Loose Canons

Democracy in Babylon?

Maybe, but not anytime soon.

By 1.9.05

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We'd better look at Iraq and define "failure," because that's what the rest of the world will be doing for us in less than three weeks. The U.N., Old Europe and the Democrats will be sneering that the Iraqi election isn't valid because some Iraqis didn't vote, and fewer than 50 percent chose the victors. But that won't make the coming election invalid, and it won't make our military action in Iraq a failure. Our goal is to end the threat of terrorism emanating from many Middle Eastern regimes. Failure, for us, has to be defined in accordance with that goal. The goal of the insurgents in Iraq -- and most of Iraq's neighbors -- is to cause American forces to withdraw without bringing an end to the other regimes that support terrorism. Right now, it's about even money on us, and on them.

President Bush is perhaps too optimistic. Interim Iraqi president Ayad Allawi has hit the airwaves to campaign while Sunni clerics -- some preaching from Saudi Arabia -- are ordering a boycott of the vote. Prominent Iraqis are saying that the election should be postponed, Osama bin Laden is condemning the election, Syria and Iran are doing everything short of invasion to interfere. Yesterday, some Sunni leaders declared that they would withdraw their opposition to the election if we gave them a date certain by which we'd withdraw from Iraq.

Last week, Iraqi security chief, Gen Mohammad Shahwani, was asked if the insurgents were winning. He said, "They are not losing." Shahwani reportedly estimated the insurgents' strength at 200,000, outnumbering Coalition troops. He later reduced the number, saying that the hard-core insurgents numbered only about 40,000, but that many more Iraqis were actively supporting them. A few days before Shahani's outburst, one U.S. general said that "spectacular" terrorist attacks could take place before the election. Shahani's forces don't seem to be succeeding -- or growing -- as they should, so Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld this week ordered retired Army General Gary Luck back to active duty and to Iraq to evaluate the Iraqi security forces and determine what can be done to make them effective more quickly. Luck's mission is not, as the media insists, to evaluate the whole Iraqi effort and fix what's broken in time for the election. Whatever Luck finds and recommends won't change anything in time for the January 30 election.

Iraq is pretty much what it was when Saddam's regime fell: a firmly divided tribal/ethnic/religious society that lacks a compelling motivation for national unity. That is the one fact that overrides all other issues in Iraq. The peoples of Iraq are more firmly connected to religious and tribal groups -- which in some cases means other Islamic nations -- than they are connected to the British exercise in map drawing we think of as Iraq. No matter how many Iraqis vote, no matter how fearful many Iraqis are of the insurgents, and no matter how much credence the international community gives the results of the election, Iraq will retain its national identity only if these disparate groups believe there is more benefit to them in a unified Iraq than in splitting the nation up and becoming a collection of Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi provinces. Not that the Kurds would count themselves in any of that. A separate Kurdistan would be very attractive to them were it not for the objections of Turkey.

Other than Allawi, none of the candidates appear to be running on any sort of national unity platform. If, as seems likely, Allawi wins with a significant plurality he will have no majority behind him and no mandate for anything. If enough Sunni and Kurdish candidates win seats in the new parliament, and Allawi brings many of them into his cabinet, a temporary unity can be achieved. Sunni radicals and Iraqi and Syrian Baathists will surely continue the insurgency regardless of the outcome. In sum, the election will be a milestone, but not a significant one. What can we do?

Between now and the election, there's only two things we can do. First and foremost, the President needs to assure the Iraqi people that if they choose to let us, we will do our best to keep them free. To those in the Sunni Triangle, those words will ring pretty hollow after more than a year of bloody insurgency. But they need to be said again and again. In 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, where relative peace has been achieved, they will mean a lot.

Second, we can and must put as much pressure on the insurgents and their sponsors as we can. No, that doesn't mean creating "death squads" to search out and kill insurgents (which one breathless report said -- with a comprehensive lack of accuracy -- we are in the process of doing). What it does mean is sending covert operations into Syria to deny the insurgents the sanctuaries they enjoy there. It means providing as much security for Iraqi voters as we can. And it means planning to stick around for a very long time after the election. Though it's unlikely, a new Iraqi government could demand we withdraw or set a firm date for us to do so. Were it to do so, the chances of civil war in Iraq with open intervention by Syrian, Iranian, and Saudi forces would grow quite high. Once we left, the terrorist neighbors of Iraq would be greatly strengthened, not defanged, by their acquisition of Iraqi territory and people. And that would be failure.

TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.