All Writings
November 20, 2006

Three Myths and One More

It is time for the Bush administration to disabuse itself of three myths if it wishes to find a way out of the Iraq quagmire: Contrary to what the administration believes, there will be no victory in Iraq, there will be no Western-style democracy, and Iraq is not center stage but a transit station in the fight against terrorism. To succeed, any policy recommendations the Baker-Hamilton commission may soon present to the President will have to be based on careful consideration of the realities on the ground, which refute the administration's three myths.

The prospect of victory: Victory in any classic sense against a determined insurgency in not attainable, here is why: 1) The United States is fighting an unconventional war in which the asymmetry in fire power offers it only limited advantages. These advantages are, in any case, neutralized by the insurgents' almost unlimited community support from which they draw vast financial and human resources. In addition, Washington's inability to provide adequate social services and security, especially to the Iraqi Sunnis, has made it impossible, at this stage to alienate these communities from the insurgents. Adding to the difficulties is the inability of the United States and the Iraqi government to contain, let alone end, the sectarian killings which are bound to tear the country further apart. Most important, having lost power with no hope of regaining it, has transformed the insurgent's fight from a political to an existential one, in which physical survival is at stake. For this reason, an increase in the number of American troops, as Senator McCain advocates, may result in killing more insurgents, but it will also intensify their resistance. Not fearing death and dying for a cause represent the highest form of martyrdom for the insurgents.

No Western-style democracy: Due to their long history of submission to authoritarianism–during which Islam was and remains a dominant factor–and because of tribalism and sectarianism based on religious or cultural orientation, most Arab societies, especially Iraq, prefer gradual to radical reform. Moreover, traditional loyalty to family and tribe inherently erodes the importance of democratic principles of government like advice and consent and majority rule. The elections and the passage of a new constitution in Iraq have diminished neither the insurgency nor the sectarian killings. Iraqis generally reject the notion that democracy "Western style" should be shoved down their throats with a gun. For the Shiites, embracing democracy provides the only means by which they can gain power in Iraq, yet they will be the first to abandon democratic principles once their power is consolidated. Finally, given the continuing intense rivalries, even between the various Shiite groups and political parties, it is doubtful that the Shiites can hold the country together, by authoritarian rule let alone democracy. The elections were not preceded by the building of democratic institutions and the social and economic development that help produce a stable democracy. On the contrary, Iraq, at best, is moving rapidly toward an illiberal democracy akin to an authoritarian regime, which America may have to embrace for the sake of stability.

Iraq is not center stage in the war on terrorism: This is another myth the administration has perpetrated through repeatedly linking Iraq to international terrorism before and after the war, although no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda ever has been established. But following the fall of Baghdad, Iraq became a new haven for various terrorist groups that made it target of choice to attack Americans. All U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that because of the war, Iraq has become a training ground for current and future terrorists — a springboard from which they will terrorize many countries within and outside the region. A recently released State department study on terrorism indicates that the number of terrorist attacks, in fact, reached a record high of more than 11,000 attacks in 2005. The occupation of Iraq, simply put, increases rather than diminishes terrorist attacks. And the war against Islamic terrorism has not begun nor will it end in Iraq. The sooner the administration accepts this fact, the sooner it can devise a better strategy to fight international terrorism and contain the extreme Jihad movement.

Finally, another myth now being circulated is that, given time, there will be sufficient numbers of well-trained, well-equipped Iraqi security forces to replace the Americans forces, permitting their gradual withdrawal. Here too wishful thinking has taken over rational and practical discourse. The Iraq police and security forces have been heavily penetrated by various militias operating at the behest of different political parties with which they are closely affiliated. No Iraqi government can purge these forces without risking its power base and without precipitating an even bloodier escalation of the already widespread sectarian violence.

If victory is unattainable, democracy is not sustainable and while the focus on fighting terrorism in Iraq is misplaced, any honorable exit strategy will have to address the reality Iraq finds itself in. Dividing Iraq into three self-ruled entities with loose confederate ties and equitable distribution of oil or its revenue, might provide just the solution which, thus far, has eluded the Bush administration.