July 24, 2007

July 24, 2007 | WebMemo on Middle East

The War in Iraq: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

There are many misconceptions about the war that distort the current debate over U.S. Iraq policy. Although those seeking to score political points often try to reduce the war to simple slogans and either-or strategic propositions, the situation on the ground is complex and not adequately described by debate talking points or campaign rhetoric. The war in Iraq is now a major front in the global war to combat al-Qaeda and is critical to the outcome of U.S. efforts to contain Iran. At the same time, Iraq is the site of a bloody insurgency that threatens to explode into a full-blown civil war. The U.S. has much at stake in this conflict, and a pullout now would bring grave consequences: massive sectarian violence, a humanitarian disaster, and the creation of a failed state that would serve as a springboard for radical Islamic forces to destabilize neighboring states and launch terrorist attacks against a wide variety of targets, possibly including some inside the United States. As part of an effort to promote an informed discussion about the war in Iraq and the consequences of losing that war, this paper addresses many of the most common misconceptions about the situation in Iraq.

We did not find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or any clear link to al-Qaeda. Knowing what we know now, should we have invaded Iraq?

Yes. Saddam Hussein's regime was a major threat to American interests and the region as a wholeThe United States was not alone in believing Saddam Hussein had WMD, which is why the U.N. Security Council had adopted over a dozen resolutions since 1990 to force his regime to disarm, to threaten it with "serious consequences" if it did not, and even to authorize U.N. member states "to use all necessary means" to compel Iraq to comply.

While WMD were not found, some may have been moved to Syria in the convoys of hundreds of trucks that crossed the border just before the U.S.-led intervention and during the first few weeks of fighting. Moreover, prohibited missiles were found inside Iraq, a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions and the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. And the threat to the U.S. was not solely from WMD or missiles. The Iraq regime sought to assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait in 1993, supported a wide variety of terrorist groups against American allies, including Israel, and routinely fired on U.S. warplanes that were enforcing the U.N. no-fly zones. During his reign, Hussein invaded two countries, fired missiles at three other countries, used illegal chemical weapons against Iran and his own people, and left behind at least 300,000 victims in mass graves.

Removing Saddam was the right thing to do. The fact that the United Nations Security Council continues to authorize the U.S. military presence in Iraq signals that the international community still wants the U.S. there. America is far safer now, notwithstanding the present difficulties, because it is forever rid of the potential threat posed by Saddam's WMD programs, which easily could have been reconstituted if his regime had survived.

Is the U.S. capable of winning the war in Iraq, and what does winning look like?

Yes, the war in Iraq can be won. Winning would be helping Iraqis build a stable government that is an ally in the war on terrorism-unlike Saddam's Iraq, which was an enemy in that war. This would be a major victory. It is true that Iraq will be a violent place for many years. But some of the forces that make it violent-radical Islamists and Saddam's Baathist supporters-are sworn enemies of the United States. If we turn our backs on them now, their threat will only grow.

After successfully capturing Saddam Hussein, shouldn't the U.S. focus on getting bin Laden, rather than trying to force democracy on a society that doesn't want it?

The war in Iraq is a different type of struggle than the hunt for bin Laden. It requires different resources and a different strategy. Both can be conducted simultaneously-it is not an either-or proposition. The U.S. has been focused on capturing or killing Osama bin Laden since 9/11. That has not changed. Some opponents of the war in Iraq argue that focusing on Iraq diverted attention from the hunt for bin Laden. But bin Laden had already gone underground, hunkering down on the Afghan-Pakistan border 18 months before the Iraq war. There is no reason to believe that bin Laden would have been caught if there had been no war in Iraq. It is also wrong to conclude that Iraqis oppose democracy. Most Iraqis want democracy, and increasing numbers have voted in each new round of elections. If the U.S. pulls out of Iraq before it has a stable government capable of defending itself, the likes of bin Laden will have a safe haven from which to attack the U.S. again.

Why should U.S. soldiers lose their lives waging another country's civil war?

Our enemy, al-Qaeda, seeks to provoke a civil war by bombing Shiite mosques and shrines. If we stand back and allow al-Qaeda's terrorists to succeed, they will turn Iraq into a base for attacking us, just as they turned Afghanistan into a base for attacking us. The Clinton Administration decided that the U.S. had no stake in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Only after the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate from its territory did we discover-too late-that we did have a stake there. A Talibanized Iraq would be like Afghanistan on steroids, fueled by Iraqi oil revenues. The U.S. cannot permit this.

How can one call this anything but a civil war?

Although al-Qaeda seeks to provoke a civil war, Iraq is not in a full-fledged civil war. The current conflict is a struggle for power between an elected government and many different organizations that seek to impose their totalitarian views on others through violence. Most Iraqis want the fighting to stop and support the government. Nor is it inevitable that a full-blown civil war will break out. If it does, however, that war will be much more violent than the present conflict. Preventing that from happening is crucial to the U.S.'s long-term security. It is in the U.S. national interest to prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will flourish and build bases from which to launch attacks.

Polls show that over half of the Iraqi people want us to leave. Shouldn't we respect their wishes?

Most Iraqis want an improvement in their security situation, and some mistakenly believe that a U.S. troop pullout would somehow help to improve security, perhaps because they think their local militias could do a better job. But the empowerment of rival militias would eventually undercut the security of all Iraqis. Washington should respect the wishes of the government that Iraqis voted into office and cooperate with it to restore the security situation. U.S. troops should not leave until Iraq's government is strong enough to protect Iraqis from insurgents and terrorists.

Isn't it time for the Iraqi government and army to take over?

The Iraqi government and army are gradually taking over control of Iraq but remain too weak to run the whole country. Giving them too much to do too soon would risk a slide back to a worse situation. The U.S. has trained and equipped 346,000 Iraqis in the armed forces (152,000) and police (194,000). Iraqi security forces are steadily improving and are shouldering a greater share of the burden. They participate in most coalition military operations, and they suffer casualties at a much higher rate than American forces.

What can be done to speed up troop withdrawal from Iraq?

The sooner Iraqi security forces are trained, equipped, and able to operate independently, the sooner U.S. troops can leave. Greater Sunni Arab participation in the Iraqi government would also help undercut Sunni support for the insurgency and strengthen the government, making it possible to withdraw U.S. troops sooner. It is not yet clear exactly when U.S. troops can withdraw without risking a setback to Iraq's security and U.S. national interests. Combat troops will probably be needed for at least three more years, in gradually declining numbers, with advisers needed much longer to help train and support the Iraqi security forces.

How have our actions in Iraq affected our relationships with other nations?

America's actions in Iraq have complicated relations with some nations. That does not make those actions any less necessary or important. The U.N. Security Council continues to support the mission of the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently warned that a premature U.S. troop pullout would have disastrous consequences. Among Iraq's neighbors, only the dictatorships in Iran and Syria want to see a rapid U.S. withdrawal. Washington should launch a public diplomacy campaign to explain to the governments and peoples of other countries that American efforts to stabilize Iraq are essential to protecting the Iraqi people from ruthless terrorists who seek to export revolution and suicide bombings far beyond Iraq's borders.

After Iraq, what next? What threats will we have to address?

The two key threats in the Middle East are Iran and al-Qaeda. Both stand to gain if the U.S. prematurely withdraws its forces from Iraq. Al-Qaeda would be free to set up bases for exporting terrorism to Iraq's neighbors and other targets around the world. Iran would become the dominant outside influence in Iraq. Finishing the job in Iraq by working to build a stable government that will be an ally in the war against al-Qaeda and help contain Iran will help the U.S. address future threats.

James Phillips is Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison CenĀ­ter 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