of the people considered themselves Wahabis, today 25% do. Nor, for the past two centuries, has it been possible to disentangle Wahabis and Saudis politically or financially. All Saudi royals are Wahabis (socio-politically if not intellectually), and all Wahabi hierarchs are somehow part of the royal family. Moreover, regardless of personal beliefs, Wahabism is the royal family's sole claim to legitimacy outside the tribes of the Nejd region of east-central Arabia.
So why is the Bush Administration pretending that Rice's mission is achievable? It prefers to suffer the Saudis' dangerous authority rather than think about the alternatives. One possibility would be to support the longstanding internal opposition to Saudi rule from the non-Wahabi tribes of the southwestern Hejaz. Another would be simply to stop remitting all those billions to a royal family that contributes nothing to the oil business. But that would mean war.
Meanwhile, as 2005 ended, the U.S. government was getting tough with Iran. After the Iranian government had rebuffed the proposals of three European governments and the U.N. Secretary-General to stop its reprocessing of uranium for atomic bombs—and after Iran's president had called for wiping Israel off the face of the earth—the Bush Administration pressed vigorously for the U.N. Security Council to take up the matter. There seemed to be no alternative to its doing so. Perhaps, after lengthy negotiations, the Security Council would issue a toughly worded resolution.
Theoretically, several non-verbal responses were available. The European Union, Iran's largest and most indispensable trade partner, could have prepared an embargo against Iran. But the Europeans would not think of it—especially since Russia would have trans-shipped the embargoed goods anyway. Europe could have forced Russia to cooperate by making the embargo secondary, applying it to anyone who traded with Iran. Then again, the United States could have placed a secondary trade embargo on Iran. No country in the world could afford not to trade with the U.S. and its trading partners. Such acts would have stopped the Iranian nuclear program. But that would have been war.
And so, very soon, Iran will add atomic bombs to what the potential victims of terrorist attacks will have to consider, if and when they become fearful enough.
In 1993 President Clinton adopted the CIA's and State Department's longtime position that the Palestine Liberation Organization—the people who had pioneered anti-Western terrorism—were or could be partners for peace if given the proper incentives. Clinton called the result a "peace process."
In collaboration with the Israeli government, the U.S. helped make the PLO into the semi-sovereign Palestinian Authority, complete with money and arms. The Clinton Administration expected that the P.A. would crush terrorists within its territories. But more terrorism came from Palestinians after the establishment of the P.A. than before. And why not? The more the Palestinians terrorized, the more concessions they got. The Clinton team accepted dictator Yasser Arafat's denial of responsibility. After September 11, the Bush Administration acknowledged that Arafat was playing a double game. But Arafat died a natural death because the administration prevented Israel from killing him.
No sooner had Arafat's longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, taken over than the Bush team invested in him all the hopes that Clinton had invested in Arafat, and even more subsidies from the U.S. treasury. In August 2005 Bush helped force Israel to deliver the Gaza strip to the Palestinian Authority's exclusive control. In November, Secretary Rice bludgeoned the Israelis to abandon control, and even direct monitoring, of the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The architect of this plan, James Wolfenson, matter-of-factly explained that, as a result, some terrorists and weapons would get into Gaza and threaten Israel. Nevertheless, it was U.S. policy that curtailing cooperation with the P.A. because of this would mean letting peace be hostage to the terrorists. Abbas, however, celebrated his control of the border by thanking the Arab "martyrs" whose sacrifices had made it possible, and pledged greater efforts to free the rest of Palestine.
And indeed as Palestinian terrorism increased throughout the fall with almost daily mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza, including the third suicide bombing of the same Israeli shopping mall, Israeli retaliation consisted primarily of raining bombs on empty buildings. The Bush Administration's response was to invest more foreign aid in the P.A. and to press Israel to grant uninspected transit rights between Gaza and the West Bank, with the strategic objective of strengthening Mahmoud Abbas. By the logic of war, this is American complicity in the destruction of Israel. But by the logic of the "peace process," the United States is doing what it should.
The U.S. government's search for an Iraqi Gerry Adams is unsurprising. In Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine, the State Department and CIA found some long ago. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the policy of the United States has been not war against the sources of terrorism, but rather "peace processes" or "engagement" with people and institutions who, if given enough incentives, ostensibly will deliver peace without our having to make war.
It is self-deception to suppose that those who represent the enemy's cause politically are something other than the proper, primary target of one's war. But this is not an intellectual error. Its sources are deeper. Perhaps the clearest illustration comes from Britain. In 2005 the British government, reacting to the latest act of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army and to its political representative Gerry Adams's denial of responsibility for it, revealed that for all the years it had been dealing with Mr. Adams, it had known that he was in fact a member of the IRA's military high command. It chastised Adams for duplicity in the "peace process." But while Adams's duplicity was courageous and competent, the government's duplicity was neither.