The war in Iraq threatens to entangle the United States in that country’s bitter internecine rivalries for years to come, while undermining the fragile stability of the entire region. Yet although the case for war made by the Bush administration was fraudulent and the subsequent management of the occupation a string of colossal errors, even some of the war’s staunchest critics acknowledge that extricating the United States from Iraq is a devilishly complicated problem.
One ominous dimension of that problem is the growing alienation of the Iraqi people. According to a recent report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, while 78 percent of Iraqis want the occupation to end, a majority do not want the United States to leave precipitously. At the same time, the number of Iraqis who think it is “acceptable” to attack U.S. forces has risen dramatically. In 2004, only 17 percent defended attacks against U.S. forces; today, 51 percent do, including 94 percent of Sunni Arabs. Even 35 percent of the Shiites, who owe their current control of the Iraqi government to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, think killing U.S. soldiers is justified.
These public-opinion polls paint a nightmarish picture of the situation confronting U.S. troops now trying to bring sectarian violence under control. If a majority of the people U.S. forces are trying to protect think the attacks being made by insurgents are justified, it is unlikely that the general population will be willing to provide the kind of intelligence needed to forestall such attacks. As the high casualty counts for U.S. soldiers in April and May show, the U.S. occupation has not won the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq and architect of the current “surge” strategy, will report to the president and Congress in September on the prospects for “success.” Since many of the troops needed for the surge have not yet been deployed, however, it is doubtful Petraeus will be able to offer a realistic evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategy until early next year. It is unlikely that the American public’s tolerance for high casualty counts will last into 2008. Nor is it likely, should the mayhem continue, that Republicans will continue to support the president’s policy as they campaign for the 2008 election. A significant majority of the American people, as well as American troops on the ground, now think that the war was a mistake, and that the United States should withdraw, forcing the Iraqis to end their own civil war.
There are morally serious voices, both in the United States and Iraq, cautioning against U.S. disengagement, however. Retired General Anthony Zinni, a vociferous opponent of the war, and someone with significant experience in the Middle East, thinks withdrawal would result in greater regional instability. “When we are in Iraq we are in many ways containing the violence,” he told the New York Times. “If we back off we give it more room to breathe, and it may metastasize in some way and become a regional problem. We don’t have to be there at the same force level, but it is a five- to seven-year process to get any reasonable stability in Iraq.” Cordesman agrees, arguing that the United States has a “moral and ethical obligation” to the Iraqi people. Having gone to war for the wrong reasons, it is politically and morally necessary for the United States to show “the world that it is willing to stay as long as there is any credible chance of helping the Iraqis through what is likely to be at least a half decade more of difficult transition,” Cordesman writes.
Zinni and Cordesman may be right. Those who judged the Iraq invasion an unjust war must grapple with the question of how an unjust war can be brought to a just conclusion. Simply pulling out U.S. troops may only compound the moral error of the war itself. Still, to justify keeping the United States in Iraq for another five years, there must be a reasonable chance of success. That possibility depends first of all on whether the various Iraqi factions want to be reconciled. It is not clear that they do. Just as important, the U.S. Army as currently organized is not built to sustain a decade-long occupation of a country of 27 million people, let alone one convulsed by civil war. If we owe the Iraqi people a moral debt, we owe our troops no less. Those advocating an open-ended U.S. presence in Iraq must do a better job of showing why such a policy is not merely a futile gesture.