General Petraeus and the men under his command are being asked to do the impossible; buy time for a political reconciliation among Iraq’s warring factions. Most observers agree that General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency techniques have improved the security situation for many Iraqis, but only at the cost of increasing the number of U.S. casualties. Virtually no one believes, however, that the Iraqi government is moving in the right direction when it comes to settling sectarian differences. Because the surge cannot be sustained indefinitely, however, any military progress that is not accompanied by diplomatic progress will be in vain.
General Petraeus, as the cliché goes, wrote the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. According to his estimation, successful counterinsurgency efforts generally take at least eight to ten years. This means that pacifying the insurgency, which is a virtual prerequisite for a political settlement, could happen around 2015 at the earliest. And this assumes that Bush’s successor – not to mention the American public – will continue to back the current strategy, an untenable proposition.
In democratic countries different factions agree to settle their differences peacefully through power sharing arrangements and compromise. In the Middle East, however, power and politics are a zero-sum game. Put simply, in the Arab world power only changes hands through violence. The Bush administration claims the invasion of Iraq was intended to establish a new precedent for the Arab world, where leaders come to power through the ballot box rather than through bullets. But the invasion that violently overthrew Saddam Hussein contradicted the lesson the Bush administration insisted it was trying to teach. Actions, no doubt, still speak louder than words.
Historians will tell you that democracy is a generational enterprise. That is, it takes decades before a given people can absorb and exhibit the state of mind, habits, and cultural practices associated with self-government. Absent the requisite educational levels, institutions, and cultural factors (free markets, separation of church and state, and a vibrant middle class) self-government usually breeds mob rule and tyranny. To put it bluntly, Iraq was probably one of the least promising places on the planet to try and plant democracy.
It is not surprising, then, that the Shiites and the Sunnis each seem determined to settle their political differences through force. To complicate matters, the U.S. has been arming Sunni forces (which previously had been shooting at U.S. troops) as a counterweight to al-Qaeda in Iraq, but also to counterbalance the Iranian friendly Shia dominated government we helped install! Arming Sunnis forces, needless to say, makes tactical sense (in so far as they want to kill al-Qaeda), but it may also backfire strategically because it undermines the Shia led government we are counting on. As military historian Andrew Bacevich puts it, the Bush administration’s strategy amounts to arming one gang to check another. This is unlikely do anything for law and order. Sooner or later, Bacevich argues, whomever we’ve armed may turn their weapons back in the cops (which would be us).
Imposing democracy on Iraq is proving about as feasible as a shotgun marriage. Just as an obligatory ceremony, some official looking documents, and the unavoidable vows about working together won’t keep a warring couple from killing each other after the “honeymoon” is over, so the façade of elections and a Constitution are not going to forestall Iraq’s warring factions from slaughtering each other, if that’s what they are determined to do.
Bush’s surge strategy is almost entirely predicated on the Maliki government reaching a political accommodation that will satisfy Iraq’s rival factions. However, the man Bush has tapped, as the “right guy” for Iraq, is either unwilling or unable to reach beyond the sectarian divisions and forge a genuinely inclusive government. As Iraq’s former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi observes: “It is past time for change at the top of the Iraqi government. Without that, no American Military strategy or orderly withdrawal will succeed, and Iraq and the region will be left in chaos.”