I opposed the Iraq war and have watched in horror and disgust as the Bush Administration’s criminal incompetence has resulted in thousands of lives needlessly lost, both American and Iraqi.
But what is done is done. We must focus our energies on where to go from here.
In my view we have three kinds of obligations to Iraq that we must now consider:
1. Obligations to the Iraqi people
Iraq was a frightening and repressive dictatorship before the war, but we have managed to make it appreciably worse with no end in sight to the bloodshed and misery. While at minimum tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict, more than two million Iraqis have fled the country and now live with few rights or opportunities in neighboring countries; and over two million more have been displaced within Iraq. The country’s economy is in a shambles and the out of control unemployment helps to swell the ranks of insurgents.
There is no question that we have a moral responsibility to assist the Iraqi people, and no doubt that establishing a stable and prosperous Iraq would be the best outcome we could pass on to them. But this remains a dream that may be decades away; at minimum we should assist Iraqi exiles and both create and maintain strong humanitarian efforts within the country.
While our obligations to the Iraq people are vast, we owe nothing to the various oppressive militant groups: the Shiite theocratic death squads, the hardcore Baathist nationalists, the PKK in Kurdistan. Instead we should seek to reduce the power of these rogue elements and bolster the prospects for a government that actually stands for the interests of all Iraqis.
2. Obligations to U.S. servicemen and women
Close to 4,000 U.S. military personnel have died and tens of thousands have been seriously wounded in Iraq, and they continue to be killed and wounded at an alarmingly high rate. America’s political leaders (and the voters who put them in office) owe those carrying on the fight a clearly defined strategy that effectively promotes American national security interests. They are not owed, nor have they ever asked, that America’s leaders stick to missions that are short, safe and uncomplicated. What is required is that the level of difficulty and risk must be in some sense proportional to the benefits to U.S. interests, which must be realistic and achievable.
This brings me to our third layer of obligation.
3. Obligations regarding U.S. national security
How our continuing presence in Iraq affects our national security is a complicated matter. On the downside we are putting an immense strain on the military and taking resources away from other volatile regions, most notably Afghanistan; our presence serves as a recruiting poster for jihadists, and we may be inadvertently strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq since many Shiite parties that we are arming and training may be at least indirectly aligned with Iran. On the other hand, Al Qeada in Iraq is a serious force and we are having some success at weakening them in certain regions. In addition, any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that was viewed as an American defeat could also be used as a global rallying cry for jihadists.
So how do we balance these obligations, and what should we do to translate them into policy?
To be continued next week.