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Who Wants To Die For Iyad Allawi?

Looking back over this, the reply here and the discussion in the Winds of Change comments section, some clarification is in order.

I think it's obvious that, as a rule, saying "well why don't you go fight if you're so damn eager to see military action" isn't much of an argument. It does, however, work as what Dan Dennett calls an "intuition pump" -- challenge the advocate of military action to think a bit about how seriously he believes what he says he believes.

Here's the point I was trying to make about Muqtada. He's not, let's agree, a good guy. But at the same time, he's not a direct threat to the United States. And unlike during the 1990s, it's now apparent to me (and to most everyone else) that the USA does face some rather serious direct security threats. As a result, while idealistic activities that would use the American military for purposes other than countering direct security threats should by no means be off the table, the bar needs to be set rather higher than it was in the past. The bar has two main elements, the cost of action (including the price in blood, the price in money, indirect costs thanks to adverse public opinion, and opportunity costs thanks to other possible interventions not undertaken) and the probability of success. Some say that we could do enormous good in Darfur at the relatively low cost of providing American airlift capacity and some air support. Others maintain that several thousand American ground troops will be needed. I'm not even close to being in a position to adjudicate that dispute, but obviously it's relevant to considering whether or not we should "do something" about Darfur.

So thinking about Muqtada, what are our chances of success? If success is defined in terms of killing Muqtada or "smashing" the elements of the Mahdi Army that are currently in Najaf, the odds are pretty good. But that merely pushes us back to the issue of why we would be interested in doing something like this. The answer, or so it seems, is that the United States is trying to build a stable pro-American liberal democracy in Iraq. So what are our chances of succeeding at doing that.

Virtually zero, I think. Let's stipulate away all the armed opposition to the United States -- say John Negroponte waves his magical counterinsurgency wand and it all goes away -- and just think about the public opinion trends. We've got a Kurdish minority in the north that has fairly liberal views, some taste for democratic governance, and does not believe in the goal of a stable Iraqi state. In the center, by contrast, we've got our Sunnis who do believe in a stable Iraqi state (otherwise they get cut out of the oil) but very strongly oppose the notion of a majoritarian Iraq, as that would lead to Shiite domination. In the south are the Shia who, like the Sunnis, support the idea of a stable Iraqi state. The Shia seem split between a minority (Sadrists and SCIRI folk) who believe in clerical rule rather than democracy, and a majority (Sistani's folks and al-Dawa) who would like to create an illiberal, Shia-oriented, majoritarian democracy. Leading the whole mix is Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Baath Party hitman turned would-be coup leader, a CIA operative who, while in exile, was an avowed opponent of a democratic Iraq. Nationwide polling suggests, meanwhile, that while the Iraqi people as a whole favor the idea of a democracy, a majority think that in the short term it's more important to have a strongman who can impose order.

So you've got to ask yourself -- what is a stable liberal democracy built out of? Well, one key building block, or so it seems to, is a population that wants a stable liberal democracy. And a majority in favor of a stable liberal democracy isn't enough. I don't know exactly where the threshold is, but, obviously, it requires supermajority support -- 50 percent plus one can't make it happen. In the Iraqi context, I don't think we're anywhere close to achieving that. Between secessionists, anti-democrats, and illiberal religious fundamentalists we're far from the mark indeed.

Now add the military component into the mix. There's the Mahdi Army in the south, operating in support of its goal of an illiberal, undemocratic, Shiite Iraq. Then there are Sunni insurgent forces in the center, operating in support of their goal of an illiberal, undemocratic, Sunni Iraq. Latent in the north are the Kurdish pesh merga, currently just keeping order, but prepared to spring into action in support of their goal of an independent (or, at the least, highly autonomous) Kurdistan. Not yet on the scene is SCIRI's Badr Brigades which could be called out into the streets at any time. And in addition to Sadrist activity in the Najaf area, all reports indicate that the Chicago-sized "neighborhood" of Sadr City in Baghdad is firmly under their control. The main force able to keep a lid (to some extent) on these forces is the US military which, according to the available polling, is grossly unpopular in Iraq, and which most Iraqis would like to see leave their country. The American military can almost certainly defeat these various guerillas on the battlefield, but doing so will not alter the adverse public opinion trends. Indeed, it will probably make them worse.

This is a mission, then, that has an extremely low probability of success. In all likelihood it will either end with an exhausted America deciding to give up the game (in which case we'd best do it sooner rather than later) or else with a triumphant America having successfully set Iyad Allawi up as dictator of Iraq. He'll go, naturally enough, by the title "president" or "prime minister" but that's what he'll be. This is not, I think, a goal of such overwhelming moral vitality that it's worth expending significant quantities of American blood and treasure to achieve at a time when we face real, direct threats from other quarters. The point of suggesting that Allawi's fans form a Lincoln Brigade in support of their hero is not to call them "chickenhawks" but is recognition of the fact that Allawi is not the bad guy here per se. Someone who chooses to fight for Allawi's dictatorship over Muqtada's could have some very good reasons for preferring the former to the latter, and should be welcome to take up arms on his behalf if that's what he wants to do. But the lowish probability that the US Army and Marine Corps can successfully establish an Allawi dictatorship (and the vanishingly small probability that they can create a democracy) is not a reasonable objective of national policy at this point.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish the strategic mistake of invading Iraq in a precipitous manner while more pressing threats went unaddressed could be redeemed by the creation of a democratic country. And, perhaps, if the occupation had been better managed it could have been. Perhaps wiser management of the country in the early days and weeks of the occupation would have created sufficient positive feelings toward the USA that Iraqis would have tolerated the sort of longish lasting and somewhat heavy-handed policies that would have been necessary to impose a novel political system on top of pre-existing identities and prejudices. Perhaps the challenge was simply to great. But either way, it didn't happen and the moment has passed. Kenan Makiya, I'm told, has left Iraq and returned to the USA, abandonning his dearly held dream of presiding over the birth of a liberal democracy in Mesopotamia. It's time for the many Americans who admire Makiya and his truly commendable dream to think about doing the same.

August 15, 2004 | Permalink

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» Just read Matt Yglesias from The Ethical Werewolf
I thought about writing this when I saw Matt bring the Mill against libertarians, analyze the problems in Iraq (just read Matt's post, don't worry about the links), and write this piece in the American Prospect about character. But I didn't, so I'll ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 17, 2004 9:22:37 AM

» Just read Matt Yglesias from The Ethical Werewolf
I thought about writing this when I saw Matt bring the Mill against libertarians, analyze the problems in Iraq (just read Matt's post, don't worry about the links), and write this piece in the American Prospect about character. But I didn't, so I'll ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 17, 2004 9:26:28 AM

» On al-Sadr from Winds of Change.NET
I don't agree with John Quiggin or Matthew Yglesias about the standoff in Najaf and on whether continued military pressure is the correct policy to deal with al-Sadr. Today's news that al-Sadr has apparently agreed... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 18, 2004 5:05:07 PM

Comments

stark.

don't forget the tribes ...

Posted by: praktike | Aug 15, 2004 2:10:11 PM

As if things aren't bad enough already, according to Juan Cole's blog today more and more mainstream Shiite clerics are turning against the Allawi/American government's recent actions in the south.

Glad you're coming around to see the light, Matt, but I really wish you'd been on board with us about two years ago...

Posted by: oodja | Aug 15, 2004 2:43:44 PM


Here's the point I was trying to make about Muqtada. He's not, let's agree, a good guy.


I don't know whether he is a good guy or not, but the sad irony of all this is that from Iraqis' point of view (and in Muslim world in general) he is now definitely a patriot, freedom fighter and not just a good guy, but a great hero. Just like, say, communist resistance to Nazi occupation in France or Italy.


Protests Erupt in Five Iraqi Cities Over Najaf

About 3 thousand demonstrators marched in the center of Falluja carrying pictures of Sadr and placards denouncing the U.S. bombing of Najaf, where the cleric and his followers are surrounded.

"Long live Sadr. Falluja stands by Najaf against America," the demonstrators shouted.


See, this is Falluja - a Sunni city. They are supposed to hate each other.

Posted by: abb1 | Aug 15, 2004 3:00:47 PM

Matthew

Your agrgument that the US forces in Iraq should not confront al Sadr because he is "not a direct threat to the United States" is not understood. Would not the same logic have applied to the 1st SS Panzer Division?

It seems that you are putting the goal post on wheels so it can be kept just out-of-reach no matter how far the kick of representative government in Iraq may travel. It's patently unfair to say that the US objective is to intall an Alawi dictatorship at the same time that the assembly of 1,200 is meeting. It must have taken a fair amount of local politicing just to select those 1,200 representatives. For many Iraqis this was likely their first experience in the democratic process. I suppose that an adventuring NYT or WaPo journalist could find dozens of examples of how any particular selection was unfair in one fashion or another, and condemn the entire process, but the same could be probably be said of the DNC.

The fact is that the Iraqis are progressing in fashioning a representative government that suits their peculiar situation. It may be two steps forward and one step back, but progress nonetheless.

I also think it shortsighted to view Iraq in other than a strategic context. The powers to be are telling us that US strategic interests going forward will be contested in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Iraq's geography is compelling for advancing those interests.

Posted by: Warthog | Aug 15, 2004 3:02:13 PM

Good post Matthew. Thoughtful and well-argued.

But I don't know if I agree with your premises or your conclusion. To wit:

But that merely pushes us back to the issue of why we would be interested in doing something like [killing Muqtada and smashing the Mahdi army]. The answer, or so it seems, is that the United States is trying to build a stable pro-American liberal democracy in Iraq. So what are our chances of succeeding at doing that.

A stable pro-American liberal democracy does indeed seem like our ultimate goal in having invaded Iraq, and tactically, crushing the Mahdi army and killing Muqtada al-Sadr is arguably a way of getting closer to that goal. You present a good argument for why it isn't a good tactical decision, and it's one I buy.

However, the decision to go after Muqtada/Mahdi may have been made for very different tactical and strategic reasons (and I think it was). The short-term goal is likely to simply get rid of one rather nasty thorn in the side of the US military and the Allawi government. The longer-term strategic decision is likely that by getting rid of Muqtada and the Mahdi army, though we damage our reputation even more in the process (maybe our approval rating in Iraq will go from 2% to .5% or something), we will be closer to having a stable Iraq. In addition, we will have illustrated our fortitude in fighting against someone who is fairly clearly not fighting the US for the best interests of the Iraqis in particular or Muslims in general (instead it seems clear that he's fighting for his own glory and power).

That said, I don't think that we're going about trying to achieve this goal very well. One more sad thing about this whole debacle in Iraq is that so much of it is illustrative of pure incompetence, which is a scary thought, given the power that lies at the fingertips of those who are incompetent (but don't seem to be seen as such by enough voters in this country).

If you view going after Muqtada/Mahdi (hell, I'll just call 'em M&M) only according to the long-term goal of making the US safer and making Iraq into a stable pro-US liberal democracy, then it initially seems counter-productive. But the reductive argument that you resort to, namely that we're very unlikely to get what we want, so we should pull out now before more people die, may actually be contrary to the country's best interests, though you argue the contrary.

If we pull out, leaving Iraq in chaos and M&M in charge of Najaf, Sadr City, etc., what it says to the rest of the world is that we're willing to really fuck up a place (Iraq and the Middle East at large) and de-stabilize the world, but we don't have the courage or the determination to realize that we've made a mistake and will try to make it right.

The whole situation in Iraq is an extremely bad one, brought on largely through American incompetence combined with some very bad, fucked up people. However, I think that for us to back away and cede Iraq (or even just Najaf) to the bad guys is not only a propaganda coup for said bad guys, but it simply says to other countries around the world that you can't trust the US to do a damn thing right and it reinforces the unfortunate lesson of Somalia: that the US will run away if you just blow up a few of their soldiers. This will be the impression given, even if that's not what's necessarily happening in this case.

Anyway.... The only good thing I can see coming out of this is the possibility that GWB & Co. will be gone as of January 20th at 12:01pm EST.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 15, 2004 3:04:57 PM

It seems to me that you are on the right track in identifying our interests. What we need, certainly the US and largely the rest of the world, is an Iraq that is well ordered internally and that can be contained and deterred from sponsoring terrorism. In other words we need to get Iraq back to roughly where it was before we invaded.

That seems to be what the Bush administration is trying to accomplish by putting in Negroponte and Allawi, although they are making the Vietnam post Diem mistake, backing weak leaders who can be controlled but are unable to accomplish our goals.

If a containable Iraq is the goal then we would be better off at this point turning over control to one of the successful insurgent groups. They, at least, have people willing to die to reconstruct a dictatorship in Iraq.

Posted by: tib | Aug 15, 2004 3:12:27 PM

An excellent, if utterly heartbreaking post.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Aug 15, 2004 3:14:21 PM

Fucking wow. Ok, very well-written, thought, argued, etc. Publishable. A continuous note of hardheaded realism and sincere sadness. I will assume it has not the slightest basis in Kerry camp rumours, or personal ambition, though frankly I would find little fault in either of those being factors. I am a realist myself, and the piece was fine enough on its own merits that no externalities could diminish it.

However, if you do take the position of withdrawal, I do think it includes a responsiblity to at least attempt to imagine what the consequences would be within Iraq & the region, more generally geo-politically, and for domestic politics should Kerry be the one to implement it.

I will be back later to argue against the specifics of your piece.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 15, 2004 3:15:17 PM

"I think it's obvious that, as a rule, saying "well why don't you go fight if you're so damn eager to see military action" isn't much of an argument."

I'm sorry for the lack of the Harvard education, but this isn't obvious to me at all.

If you are of age and medically fit and if you believe that the US needs more troops to defend itself around the world, AND if you are hawkish and believe this is a war against islamofascism, then truly, I do not understand why you are not in the recruiters office at this minute.

(I was against this war, but I did find myself at the recruiting websites to find I am too old by several years.)

But truly, do explain the obvious to me, why should I take any of age, medically fit, hawkish, non-soldier seriously after he explains the Cheney defense -- the war is good but he has different priorities.

Posted by: jerry | Aug 15, 2004 3:43:46 PM

You state ... lowish probability that the US Army and Marine Corps can successfully establish an Allawi dictatorship (and the vanishingly small probability that they can create a democracy) is not a reasonable objective of national policy at this point...
I assume you mean US national policy.
As Warthog points out, geopolitics demands that we fix the mess we've created, hopefully with the help of other nations who have an interest in a stable Middle East. Our 18 military bases and the largest American Embassy in the world may be a little much, but we need a stable ME rather than another Taliban type country. Europe needs that, too, as it supplies them with their oil, so hopefully Kerry will be able to convince them to join us.

BTW, what is Bush's reasoning behind pulling 70,000 troops back to the US. Is this really the planned realignment, or is it to get them ready for something else?

Posted by: justa grata honoria | Aug 15, 2004 3:53:23 PM

The post assumes a choice set of a Sadr dictatorship or an Allawi dictatorship. but of course those aren't the only options. The collapse of any possible central state authority is another one, and its significantly worse for us than either of the first two. Unless its absolutely impossible to avoid it, which has not been established, we have to do what we can to see the Iraqi interim government through to elections. If the elected constituent in January asks us to go, we go. If it asks us to stay, are we really going to abandon them because "50 plus one" support may not be a sufficient basis for a stable democracy?

Posted by: rd | Aug 15, 2004 4:03:11 PM

Great, great post.

Posted by: Realish | Aug 15, 2004 4:50:33 PM

It must have taken a fair amount of local politicing just to select those 1,200 representatives.

It took a fair amount of local politicing to get the Ba'ath party started too, and that was 2 million of them. Democratic? Fair? We report, you decide.

Posted by: Da Thug | Aug 15, 2004 5:28:30 PM

Historians removed from the political and cultural swirl will see the US/British invasion of Iraq as merely a completion of the engagement that removed Iraq from Kuwait. Lest you forget we never disengaged from the shooting war with Iraq, nor did Iraq ever comply with its requirements from the original cease-fire. Even without 9/11 there was more enough justification to take down SH. After 9/11 the continuation of the overtly hostile Baathist regime was unacceptable. Whether you choose to describe the threat to US/British interests (proxies for the West) as likely, immediate or imminent is an interesting, but inately irrelevant discussion.

This thread, and most others I see, that discuss the "incompetence" of the current situation act as though the US were managing a sales force where there may be different skill levels and motivations but where everybody was on the same company page. As Gen. Tommy Franks often says the bad guys get to vote too.

We invaded Iraq to remove a regime not to conquer the country or to pummel the population into submission. Rather than destroy cities and annihilate armies we accepted truces and thus provided an opportunity for the overwhelming majority of the population to participate in a post-hostilities civil society with a largely intact infrastructure. I don't think that many appreciate how historically unique this method of war-fighting really is.

Many different religious, ethnic, and political groups are competing for dominance of Iraqi political life. By not conquering Iraq in any traditional sense, we accepted the consequences of post-hostility instability. One can argue that a few thousand more tons of high explosives in the beginning would have made things a little less contentious now, but that is not the path we chose. I say we all have an interest in the outcome because if the experiment does not work then the next engagement will be more of the traditional variety.

Posted by: Warthog | Aug 15, 2004 5:48:30 PM

Sounds like "Iraq invasion as a completion of the engagement that removed Iraq from Kuwait" is going to be the next raison du jour now when the "democratic Iraq" pretext becomes more and more laughable. This is a good one, because it's retroactive: no matter how badly you screw things up the "reason" is not affected.

You'll have to re-write a whole lot of history, though, to make the future "historians removed from the political and cultural swirl" see it this way. Good luck, it's a hard work in front of you, but it's certainly not impossible...

Posted by: abb1 | Aug 15, 2004 7:02:00 PM

>"Iraq invasion as a completion of the engagement that removed Iraq from Kuwait"

This shifts attention away from the Bad One-Term Bush, and onto the shortcomings of the he Good One-Term Bush, which kind of shift is the only thing that can keep the Bad One-Term Bush from being the Bad Two-Term Bush.

Which would be Bad.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Aug 15, 2004 7:59:58 PM

...provided an opportunity for the overwhelming majority of the population to participate in a post-hostilities civil society with a largely intact infrastructure...
Where in Iraq is the infrastructure intact?
I seem to remember we dismantled the Baathists, and we let looters destroy the physical infrastructure (except the oil ministry).

we accepted the consequences of post-hostility instability...
It's my understanding that Bush et al assumed that we would be greeted with open arms, and Iraqis would embrace democracy. Sounds like you've already begun to rewrite history.

Posted by: justa grata honoria | Aug 16, 2004 12:13:31 AM

"We invaded Iraq to remove a regime..."

Any time a "reason" to put forward for the invasion is contemplated, it would be helpful to consult reality:

Declaring his intention to launch a pre-emptive war, Mr Bush also warned...weapons inspectors to leave Iraq now.

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/03/18/1047749751715.html?oneclick=true

March 18, 2003

Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. President:)

Consistent with section 3(b) of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 (Public Law 107-243), and based on information available to me, including that in the enclosed document, I determine that:

(1) reliance by the United States on further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone will neither (A) adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq nor (B) likely lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq; and

(2) acting pursuant to the Constitution and Public Law 107-243 is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Sincerely,

GEORGE W. BUSH
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030319-1.html

So...what you mean "we" kemosabe?
Regime change is not AT ALL used as a reason.

"Not (neither) likely"...coming as ONE person's opinion is bad operational rationale for WAR.

Posted by: DougR56 | Aug 16, 2004 10:46:38 AM

"However, if you do take the position of withdrawal, I do think it includes a responsiblity to at least attempt to imagine what the consequences would be within Iraq & the region, more generally geo-politically"

But he can't analyze that publically, because it is absolutely clear that leaving Iraq to its fate now would be even more a geopolitical disaster than just about anything short of having nuked it off the face of the Earth in 2003

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Aug 16, 2004 12:21:03 PM

But he can't analyze that publically, because it is absolutely clear that leaving Iraq to its fate now would be even more a geopolitical disaster than just about anything short of having nuked it off the face of the Earth in 2003

Nonsense. Saddam is gone, the Iraqis are free now. Are you one of these racist lefties who keep saying Arabs are incapable of democracy?

They've been freed from socialist slavery under Saddam. The Iraqis are perfectly capable of rejecting the few Ba'athist holdouts that are left. Now is the time to step back and let the free market do its work.

Posted by: Da Thug | Aug 16, 2004 12:31:28 PM

The Iraqis are perfectly capable of rejecting the few Ba'athist holdouts that are left.

Which, after all, explains why it takes the US Army to try to keep Ba'athist thug Allawi in power there.

Posted by: cmdicely | Aug 16, 2004 2:20:58 PM

Your agrgument that the US forces in Iraq should not confront al Sadr because he is "not a direct threat to the United States" is not understood. Would not the same logic have applied to the 1st SS Panzer Division?

Er, no. I'm still waiting for an explanation of how the US managed to get itself into a shooting war with a bunch of Shi'a who themselves got the sharp end of the Saddam stick. It's a bit like being caught in a standoff in Salt Lake City as a result of an IRA bombing.

Historians removed from the political and cultural swirl will see the US/British invasion of Iraq as merely a completion of the engagement that removed Iraq from Kuwait.

For some reason, I don't think your soothsaying powers are up to much. Though you do assert with the force of someone very badly constipated.

Are you one of these racist lefties who keep saying Arabs are incapable of democracy?

Are you Dorothy, Toto or the Cowardly Lion? Because you like hanging out with straw men a-plenty.

Posted by: ahem | Aug 16, 2004 4:17:12 PM

Americans.

You guys on an individual basis are lovely. Collectively though, you are dangerous. This daft idea you have of 'good guy' and 'bad guy' is crazy. "Good" guys are people who agree with you and "bad" guys are people who don't. The logic of this credo is that if I get the power I should bomb America because I disagree with you. I know you had a shock on 9/11 but I'm afraid most people are far more used to war than you are. The number of people you killed in the first Gulf war for example was way higher than 3000. Personally, I wouldnt care if I got blown up by one of your 500lb bombs or a suicide bomber. The point is until you accept that we are all equal on this world, your use of overwhelming power in pursuit of your own interests, while hiding behind this good guy bad guy nonsense, can only lead to resentment. If you want to live in peace stop invading places, stop subsidising Zionist land-grab and pay the going rate for oil. If you do those things nobody is going to even dream of bothering you. By the way, I dont support murder of any kind, but you need to learn that one Arab bleeds as much blood as one Jew or as one American or one African.

Posted by: Luke | Aug 16, 2004 7:07:51 PM

Warthog,

If you believe what you wrote (Posted by: Warthog | August 15, 2004 05:48 PM) then for God's sake stop comparing this conflict to WW2!!!

Posted by: NeoDude | Aug 17, 2004 2:28:26 PM

"Tator", as he's known at Rantburg is actually a direct threat if you consider that his masters are the Iranians. "Tator" blinked, but we must remember he is a crocidile. Better he was "toast". Regards Keith

Posted by: Keith | Aug 18, 2004 10:55:19 PM

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