Make Politics, Not War, in Iraq

The United States is once again learning the limits of military power. In Iraq, America has unrivaled control of the air, but can’t hold the ground. Its mere presence incites violence.

While President George W. Bush believes that he has protected Americans by “taking the war to the enemy,” more than 1,700 Americans have died in the Iraq war, which also has provoked terrorist attacks on US allies. The horrific London bombings probably were inspired by Britain’s co-leadership of the war.

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The Bush administration’s mistake, of course, is to neglect politics in its war calculations, or to follow blindly the dictum that war is politics by other means. In fact, most war is a failure of politics, a failure of political imagination. Given their self-righteousness and lack of historical and cultural awareness, Bush and his advisors believed that invading Iraq would be easy, that Saddam Hussein’s military would crumble, and that the US would be welcomed as a liberator. They failed to comprehend that Iraq has long been an occupied and externally manipulated country.

As a result, Iraqis understandably regard the American-led occupation as just another episode of outside exploitation. It is widely accepted that oil, not terror, was the original motivation of the war – a war planned by Mr. Bush’s senior advisors during the 1990’s, and made possible by their accession to power in 2001. Through the 1990’s, US Vice President Dick Cheney and others made clear that Saddam’s reign threatened America’s oil security by forcing over-reliance on Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s vast reserves, went the argument, could not be developed safely until Saddam was deposed. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US provided the green light, not the underlying motivation.

The Iraqis sense all of this. Bush’s refusal to set a deadline for withdrawing troops is not taken as a sign of resolve, but as a statement of America’s intent to remain in Iraq, establish a puppet regime, control the country’s oil and set up permanent military bases.

That won’t work. There are simply too many real political forces on the ground in Iraq for America to manage, and these forces are increasingly demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, as are legions of Iraqis in the course of public protests and mosque worships. Every time the US reiterates its refusal to set a deadline for withdrawal, it simply stokes political opposition, not to mention the insurgency. There are too many Iraqis ready to fight and die to oppose the American presence. Only politics, not arms, can calm the scene. 

Vietnam is a true precedent here. Vietnamese deaths and casualties outnumbered American deaths and casualties by perhaps 20 to one, but the US still could not subdue the nationalist adversary that they faced. The US could bomb Vietnam’s cities to rubble, as it can Iraq’s cities, but this solves nothing, claims vast numbers of innocent lives, and confirms the view of Americans as occupiers. 

All of this has an economic angle as well. American foreign policy doctrine states that US national security rests on three pillars: defense, diplomacy, and development. Economic aid for poor nations is crucial, because poverty provides the tinder for violence, conflict, and even terrorism. Yet diplomacy and development take a distant second and third place behind defense – or more accurately, military – approaches in US foreign policy spending.

The US will devote approximately $500 billion, or 5% of GNP, to military spending this year – half of the world’s total. In other words, the US spends as much on arms as the rest of the world combined.

By contrast, the US spends just $18 billion, roughly 0.16% of GNP, on development aid. In Europe, by contrast, military spending is roughly 2% of GNP, while development aid is around 0.4% of GNP and on a rising path to reach 0.7% of GNP by 2015. 

If the US would pursue politics rather than war, it would understand that more development spending and a commercial approach to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, rather than the current military approach, would best serve American interests. Bombing Libya did not bring Muammar Qadaffi “in from the cold.” Peaceful diplomacy did the job, showing Qadaffi that reopening diplomatic relations with the West and abandoning Libya’s nuclear ambitions would be advantageous for its own future and that of the country. 

The same approach would have been far less expensive and more promising vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein. Vast sums – and millions of lives – would have been saved if that approach had been tried with Ho Chi Minh in the 1950’s.   

No one doubts that intelligence operations and police actions are needed to fight terrorists. But the war in Iraq and enormous military expenditures are quite another matter. The American military can protect the US from conventional military attack, and it can keep the high seas open, ensuring the flow of oil and other vital commodities. But it can’t protect the US from politics. For that, Americans need to be smarter, investing in peaceful development rather than military bases in long-abused lands.  

The US should leave Iraq quickly. After that, it can and should use its political and economic weight to help manage a complex and difficult situation that is significantly, though not exclusively, of its own making. America’s sway in Iraq will be limited, but leaving now would actually make it more effective than it is now, and at much less cost in terms of money and American, allied, and Iraqi lives.