The public dialogue on the Iraq War continues to careen between the heights of optimism and the depths of pessimism. The bipolar nature of the debate was on display in Washington last week at the Heritage Foundation's blue-ribbon panel discussion on "Iraq: The Way Ahead." The event was a very downbeat observance of the fourth anniversary of the conflict in Mesopotamia.
There was plenty of intellectual firepower deployed at this gathering. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the authors of the President's troop surge plan in Iraq, and an uber neoconservative, was joined by Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, a well-known expert on the Middle East and an unabashed proponent of nation-building of the liberal interventionist school.
Rounding out the panel was Anthony Cordesman, Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading military and foreign policy expert of the Realist persuasion.
The only omission on this impressive expert panel might be the full-throated proponent of the "cut-and-run" school, retired Army Lieutenant General William Odom, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, who has written provocative articles such as "Victory Is Not an Option" and "Know When to Fold 'Em." That said, the actual panel provided an energetic airing of differing views on the current controversy.
On the continuum between sunny optimism and manic depression, Kagan a military historian, pushes the limits of the former position about as far as one can, given present circumstances. He was a scathing critic of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war until it embraced his own ideas about the surge.
Kagan argues that, historically, America does very badly at the beginning of its wars, but eventually gets it right in the end. He also believes interventions such as Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrate that the U.S. can ameliorate terrible situations abroad. He sees some evidence that the surge is going well, but he concedes we will not know for some time. He points to the support of the Iraqi government and the militias' reluctance to engage U.S. forces as positive signs. Moreover, he notes that the troop build-up is still underway.
Kagan simply cannot countenance defeat because that possibility is too awful to contemplate in terms of the Middle East and the spillover effects of terrorism, which will look elsewhere for mischief making. He believes that the greatest danger is "pulling the plug on the operation too early." He is also working on a follow-up plan to complement this initial troop surge, a proposal for expanding the effort, presumably, to non-military areas.
Pollack, another tough critic of the Bush Administration for its failures to date, hopes the surge will work, believing it is the right approach to fighting this war. He believes it is the only option "promising a happy ending." Like Kagan, Pollack believes the consequences of withdrawal would be "catastrophic." It would be the ultimate "booby prize" for the next president.
Nevertheless, Pollack fears that it may be too little, too late, to succeed. He has no faith in the Bush Administration's competence to do this job. He has even co-authored an alternative to the surge. A recent program at Brookings referred to it as Plan B: A Containment Strategy for Iraq in Civil War, which speaks volumes.
Pollack notes that the insurgents' "going to ground" can be an indicator consistent with either victory or defeat. "We don't know what we will get," says Pollack. It should be no surprise that the insurgents would not confront superior U.S. forces.
As good as it is, "the military cannot possibly win this" conflict alone, argues Pollack. The U.S. is hopelessly underinvested in terms of personnel and resources to do the job of nation-building for the Iraqis, regarding whom he has little confidence. The U.S. needs to "stand up to the Iraqi government" and not hide "behind the charade of Iraqi sovereignty."
Cordesman secures the pessimistic end of the continuum. He declared Iraq to be in a civil war two years before the Pentagon admitted it last week. From his perspective the surge may or may not work, but he doubts it. If it succeeds, it will simply establish Shiite dominance to the benefit of Iran.
Regardless of whether or not this new tactic "works," Cordesman sees the U.S. consigned to an everlasting purgatory in a region that is, was, and always will be a geopolitical mess. He believes Iraq was a broken, failed state since it inception. He first started working there in 1971 and views the government to be "a command kleptocracy," which is totally alien to Americans.
Cordesman does not believe that Iraq will be more of a center of terrorism than, say, the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. And even if the Shiites win the civil war, there are 40 or 50 countries in which Al Qaeda can operate. Cordesman believes ultimate Shiite dominance may be "a kind of victory," but hardly optimal for Sunnis. He is also doubtful of any containment strategy. The best we can manage is "constant damage control."
In the words of the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, there is No Exit for the U.S from a very conflicted region that has vital energy resources essential to our economy. Indeed, it will be at least ten more years before the U.S. approaches anything resembling relative energy independence, which Cordesman characterizes as "an illusion."
There is a kind of weird convergence between the realist Cordesman and the neoconservative Kagan in their shared belief that the U.S. will be immersed in Iraq for the foreseeable future. In the question-and-answer session of the Heritage program, Kagan conceded that he believes the U.S. should maintain "an open-ended commitment" in that country (Quaere: would he hold this position even if the surge failed?). Cordesman basically sees the same fate for America, but envisions a more modest mitigating role, hardly a triumphal imposition of Western-style democracy or influence.
Cordesman, along with Pollack and probably Kagan, find it "refreshing" to see a Secretary of Defense with "the ability to cope with reality." This may be the one positive note in this otherwise depressing discussion. No one along the entire policy spectrum -- including the White House -- is chanting the stay-the-course mantra any longer. Indeed, for a leading conservative establishment such as the Heritage Foundation to sponsor such a robust debate on the war is, well, refreshing. But that is about all there is for an optimist to grasp onto.