Ethics & Public Policy Center

An Important Milestone in the Iraq War

Published in Commentary Web Exclusive on June 30, 2009



Today marks the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi urban areas, the result of a deadline contained in the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) that the Bush administration negotiated and the Obama administration embraced. It is a milestone on the road to Iraqi sovereignty and a useful moment, I think, to consider three widespread — and to some extent inter-related — arguments that were made about Iraq in recent years.

The first is that the difficulties in Iraq proved that the underlying theory behind President Bush's “Freedom Agenda” was wrong. It was said that the effort to promote liberty in the Arab world was a fool's errand; the cultural soil was too hard and forbidding. There is no existing undemocratic culture that will allow liberty to succeed. Some peoples and cultures are destined for despotism and unsuited for self-government. Tribal and sectarian allegiances are much stronger than national identity, especially in an artificial state like Iraq. Elections merely deepened sectarian ties and brought radicals to power. They are worse than useless. The 2005 “Arab Spring” was a mirage. Et cetera. But then the wheel of time turned again. As Michael Gerson has written:

Now spring is returning. January ' s local elections in Iraq favored secular nationalists instead of clerical parties. In Lebanon , Hezbollah was defeated in an open and vigorous vote. Kuwaiti women have been elected to parliament for the first time. And in Iran , brave women and men have demonstrated that democracy, not just nihilism, counts martyrs in the Muslim world… Taken together — a constitutional Iraqi democracy, a powerful reform movement in Iran , democratic achievements from the Gulf sheikdoms to Lebanon — this is the greatest period of democratic progress in the history of the region. Given consistent outbreaks, it seems clear that the broader Middle East is not immune to the democratic infection.

The democratic uprising in Iran touched people in a particularly deep way. Protest signs written in English, asking “Where Is My Vote?” started springing up. Supporting democratic aspirations in oppressed lands, which was passé during the last few years, is once again fashionable. Joan Baez posted a message on her Web site, with a video of her “We Shall Overcome” dedicated to the people of Iran. Jon Bon Jovi also did a duet in Farsi with exiled Iranian singer Andy Madadian; they are singing a new version of “Stand By Me,” the purpose of which is to send “a musical message of worldwide solidarity” to the Iranian people. People are rediscovering the virtues of liberty.

The second argument we heard ad nauseum was that the real winner from the war in Iraq was Iran. “Iran has emerged as the dominant regional power in the Persian Gulf once the U.S. removed its major rival from the scene and put its Shiite clients into power in Baghdad,” Francis Fukuyama wrote in an August 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed the conclusions of which, even at the time, were dramatically out of sync with reality on the ground.

In fact, Iran was already back on its heels when Fukuyama wrote his piece. Iraq's “Shiite client,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, gave the orders to go after the Mahdi Army, which was overseen by Iran's real man in Iran, Moqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army was smashed by Iraqi security forces in Basra, Sadr City, Baghdad, and Mosul so definitely that al-Sadr announced plans to disarm and remake the Mahdi Army into a social-services organization. Major Shiite parties assured the passage of the strategic alliance Iraq signed with the United States, a deveoplment Iran fought hard to undermine. And in Iraq's provincial elections earlier this year, secular and moderately religious parties (like the Dawa Party) did well; sectarian parties (like the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) did not.

Things have not only gotten worse for Iran in Iraq; things have gotten worse for Iran in Iran. In the aftermath of the democratic Iranian uprising earlier this month, we find that “Unrest in Iran has opened a theological rift within the Shiite sect of Islam, undermining the Iranian regime's founding dogma that is shared by millions of fellow Shiites across the Middle East.”

The third argument we heard repeatedly is that global jihadists in general, and al Qaeda in particular, were massively aided by the Iraq war. It was the greatest recruiting mechanism possible. The appeal of bin Ladenism was stronger than ever. A typical proponent of this view was Peter Bergen, who, in October 2007, wrote a lead article for the New Republic, entitled “War of Error: How Osama bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” In it Bergen wrote,

America's most formidable foe — once practically dead — is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling Al Qaeda. To understand the terror network's resurgence — and its continued ability to harm us — we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it. . . . If, as the president explained in a speech [in 2006], the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.

Bergen and most of the foreign policy establishment had things exactly wrong. A study released last year by American intelligence agencies, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” concluded that:

Al-Qa'ida's weaknesses — unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support, and self-destructive actions — might cause it to decay sooner than many people think… Despite sympathy for some of its ideas and the rise of affiliated groups in places like the Mahgreb, al-Qa'ida has not achieved broad support in the Islamic World. Its harsh pan-Islamist ideology and policies appeal only to a tiny minority of Muslims.

According to one study of public attitudes toward extremist violence, there is little support for al Qaeida in any of the countries surveyed — Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Yemen. The report also found that majorities in all Arab countries oppose jihadi violence, by any group, on their own soil.

We have also seen prominent voices within t
he jihadist movement turn against bin Ladenism and Islamic extremism, a huge (if largely under-reported) development. Among the events catalyzing such shift of attitude was the “Anbar Awakening,” a Sunni uprising against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the devastating military pounding AQI was subjected to at the hands of both the Iraqi and the American militaries. For a movement that believed it had the mandate of Allah and depended on the perception of strength to win recruits and support, the decimation al Qaeda experienced in the Iraq war — which it declared to be the central battleground in the war for jihad — has been pivotal.

The ultimate wisdom in initiating the Iraq war is still to be validated by contingent events still to unfold. What is happening today is a transition, not a final triumph. And while Iraq is today a legitimate, representative, and responsible democracy, it remains fragile. Hard-earned progress can still be undone. The Iraqi military will have to prove it can provide security to its citizens. Relations between the Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, particularly over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, are tense. None of us can foretell the future, and almost all of us have been wrong about some aspect of the war or another.

Still, it is worth pointing out that those who wrote off the war as unwinnable and a miserable failure, who made confident, sweeping arguments that have been overturned by events, and who had grown so weary of the conflict that they were willing to consign Iraqis to mass slaughters and America to a historically consequential defeat — they were thankfully, blessedly wrong. And the Land between the Rivers, which has known too much tyranny and too many tears, may yet bind up its wounds.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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