The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Iraq as Shakespearean Tragedy


June 12, 2007

How many ways, how many times, can one say that the US is @#$*&% in Iraq?

Today, two of the better military correspondents following Iraq (each with a must-read book on Iraq) dispense key insights as to how problematic Iraq is for the United States.

Michael Gordon in the NYT reports that:

The top American military commander for the Middle East has warned Iraq’s prime minister in a closed-door conversation that the Iraqi government needs to make tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress.
In a Sunday afternoon discussion that mixed gentle coaxing with a sober appraisal of politics in Baghdad and Washington, the commander, Adm. William J. Fallon, told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that the Iraqi government should aim to complete a law on the division of oil proceeds by next month.
The admiral’s appeal, which was made in the presence of Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, a senior political adviser to the command and this reporter, elicited an assurance from Mr. Maliki that he hoped to make some progress over the coming weeks. But he also offered a lengthy account of all the tribulations facing the Iraqi government, including tenuous security, distrustful neighboring Sunni states and a complex legal agenda.

The US, now driven by domestic politics opposing the war, wants yet another quick fix to the problem of governing Iraq. Time and again, the US has pushed for institutions, events, and milestones hoping that the country would catch up to its ‘leaders’ while ignoring the large-scale political processes necessary to legitimate such institutions of government that allow them to function. Gordon’s pearl of wisdom:

At times, the two sides appeared to be operating on two different clocks. While Admiral Fallon emphasized the urgency of demonstrating results, Mr. Maliki cast the political process as a long journey from dictatorship to democracy.

Therein lies the rub. We need a quick fix for Iraq, but there is nothing quick about fixing things in Iraq. The US is part of the problem, and yet, the US leaving is also part of the problem. Staying allows the Iraqi government to put off the really tough choices it needs to make about how it will govern and who will be part of the governing coalition. Leaving opens the door for a whole host of political factions to vie for power in what could easily devolve into a civil war. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Hell of a way to run a war.

Tom Ricks dispensed his wisdom in one of the Washington Post’s regular on-line chats about Iraq, Q & A style (with me paraphrasing the longer Q’s, but his answers in full). His central insight:

I think the beginning of wisdom on Iraq is to understand there are no good answers available. So the question is, What is the least bad answer?

Question: Is there a way to get out without making things worse?

That is very much the vibe that I picked up in Baghdad in recent weeks–that there are different ways of getting out, or reducing the US military presence, and that we could do it in ways that intensify the violence, or we might be able to do it in ways that lessen the violence, and that we should starting thinking through these courses of action.

As one officer put it to me, “Just because we invaded Iraq thoughtlessly doesn’t mean we should leave it that way.”

Question: Does that mean we we’re in for another 18 months, until Bush is out of office?

18 months? That’s optimistic. In my view, this is a Shakespearean tragedy. His works had five acts, and I think we are only in Act III.

When I was writing ‘Fiasco’ I’d sometimes look out the window at about 3:30 in the afternoon and see a group of kindergarteners being led from the elementary school down the street to a nearby day care center. On my pessimistic days (most of them), I’d think, “One of those kids is going to fight and die in Iraq.”

I do think that is a possibility. I don’t like it. But I think that Iraq is a tougher problem for the US government, and people, than the Vietnam War was. We could walk away from that one. Yes, it was awful if you were Cambodian, or a Vietnamese who had cast your lot with the Americans. But the United States as a nation could pretty much wash its hands of Vietnam. I don’t think it will be as easy to walk away from Iraq.

It is too bad we didn’t have this conversation in the summer and fall of 2002, huh?

Question: So will Iraq ever be able to govern / secure itself?

This question gives me a headache. That doesn’t mean it is a bad question, it is just that it points to how damn difficult the Iraq situation yes.

No, there is no guarantee that Iraqi security forces will be competent–or even-handed. Again, that is another reason US planners are thinking about a “post-occupation” presence, because Sunni leaders might ask for such a force to guarantee that Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police forces don’t attack them. But just how do we guarantee that? Do we attack the Iraqi government? Do we post soldiers to protect Sunni enclaves?

I think the fingers-crossed answer we will get from American officials is that political accommodation should ease the security situation, and so lessen the need for US intervention. But that’s a hope, not a plan.

Iraq doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it?

Too bad there are no candidates from Hope running in this election (sorry, bad pun!).

Here’s the heart of the matter– for all those on the far left or far right who think the the ‘only way’ to go in Iraq is to either get out now or stay the course (it doesn’t matter which)–its high time to recognize that neither is much of a solution–its “a hope, not a plan.” Unfortunately, trying to sell a bad anwer to Iraq is a sure loser in any election, which is why no one wants to do it. But its pretty clear that we have painted ourselves into a corner from which there is no easy way out. The honest answer is to admit as much.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.