On this the day of the Grand Plan, such as it is, let’s dream that a year from now there are a new set of givens in the Middle East growing out of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group: the United States, working with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has trained up an efficient military and police force. Baghdad is secure. Tens of thousands of American ground combat forces are on their way home. (Many tens of thousands more remain for air-to-ground combat, intelligence, logistics, training, advising, embedding and such.)
Meanwhile, the Palestinians and Israelis, prodded by Washington, are moving ahead toward a resolution of the issue that has bled the region like an ulcer for more than 50 years. Damascus is tilting away from Tehran and democracy is allowed to flourish once more in Lebanon. We’re still spending more than $2 billion a week on the Iraq adventure, but there seems to be an end in sight.
Read the Iraq Study Group Report
Another possible improvement that Study Group co-chairman James Baker probably has in the back of his mind, if not in his report: a year from now Saudi Arabia will have ramped up its oil production considerably. Once again, as in the 1990s, it may have the spare capacity to turn on the pumps at will, driving global prices down in coordination with U.S. policy. If it does, it could starve Iran of the money the mullahs need to fuel their plans for regional dominance and nuclear development.
All that might happen … But, no, I don’t think it will. Much more likely is that our dreams in the Middle East a year from now, like this year, last year and the year before, will be nightmares. And that’s true even if by then we’re “winning.”
Every day we move closer to the edge of a humanitarian abyss. Think the Balkans, Rwanda or Darfur, but with this grim difference: the United States won’t be able to stand back from the slaughter and wring its hands in Iraq. It is implicated up to its elbows already, and there’s more to come. Attempts to hold Iraq together by political compromise have failed. If the Americans stay there in any way, shape or form, they’re going to have to choose sides, backing Iraqi “friends” who will do whatever they think is necessary to impose order.
That was the not-so-coded message from the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim , shortly after he met with President Bush in the White House on Monday. (Yes, you read the name of his organization right. Hakim’s goal is quite explicitly “the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” but, hey, America finds its friends where it can in Baghdad these days.)
Addressing the United States Institute of Peace during his Washington visit, Hakim said the United States was soft on the armed opposition he wants to exterminate. “This fight they are getting from the multinational forces [is] not hard enough to put an end to their acts but leaves them [to] stand up again to resume their criminal acts,” Hakim said through an interpreter. “This means that there is something wrong in the policies taken to deal with that danger threatening the lives of the Iraqis.”
It’s obvious to Hakim that to prevent a civil war, you wipe out the present and potential combatants on the other side. He labels those as Al Qaeda (a small group, despite its penchant for spectacular terror), Takfiris and Baathists, which could mean a very wide range of Sunnis. “Otherwise, we'll continue to witness massacres being committed every now and then against the innocent Iraqis,” said Hakim, presumably meaning Shiites. And if the United States won’t do the job, well, then somebody has to. “Patience has its limits,” said Hakim. “I am afraid that someday the Shiite religious authorities might lose their ability to calm down the reaction to the continuous sectarian cleansing attack.”
Of course Hakim slipped by the question of the many Shiite death squads that already have made slaughtering Sunnis a major industry. Many are believed to be from his own organization, operating as part of the existing Iraqi government forces. “Such things that have been mentioned against us are just allegations and false accusations,” said Hakim.
Anyone who sifts the platitudes of this Islamic revolutionary can see his vision of Iraq’s democratic future is for rule by a Shiite majority that answers to clerical guidance. Uninvited (meaning Jordanian, Turkish, Kuwaiti, Syrian or Saudi) outsiders will be excluded while security cooperation with friends—meaning Iran—is encouraged. Hakim says his organization is legal, and its militias have been integrated into (others would say taken over) government units. Illegal militias, as defined in an order signed by U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer shortly before he left Iraq in 2004, are to be done away with.
That would include especially those of Hakim’s rival warlord, Moqtada al-Sadr . As a Hakim supporter in the government told me privately the other day, "Moqtada should be behind bars, underground or across the border—those are the three options he has—and a fourth one is for him to behave. The U.S. doesn't need to tackle him. They don't need to do the dirty work. We will do the dirty work. They should stay over the horizon."
Indeed, that could well become the model for the whole war, and we shouldn’t pretend to be surprised. This is an old tradition. Democracy in El Salvador, such as it is, was made possible by right-wing death squads operating “over the horizon” to obliterate the guerrillas’ urban infrastructure. The dying Augusto Pinochet still has supporters in Chile. They believe his American-backed savagery cleared the path for the present democracy.
But there’s a particular irony in Iraq. As respected Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld pointed out when I called him at Hebrew University in Jerusalem the other day, the notion that Americans can teach Iraqis the brutal arts of counterinsurgency is at best improbable. “I think that this whole idea of Americans training Arabs is so silly I cannot take it seriously,” said Van Creveld, whose new book, “The Changing Face of War” ( Presidio ), will be out early next year.
If winning hearts and minds is supposed to be part of the plan, then the U.S. troops just don’t have the means. They don’t speak Arabic, they don’t understand the culture, they don’t share the faith, they don’t know the history. Van Creveld doesn’t mince his words: “The American military have proved totally incompetent.”
The United States, grabbing here and there for a politically correct model to control the chaos, has only engendered more bloodshed. Most Iraqis want us gone, according to the polls, and the U.S. trainers giving instruction in combat techniques eventually will see that knowledge turned against us by their students. “All they really teach is how to fight Americans,” says Van Creveld. “How stupid can they be?”
The essential point is that Iraqis on all sides of the divide think they know precisely what an effective counterinsurgency campaign looks like, and it’s not the relatively fastidious one the U.S. would have them wage. “The Iraqis under Saddam [Hussein] were world champions at counterinsurgency,” notes Van Creveld. The former dictator has been standing trial, and already has received one death sentence, for doing what he thought needed to be done to crush rebellions by Shiites and Kurds—and it worked. Now the United States has turned the tables, the former victims don’t want to be held back. “Maybe they are not trained in the American sense, but they are very well trained to do what they have to do in Iraq,” said Van Creveld.
The sad fact is that insurgencies are defeated only rarely, and then by imposing the peace of the grave on hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. How much more can Washington let itself be implicated in such carnage? How far over the horizon do American troops need to pull back to escape the stench of such a victory? One answer: all the way home.