The question was, as I reformulated it (and the Avenger even approved):
(I)f you became convinced that the war was not only unwinable, but would cause both the United States and Iraq greater harm the longer we continued to try to win it, what would you suggest should be done?
The first part to answering that question has to be defining what victory is. To me, victory would be defined by the achievement of some very basic, defineable goals:
1- The removal of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party regime from power;
2- The emplacement of a government in Iraq which would be less harmful to American interests and the interests of peace in the Middle East; and
3- The emplacement of a democratic government in Iraq.
Goal number one has been achieved; that makes the war at least a partial victory already.
Goals number two and three are very interrelated: if a reasonably democratic government can be installed in Iraq, the other part (that government being less harmful to the US and its neighbors) will follow naturally. Goal number two can be met without achieving goal number three, but that would probably be both more difficult and shorter lived.
Having defined the goals of victory, it comes time to consider the hypothetical question concerning defeat. The Avenger’s question needs to be addressed through two possibilities:
1- If I am convinced that we must lose the war because we are following the wrong strategy and tactics; and
2- If I am convinced that we must lose the war because there is no reasonable strategy that will lead to a victory, as I have defined victory.
If I believe that the first situation obtains, the obvious answer is that I work to get a strategy that I do believe will work into place. Such a situation can be accomplished through the current Administration, by persuading them that a changed strategy will produce the victory that they seek; if the perceived strategy change is too different for the current Administration to accept (such as some form of turning it over to the United Nations, not that I think the UN would ever accept), it might have to wait for the next Administration . . . and that’s three years down the road.
Of course, the question the Avenger really wanted to have answered by conservatives is: what would we do if we became convinced that the war was inevitably lost, regardless of what strategies we employed.
At that point, options have to be weighed: is it better to just declare victory, turn it over to an Iraqi government that we assume will fall within a few years to the Islamists, and leave, or is there something that can be done to, if not win, at least try to shape the configuration of the loss?
Assuming that I were persuaded that a loss (by which I mean that goals numbered two and three above cannot be met), I would be interested in how such a loss could be shaped to ameliorate the loss. Quite frankly, that could be done by the strategy I have said all along ought to be pursued: we ought to break up Iraq into three separate states.
President Bush initially promised that he would do no such thing, a promise made primarily to the Turks, who were very afraid of an independent Kurdistan on their border. The Turks did none of the things President Bush wanted them to do leading up to the war; I see no problem in breaking that promise.
And the fact is that in the Kurdish and Shi’ite areas, we already have won. They have embraced democracy, as nascent as it is there. A fully independent Kurdistan and Shi’ite Mesopotamia would be two entirely separate states, both with oil wealth, both with the beginnings of a democratic polity, and both with significant internal rebuilding to do. The Kurds would (probably) wind up with a more secular (though still Islamic) government than the Shi’ites, but even in the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran there is some democracy present.
These things would be victories, not defeats. Both nations would have their own internal goals, and, quite frankly, more important things on their minds than causing a lot of trouble. They would want to keep their oil flowing to Western markets, because they need the money, and neither has any particular reason to be sympathetic to al Qaeda, an Islamist movement that is more closely tied to Sunni and Wahhabist sects of Islam.
And that would leave only the Sunni areas. If the war is unwinable, it is only because of the unrest in the Sunni areas. Separating out the Sunnis into their own country (which is what I have wanted to do all along) would leave them with some oil reserves, but not as large as that of the Kurds and the Shi’ites. Turning around and leaving the Sunnis to whatever fate they wished to build for themselves would mean that there would be a struggle for governing power in the rump Iraq, a civil war that might last a couple of years. Even if there was no such struggle, even if a leader emerged on day one, the rump Iraq would have enormous problems, problems that would force them to turn inward. They would need all of their possible oil revenues to not only rebuild their cities and infrastructure, but to buy food: the Sunni areas have the poorest agricultural lands in Iraq. Even if the Sunnis wanted to be holy warriors against the United States and the West, they’d be poorly positioned to do so; the infrastructure and food supply work in those areas only because the United States is pouring in so much aid. Withdraw that aid, and the Sunnis would have to fend for themselves and, quite frankly, it’s hard to be much of a holy warrior when you don’t have food to eat.
If there is a perception that we are losing the war in Iraq, it is because news coverage homes in on the unrest in the Sunni areas. Cut out that area, separate it from what does work, and we have two-thirds of a victory already won. And then, if we have lost the Sunni areas, even though the left will wish to call it some great defeat for President Bush, it will have been the achievement of most of our goals.
There is no particular reason to want to keep Iraq in one piece; there is no traditional Iraq. It was a creation of an agreement between France and Great Britain, and the British set up a Hashemite monarchy over artificially drawn borders; the British gave three of the Hashemite princes kingdoms over which to rule, and the Hashemites still rule in Jordan. The borders simply have no rhyme or reason other than those of the early twentieth century British Foreign Office! Breaking up the country into its more natural ethnic regions would probably be the wisest thing we could do.
I don’t think that this is quite the answer the Avenger had in mind; I believe that his question assumed that if we lost, all of Iraq would be a loss. I don’t see it that way; if there is an area that cannot be won, by the criteria I set forth as the definitions of victory, it is only a much smaller area, one that can and should be isolated from the areas in which we have already been successful. Yeah, we could “lose” a rump Sunni Iraq, but the way that I have set it forth, it would still mostly satisfy the second condition of victory, in that it would be far less able to cause problems with its neighbors.