Iraq: Means and Ends

As the coalition in Iraq unravels, the House tries to “clarify” what America’s mission in the Middle East is.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

Japan’s announcement today that it is withdrawing its small troop contingent from Iraq provides a bracing reality check to the political theater playing out in Washington this past week over Iraq. The scripted and superficial deliberations in a bitterly polarized Congress not only bear scant resemblance to the grand, anguished Senate debates over Vietnam four decades ago; they seem markedly detached from the facts on the ground.

Still, policy is made. The House of Representatives has at last exercised its constitutional war power to declare the objective of war in Iraq: “to create a sovereign, free, secure, and united Iraq.” And it warns the American people they must brace themselves for “a long and demanding struggle.”

The mission the Congress had authorized in 2002 was simply to enforce U.N. Security Council mandates for Iraq’s disarmament and defend the United States against the “continuing threat posed by Iraq.” Iraq was disarmed—long before the American invasion, it turns out—and Saddam Hussein’s “continuing threat” proved empty. But a triumphant administration could not resist mission creep—indeed, mission leap.

Now, by a vote of 256 to 153, Congress has boldly committed us to a long-term war in pursuit of a noble vision that traditional realists of both pa rties have dismissed as unaffordable and unattainable. Yet at this very moment, each benchmark for victory looks increasingly elusive.

At the moment, Iraq is not sovereign—the fact that a foreign leader can surprise Iraq’s prime minister by dropping in unannounced, as President Bush did last week, shows where sovereign power lies.

The freedom Iraqis most prize amid escalating violence is flight to other countries: Iraq was the world’s largest exporter of refugees in the past year, with 644,000 Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria and Jordan alone.

With monthly killings up 50 percent in the past year, insurgent attacks up 28 percent, incidents of sectarian violence up twelve-fold, Iraq is not yet becoming more secure. And Iraqi unity remains elusive, as continued Sunni resistance and bitter political infighting underscore.

The president’s ambassador in Baghdad this month cabled to Washington depressing accounts of intensifying Islamist intimidation. The United States, he reported, “is widely perceived as fully controlling the country and tolerating the malaise”; middle class circles “increasingly disapprove of the coalition presence”; “the central government, our [Iraqi] staff says, is not relevant”; and the embassy’s Iraqi staffers “ask what provisions we would make for them if we evacuate.”

Disdaining such concerns as defeatism, the House Republican leadership described their expansive Iraq mission as integral to the “global war on terror.” The war’s supporters declared they would set no “arbitrary” date for withdrawal from Iraq, and called on other nations to join the U.S. coalition.

That coalition, however, is unraveling. Japan today is rushing to follow Italy out the door, and Korea and even Britain are edging toward the exit.

The very link House leaders make between Iraq and counterterrorism is in fact what undermines the struggle against terrorism around the world. New Pew polling data show international support for the war on terror plummets the longer the fighting in Iraq goes on—falling by two-thirds in Spain and Japan in just a year. Two-thirds of Britons say the Iraq war has made the world more dangerous rather than safer.

As a result, the United States faces the growing rage in the Muslim world in ever starker isolation. Oddly, senior policymakers seem to revel in that isolation, especially at the United Nations. They still gamble on a turn-around in Iraq that vindicates them and proves the rest of the world wrong—particularly the war’s opponents at home.

The public’s disenchantment with the war—54 percent say the invasion was a mistake; 53 percent favor a timeline for withdrawal; 60 percent believe Iraq will make us more reluctant to use force overseas—finds oddly little traction in Congress. With few defections, Republicans in Congress have remained admirably united behind the President’s war. Democrats mostly oppose the current course, but are divided on the alternative.

The few Iraqi liberals still looking to America for lessons in democracy will despairingly conclude from the past week’s political maneuvering that, for all sides in Washington, the Iraq debate has little to do with what’s best for Iraq—and everything to do with what’s best for politicians in Washington. Even a conference committee’s secretive deletion of a provision barring funds to build permanent U.S. military bases, which House and Senate had both approved, offers them a discouraging lesson in the art of muffled political accountability on a concern of burning importance to Iraqis.

Still, beyond the current political jockeying, Americans are groping their way toward a profound decision. The direction of America’s role in the world after 2008 will turn fatefully on whether Americans conclude that unilateral military assertiveness is a successful strategy—or so disastrous that America must re-embrace the United Nations and international law as the strategic bulwark of the global order.