In Iraq and Beyond, the U.S. Should Put Politics Before Force

Why is the inventor of the troop "surge" in Iraq now calling troop withdrawals a failure?

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U.S. soldiers walk past tanks at a courtyard at Camp Liberty in Baghdad / Reuters

In the summer of 2007 Frederick Kagan, the American Enterprise Institute scholar widely credited with inventing the "Surge" of troops into Iraq, succinctly explained his framework for winning the war. "The political stuff comes later," he said of what Time's write-up of the speech called "the space to permit the struggling factions inside Iraq to work out their differences politically."

That same summer, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "A successful clear-and-hold operation ... will probably begin in late July or early August within Baghdad itself," he said, adding that the effort would create "the space for political progress that we all desire."

Six months later, in January of 2008, Kagan co-authored an op-ed describing this political space. What really matters, however, is that Iraqis come to view themselves as a single people working together to build a new nation, and address their inevitable differences legislatively rather than violently," he wrote. "Much remains to be done politically at the local and national levels to secure the gains we have made."

By October of 2008, Kagan, in a column for the International Herald Tribune, was practically declaring victory for Iraq's politics:

Iraq is an independent, sovereign state able to negotiate on an equal basis with the United States; Iraqis and Americans both want U.S. troops to leave Iraq as quickly as possible and believe that a withdrawal will be feasible by 2011. Above all, the agreement highlights Iraq's desire to become a strategic partner with the United States, an opportunity the Obama administration can seize.
In that same op-ed, Kagan went on to argue that this would benefit the U.S. and keep Iran at bay:

America and Iraq also have common interests vis-à-vis Iran. Iraqis want to remain independent of Tehran, as they have now demonstrated by signing the agreement with the United States over Iran's vigorous objections. They want to avoid military conflict with Iran, and so does America. Iraqis share our fear that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, which would threaten their independence. And they resent Iran's efforts to maintain insurgent and terrorist cells that undermine their government.

Of course, the Iraqis recognize, as we do, that Iraq and Iran are natural trading partners and have a religious bond as majority Shiites. This may be to our benefit: The millions of Iranian pilgrims who will visit Iraqi holy sites at Najaf and Karbala over the coming years will take home a vision of a flourishing, peaceful, secular, religiously tolerant and democratic Muslim state.
So it was surprising to read Kagan's new cover story in the Weekly Standard, which seems to reverse his early positions dramatically, expressing skepticism for Iraqi self-governance and warning that an independent Iraq will strengthen Iran, not weaken it as he had earlier written.

U.S. strategy for preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, moreover, has relied almost entirely on economic sanctions. The Iran-Iraq border runs for more than 900 miles. Saddam Hussein was more than content to participate, informally and indirectly, in sanctions against Iran, a neighbor he had invaded in 1980 and fought until 1988. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, embroiling himself in a 13-year conflict with the United States and its allies that imposed even harsher sanctions on Iraq than had been imposed on Iran. But since 2003, the presence in Iraq of more than 100,000 American troops--not to mention some of the most ruthless and vicious urban fighting and road-mining the world has seen in decades--prevented Iraq from being used as a major portal through which Iran could circumvent sanctions. Now, all of those conditions have vanished, and Iraqis have already made it clear that they do not feel bound by our sanctions against Iran. Any strategy that relies on the economic isolation of Iran, then, has just been thoroughly vitiated for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power (and American hostages) in 1979. Our defeat in Iraq will require a fundamental reevaluation of America's strategy toward Iran.
The piece, co-authored by Kagan's wife Kimberly and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, the deputy director of Kim Kagan's Institute for the Study of War think tank, attempts to lay the blame for Iraq's political failures at Obama's feet. Those failures include Iraq exercising its sovereign right to ask U.S. troops to leave.

Iraq's behavior right now is precisely what Frederick Kagan spent years advocating for and enacting under President George W. Bush: Iraqis are using their Parliament, not suicide vests, to resolve political disputes. Iraq and Iran, by simple geography, must have a relationship of some sort, though Kagan himself has argued that Iraqis resent Iranian meddling and won't tolerate much of it. And Iraq's request for U.S. troops to leave -- along with an American acceptance of that requests -- solidifies Iraq's sovereign ability to run its own affairs more than an increase in troops ever could.

It would be too easy to suggest that the only reason the Kagans object to the current state of affairs is because of the current occupant in the White House. Rather, this piece in the Weekly Standard seems to represent Iraq hawks rejecting the very thing they spent the last five years trying to build up: Iraqi politics.

The biggest weaknesses in the "Surge" strategy may be that it used a military tactic -- sending reinforcements and adopting a more aggressive force posture -- in the hopes of achieving both military and political ends. But this new negligence of domestic Iraqi politics seems increasingly common in the commentariat. It is a common theme of my criticisms of the strategy in Afghanistan, where a focus on brute force often substitutes for an understanding of Afghanistan's politics, which affect the war in ways we do not always understand. This is true throughout the region, and, I would wager, throughout most places in the world where the U.S. government sees threats -- and, often, not people or politics.

Of course Baghdad would have a complicated, frenemy-style relationship with Tehran. The two countries are too close, and have too much history (both good and bad) between them to have any other kind of relationship. That doesn't mean that troops are our only way to have leverage in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Iraq's economy is growing -- not exactly at the fastest rate in the world, but there are pockets of surprising affluence and they're getting bigger. Iraq's regional trade is increasing. Their politics are not only raucous but are settling into some sort of stability. There are endless ways the U.S. can continue to leverage its influence in such a system -- including against Iran.

There's no reason that the withdrawal from Iraq has to be a failure rather than an opportunity. Diplomacy and economic statecraft can be harder, messier, and less certain than using a 50,000 troop garrison. But if Iraq has taught us any lessons, it is that the wanton use of troops to achieve political goals is anything but certain, especially when done outside a considered, specific political framework. (We could stand to learn that lesson in Afghanistan.)

Ultimately, Iraq's future will lie in its politics, its economy, and its political economy. Refusing to view it that way -- choosing instead to see Iraq as a chessboard with troops but nothing else on it -- doesn't do us much good. Looking at the conflict in Iraq as a political struggle that might require war, rather than a war that might require politics, is the only way we'll ever make sense of what's going on there.