So why do we remain in Iraq?
Some suppose it is because of our dependence on oil. This is nonsense. The Chinese and Japanese are far more dependent on Mideast oil than we are, yet they have no troops on the ground there, and no carriers patrolling the Gulf. If Iran launched an attack in the Gulf, and (improbably) was able to close the Strait of Hormuz, all economies would suffer, but ours least of all. We're still the largest energy producer in the world, and we get most of our imported oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. We import relatively less oil from the Mideast than any other major power except Russia, and any dramatic spike in shipping costs would significantly reduce the comparative advantages of overseas vs. domestic manufacturing. We'd see more American made goods in Walmart and we'd ship fewer dollars to China The flexibility of our economy means that we would be the first to recover from such a shock, and we'd gain a greater competitive advantage over the rest of the world than we have now.
Some suppose it is because we are fighting al-Qaeda. But we're an easier enemy for al-Qaeda in Iraq, because our natural tendency is to fight to a stalemate. If we leave, they'll be fighting among the Saudis and the Iranians, and that will be a desperate fight to stay alive, not to maintain stability. By keeping our troops between the Sunni's and al-Qaeda on the one hand, and the Shiites and Iranians on the other, we sacrifice our lives for the purpose of keeping all of our enemies alive. Any stability we preserve guarantees that al-Qaeda lives to attack another day. It makes no sense.
Some suppose it is because of a commitment to democracy. But we have no troops on the ground fighting for democracy in Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states.
I've just finished reading Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq, by Michael Scheuer. It is an uneven book, but it is a very strong indictment of American policy in the Mideast during the past few decades, and our conduct of the War on Terror. Scheuer was the former head of the CIA's Bin laden unit, so he speaks with some authority. He says American policy is misguided because:
1) We suffer from an undue allegiance to Israel, spending our resources defending a state that is not critical to America's interest.
2) We support dictatorships in the Mideast, triggering resentment from Muslims.
3) We maintain troops in the Gulf states, triggering resentment from Muslims.
4) We support the Saudi royal family.
5) Our military measures against terrorists like Al-Queda are too weak and insufficient. We fail to destroy our enemies, because we attempt half measures in order to limit criticism from Europeans.
He doesn't deny that al-Qaeda is a real enemy of America, and goes to great length to point out the egregious failure of the Clinton Administration to take Bin Laden seriously, and its failure to take advantage of numerous opportunities to capture and kill him.
Scheuer has studied the writings of Bin Laden. He disagrees with the notion that al-Qaeda and its sympathizers hate America because of our free, secular society. He takes Bin Laden at his word that he hates America because of our policies, and those policies happen to be the same ones - support of Israel and Arab dictatorships, troops in the Gulf, and friendliness with the House of Saud - - that Scheuer criticizes. Don’t for a minute assume this author is some closet Bin Laden supporter - one of his primary points is that we have never treated al-Qaeda with the savagery they deserve. Bush waited to attack in Afghanistan because he was soliciting the favors of allies that had nothing to offer militarily, and this gave Bin Laden time. Bill Clinton had many opportunities to capture or kill Bin Laden, but he didn't act because he wouldn't risk the civilian casualties that would have been necessary to get him. He was more afraid of negative European headlines than attacks by Bin Laden against America.
Just because your enemy wants you to do something doesn’t mean it is a mistake to do it. Our interests should dictate whether we have troops in the gulf, and whether we send money to Hosni Mubarak. Our interests should dictate whether we support the Saudi royal family. We shouldn’t continue to this just because Bin Laden wants us to stop.
So why will we stay in Iraq until we are driven out?
When you fill up the tank of your car, some percentage of the money goes to the Saudi Royal family. Most American's didn’t know this, but until the late 1970's all the money the Saudi Royal family got from selling oil was split 50/50 with us. Aramco was owned by a consortium of oil companies - mostly American, and it had an exclusive licence to pump Saudi oil The Saudis bought out our share in 1980. But lots of that money still gets recycled back to American oil, engineering and construction companies that maintain the oil, pipeline and shipping infrastructure in the Kingdom. The Gulf states have similarly lucrative contracts with US companies.
Should there be a revolution in Saudi Arabia, and some new tribe take over control of the Gulf, these arrangements would be null and void. That is why our military is there - not to prevent disruptions in oil supplies, but to protect the flow of construction and engineering contracts, and to protect the interests of financial partners in many endeavors. If there was any sign of trouble, the ships and ground forces would move in. We would say publicly it was about protecting our oil supplies, but it would really be to protect the profits and contracts of American companies that do business with the royal family - any new tribe that took over Saudi Arabia might choose to do more business with the Chinese, Japanese or Europeans.
From the perspective of a powerful interest group of politicians and businesses, the relationship with the Saudis and the Gulf states is very lucrative. From the perspective of America as a whole, the costs of maintaining a forward presence in the Gulf and the risks of war that such a presence entails - the costs are too great to bear.
As I've said before, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the executives of these companies huddled together and planned all this. To them, their Saudi partners are friends. They know Saudi Arabia and they've lived there, and in their world view the Saudis are more sympathetic figures than they appear to other people. Oil engineers like to build things, and because of environmental sensibilities they just don’t get to build anything in our country. So they like the Saudis. Similarly Bush and Cheney aren’t getting suitcases full of cash from Prince Bandar - they are meeting with a friend of an important domestic constituency and a seeming ally of America. And the Saudis are a public, albeit somewhat erratic, enemy of al-Qaeda. This isn't about evil men (except for Bin Laden), but rather mistaken policies.
We went to Iraq because of the confluence of four factors
1) Legitimate worries about WMD,
2) Concerns about a potential alliance between powerful enemies - Saddam and Bin Laden. There was good reason to fear this - all one need to do is recall the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 to realize that enemies often make deals with each other for the sake of dealing with a common adversary.
3) A sincere, but misguided, American belief in the power of democracy.
4) The opportunity for special interests to build a second, and equally lucrative, "House of Saud" relationship with an Iraqi government.
The first proved - in hindsight - a mistake. The second was successfully averted. The third will prove futile in the long run. The forth is the real reason we will stay at almost all costs.
We have good reason to be proud of our troops. The military effort against Iraq was breathtaking, and the occupation has been extraordinarily humane, but any historical standard. Go and read After the Reich: The Brutal History of The Allied Occupation for a comparison. The change in tactics that we adopted after the surge showed the fundamental attribute of a successful army - an ability to learn from experience and adapt accordingly.
But it will be all for nothing. Our position is unsustainable in the long run, because there is no constituency for democracy in Iraq, and American politics will not support a brutal occupation. Colin Powell's "pottery barn" analogy is flawed. Just because in a post 9/11 world we needed to make an example out of Saddam does not mean we "own" Iraq, or bear any responsibility for it. Once we dragged him out of his hole we should have left.
Left to what? We'd save hundreds of billions a year - money we are borrowing from the Chinese and Saudis. There would be a surge of sectarian violence in Iraq, but it would be smothered by the regional war that would ensue. Iran, Turkey, the Saudis and Syria would fight over the spoils. Al-Queda would be more intensely invested in this fight than in the fight they have with us, and they would likely be snuffed out.
And this brings me to Neville Chamberlain. History has given him a raw deal, and has labeled him a coward for his policy of appeasement, even though his successor, Winston Churchill, didn't:
I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain's life and character, but there were certain qualities always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. when, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.
Chamberlain's appeasement was not motivated by cowardice, but by two realizations that are undeniable. The first was that his nation was not prepared to go to war for the issues presented at the time, and the second was that Woodrow Wilson's peace had saddled the Germans with legitimate grievances against the European order. Chamberlain sought to appease those grievances, in the hope that the impulse to German radicalism could be alleviated.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today. Our nation is not prepared to fight to a savage victory unless we are attacked again. Our nation is not prepared to fight to a stalemate when Iraq explodes again, and to bankrupt our economy in the process. Our nation is not prepared to fight for the House of Saud. Nothing we do in Iraq can prevent another attack. Nothing that is politically supportable now will prevent another attack.
So we need a Chamberlain. Someone with the courage to withdraw from Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and dismantle our base in Quatar. A one-term president who is prepared to stand by and watch the regional war that ensues there. Someone willing to watch a revolution in Saudi Arabia, and see oil go to $12 a gallon - without intervening. Someone willing to stop the aid we give to Mubarak, Jordan and the Palestinians. Someone willing to leave NATO - an organization that is worthless for US Security - so we can bring 90,000 troops home from Europe.
This will cost the career of a courageous politician, but the nation will survive and eventually prosper. Hard medicine, to undo the bankrupting policies of several decades, but medicine we can take better than any of our competitors. I do not see how al-Qaeda could attack under such circumstances, because they would be in a war of survival in that environment, as opposed to the slower war of attrition we have now. The rocket attacks against Israel would cease, because those rockets would be needed on the Tigris. Israel would be the decisive ally of the winning Arab power in the regional war, and so the Palestinians would be forgotten - as surely as Jordan forgot about them in 1970. The fulcrum of Middle East tensions shifts immediately from the Jordan to the Euphrates. Israel winds up being the indispensable ally of the winner, rather than the way it is now in our seemingly "stable" situation - where Israel is the common enemy of all.
We have no national stake in those events, any more than the Japanese do. Any power that won would need to sell oil on the world market as surely as the Saudis and Iranians and Venezuelans and Canadians do now. I know of no historical example where a power permanently refused to sell a fungible, non-military commodity for political reasons. And the nations of the Middle East have nothing else to sell on world markets.
There could well be another attack. But in contrast to the last we would have freedom of action to destroy al-Queada wherever they are. We would have no fragile international order to uphold, no sensibilities to weigh - we could strike as needed.
Iraq is just the latest in our decades-long policy of tying ourselves to fragile regimes in the Mid East. Now have foolishly fought our way onto the poor ground of Iraq, and we owe it to ourselves to be honest about our situation. The belief that this is somehow a "forward strategy" where we can fight al-Qaeda on their turf is mistaken. If we withdraw, we force them to fight even more savage foes. Our troops could be protecting our borders, not Iraq's.
Consider the worst that can happen. al-Qaeda takes over Iraq? But in doing so they get a fixed address, something to lose, and an addiction to oil revenue. Iran develops nuclear weapons? Then the Saudis will buy some, and you'd have a stalemate or a local exchange. al-Qaeda takes over Pakistan? The Indians will deal with them. All of these outcomes present fewer scenarios than we have now where a Mid East power would see it in their interest to attack America. Muslims have more natural grievances with the Chinese, Russians, Indians and even Europeans than they do against America.
Retreat is a fundamental strategy of war. If we leave now - when the surge has shown success - we'd be making it clear that we are leaving of our own accord, at a time of our choosing, and for purposes of our own. By killing Saddam we've demonstrated that no leader that is our enemy is safe. The surest way of following up that demonstration is that we have full freedom of action to pursue our interests. This retreat must be total - we must end any support - military, financial or political - for any regime in the Mideast.
Let the Chinese and Japanese suffer the heavy burdens of playing that futile game.
The right policy to towards the Iranians, the Saudis, and the Israelis was stated by George Washington:
Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
Neville Chamberlain had the insight to realize his nation would not fight to protect a Europen order that they had no interest in. There are times when nations need Chamberlains, and times when they need Churchills. Bush has the dogged persistence of Churchill, at a time when such doggedness serves not the nation, but a narrow set of special interests.