The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #770 on Iraq

June 23, 2005

June 23, 2005 | WebMemo on Iraq

Firm and Patient Realism Needed in Iraq

Opinion polls from recent months reveal an erosion of public support for the war in Iraq. Congress, heading towards an election year, seems increasingly skittish about supporting the Bush Administration's strategy for victory in Iraq, and Members have started to talk about settling for an "exit strategy." Last week, two Republicans joined a pair of Democratic colleagues in sponsoring a bill calling for the Bush Administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by October 1, 2006. Washington politics should not be allowed to drive the U.S. timetable in Iraq. A politically driven pullout would be a disaster.


Devised according to considerations in Washington rather than the situation on the ground in Iraq, a pullout would send a dangerous signal of weakness and fecklessness to our allies and enemies in Iraq and elsewhere. Iraqi government forces would be demoralized and could begin to hedge their bets by making deals with, or even defecting to, the insurgency. Insurgent groups would be emboldened to redouble their efforts against Americans to strengthen their claim to a military victory and attract more recruits. Many Iraqis who have been sitting on the fence, particularly in Sunni Arab areas, would have little choice but to support the insurgents in order to insure themselves against reprisal.


A sudden American exit also would undercut efforts to increase international support for the Iraqi government, just when it appears to be gaining momentum. Yesterday, an international conference in Brussels, attended by more than 70 countries, yielded new pledges of political and economic support for the transitional Iraqi government formed after the elections in January. Another conference aimed at mobilizing additional foreign aid for Iraq is scheduled for July. It would be tragic if America cuts and runs from Iraq just as the European Union and other countries belatedly show some willingness to step up their efforts to support Iraq's embryonic democracy. 


Although the security situation remains precarious in some portions of central and western Iraq-that is, the Sunni Arab heartland that benefited most from Saddam's brutal dictatorship-the rest of the country is more secure and strongly supportive of the elected government.


Iraq is not Vietnam. The Iraqi insurgents do not have the military strength, popular support, political unity, ideological cohesiveness, great power assistance, charismatic leadership, or alternative political program that the Vietnamese communists possessed. The insurgents are divided by ideology, religious affiliation, and factional rivalries into separate groups, including remnants of Saddam's Baathist regime, Sunni Islamic radicals, Shiite Islamic radicals, tribal forces, and foreign Islamic radicals, such as Abu Musab Zarqawi's Al Qaeda faction.


There appear to be growing tensions between some of the insurgent groups-particularly animosity towards Zarqawi's group, which has killed hundreds of civilians in indiscriminate suicide bombings and provoked a backlash that other groups fear will undermine the insurgency. While many insurgent factions have been hurt by a greater flow of intelligence passed to government forces by anonymous sources since the January elections, Zarqawi's group has suffered disproportionately heavy losses. Up to twenty of his lieutenants have been captured or killed since the beginning of the year, and Zarqawi himself reportedly was almost captured twice. His predominantly non-Iraqi forces are so concerned about being betrayed by Iraqi informants that they now reportedly confiscate cell phones in the areas that they control.


There also has been substantial progress on the political front in Iraq. The insurgents' inability to block the January elections and a simmering resentment of the indiscriminate violence has led many Sunni Arabs to reconsider their boycott of the political process. Even the Association of Muslim Scholars, an anti-American Islamist group, has called for Sunni Arabs to join the Iraqi security services. The insurgents' political base is weakening as it becomes clear that they are opposed not just to the American presence, but also to the elected government.


In this respect, Iraq resembles Algeria in the 1990s more than Vietnam in the 1970s. The 1995 Algerian elections, although they were hardly perfect, played a key role in draining popular support away from Islamic radicals who had little to offer Algerians except endless political violence and fanatical terrorism. Iraq's January elections for a transitional national assembly and the scheduled December elections to form a permanent government could play a similar role.


The Bush Administration has correctly encouraged the transitional Iraqi government to include as many Sunni Arab leaders as possible within a broad-based national coalition. Last week the transitional government agreed to increase the number of Sunni Arabs on the committee that will write the permanent constitution. Even United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a longtime critic of U.S. Iraq policy, has praised the political progress made in Iraq in recent months.


Having seen the catastrophe that Islamic extremists brought to Fallujah, Sunni Arab secular and tribal leaders are becoming more amenable to a political compromise that offers their followers a more hopeful future. Washington should encourage the transitional government to offer an amnesty to tribal/nationalist insurgent leaders willing to disarm their militias and make an irrevocable break with the Islamic extremists and Baathist diehards who seek to violently impose totalitarian dictatorship. 


President Bush also needs to shore up political support at home. He should hold a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari during his visit to underscore that America has a partner in Baghdad who is the first elected Iraqi leader in almost fifty years, one who is eager to lead Iraqis in the fight against Al Qaeda and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. President Bush should make the point that the United States cannot afford to abandon such an ally or give up on democracy in Iraq, if it hopes to gain allies against Al Qaeda and build democracy elsewhere in the Middle East.


In subsequent speeches, President Bush should underscore that U.S. efforts to build a stable and democratic Iraq will be a long and costly enterprise. But he should also warn that the potential costs of a premature exit are considerably greater. Many would perceive a sudden U.S. withdrawal as a major victory for Al Qaeda, which has made Iraq a crucial theater in its global terrorist campaign and has launched the most lethal attacks during the insurgency. Osama bin Laden would gain a flood of new recruits inspired by the successful "jihad" in Iraq, which would increase the risk of future terrorist attacks.  


Iraq itself would be transformed from a potential ally against terrorism into a base for a global terrorist network. American forces would need to be deployed nearby indefinitely to attack terrorist bases there. Bin Laden or other Islamic extremists might be able to use Iraq's oil wealth to finance terrorism around the world.


Even if Kurdish and Shiite forces were able to maintain control of the oil reserves in the north and south, an Iraq plunged into chaos would not be able to freely export its oil. The loss of Iraq's 2 million barrels of daily oil production would push world oil prices higher. This would impose a heavy long-term cost on the economies of the U.S. and other oil importers and possibly trigger a world economic recession that could destabilize many of our allies in the war against terrorism, including Pakistan.


The United States must stay the course and give Iraqis the tools they need to defeat the insurgency. Congress should be realistic about the time needed for Iraq to train and deploy enough security forces to defend itself. President Bush must hold himself above partisan politics and do the right thing in Iraq. He must reaffirm that decisions about the size of the U.S. military presence should be based on the situation on the ground inside Iraq, not Washington's political calendar.


The U.S. must give its Iraqi government allies a fighting chance to defeat the terrorist insurgency and build a stable democracy. To abandon the Iraqi government would be a strategic, moral, political, and psychological disaster that Americans, Iraqis, and many others would regret for years to come.


James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy