The Only Way to WIN in Iraq: Declare DEFEAT

Date March 27, 2007

We have found ourselves in a conundrum with regards to Iraq.

To summarize in simple terms:
1. Continue to fight as we have until now, gaining a little ground at great human and financial cost only to lose it right away to the insurgents; with every additional week of occupation and errant bomb, see the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world increase in its ire. Fight until we win, no matter how long it takes, because we must have victory.

This is primarily the Republican view, although there is lots of attrition in their ranks.

It is my opinion that this war is unwinnable and everything we do in our current strategy is for naught.

2. Withdraw (whether now or later doesn’t really matter) and see the country (and most likely the region) descend into chaos: civil war (and it will get far uglier before it is over), ever escalating Sunni-Shi’ite hatred, blame from the Muslim world and American allies towards the US for destroying the country and then leaving it to figure out the mess without us. We’ll claim that we gave them every chance for democracy, but it will only be blustering justification.

This is primarily the Democratic view, although the different presidential hopefuls are posturing some fairly minute differences.

So either way, we are screwed (pardon my English). There is no good way out of this ugly mistake without a tremendous amount of bloodshed and a generation of people that hate us. It’s an Al-Queda recruiting bonanza!

In addition, it is wonderful to see our political leadership argue, blame, spin, and yell about who is right in their opinion, when there is not a single viable plan to be seen anywhere. Once again, we’re in the wrong box.

So why is declaring defeat going to help us win this war?

First of all, the Democratic plan to pull out is going to leave a vacuum that is going to sicken all of us in the violence it begets. I understand the desire to leave instead of letting our soldiers die, especially when we think every additional death is senseless (which is my case). But let’s not fool ourselves that things will be ok over there. They will slaughter each other. I get ill to my stomach just thinking about it.

On the other hand, we (Americans in general, Republicans in particular) seem to have forgotten something very basic about human nature: humiliation is one of the most emotionally painful experiences a person can go through. It is a question of face. Our ego would rather die than suffer that, especially in a public way. An acquaintance of mine told me a story a few years ago about the Iraqi body guard of a journalist stationed in Baghdad leading up to and during the initial invasion. When the army fell so quickly, he was delighted that Saddam had fallen (apparently he hated him with a passion) but as an Iraqi he was ashamed of how their army had performed. This was someone that liked us. Apply that to a multitude of people who are predisposed to see us negatively, tired of being tread upon by a country that considers itself superior to everyone, have tremendous emotional pain due to lost loved ones and destroyed homes, see reinforcing images on TV, talk to their neighbors in ever escalating agreement on their hatred of the injustice, and … well, I guess I’ll stop there for now.

Conclusion: they will not less us win, even if they have to blow themselves up to the last man, woman, child.
And that is not because they don’t value life, but because they are human, they want to be respected, and being shamed by someone else makes them hate with a passion.
Were I, or you, over there, we would do the same. Perhaps we wouldn’t use suicide bombing as one of our main strategies, but we would rather die than accept defeat. History is covered with other cases.

So one of our key priorities needs to be to deflate this commitment to defeat us thru disengaging the mechanism I was describing above. We need to remove their humiliation from the equation.

Drastic times call for drastic measures:

The only way I can think of doing this is to declare defeat. We cannot possibly attain our goals in the region unless we calm down the emotional furor. A complicating factor is that there is as much, if not more, Shia-Sunni hatred as there is Muslim-US hatred, but if we can remove our part, it will let a tremendous amount of pressure out of the system.

It is a very basic, albeit counterintuitive, fact of human emotions and relations: when we are feeling really hurt by someone, and deeply angry inside, just about nothing can make that go away like a sincere acknowledgment and apology on their end. A new starting point becomes possible.

One of the reasons why we haven’t been able to consider such an option is that we have mixed up our goals in this war (stability, spreading democracy, cheap oil, …) with winning the war. If we look at JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was willing to let Khrushchev declare victory if JFK/the US obtained our goals (a nuclear free Cuba). Teddy Roosevelt did the same with Wilhelm II of Germany in the in the Venezuela Crisis of 1902.

— Are we willing to lose face to get what we really want in this situation (and save tens of thousand of lives in the process)?
— Said differently, are peace, stability, having our sons, daughters, fathers, etc come home safely important enough to us that we’re willing to let our reputation as an impregnable superpower be tainted a bit?

We haven’t been yet.

I think the angle is something like this:
“Look, we made a mistake (gulp). [If we elaborate here on what our mistake was and sincerely apologize for making it, it’ll help even more]. We got into it for the wrong reasons, because we were so sure we were right about the WMDs that we didn’t listen to anyone who disagreed w/ us. On top of it, we didn’t do our homework on the region and the culture; we had no idea what kind of pandora’s box we were opening (well, we didn’t want to listen to the people who suspected what might occur).
Now, it is a complete mess, and we don’t know what to do. We’re willing to publicly admit that we cannot win this war. If we just pull out now, your entire culture and region is going to destroy itself. Can you help us work this out?”

Who do we say this to? Let’s try:
Syria, Lebanon, Iran, to start with, as well as all the other Muslim countries out there that can influence the situation.
We can still make them our allies in this situation. They don’t want this to spiral out of control either.
We then work with the regional players in the area to stop the stream of arms, bombs and extremists flowing into Iraq. They work thru their networks and tribal connections to bring things under control. The only people at this point, I think, that can stem the flow of bloodshed are the suppliers and financial supporters of those fighting.

I admit that this plan has certain issues that I haven’t been able to think thru as of yet:

— What would be the long term implications of the US admitting defeat (ie, would it appear as another Somalia to the terrorist community, proving our weakness)? I’ll have to address this in another posting, as this one has become far too long.
— Are we willing to accept certain outcomes in whatever final solution is created that we don’t really like (something that is more to Iran or Syria’s liking, for instance)? This could be in terms of control of oil production, political system, influence of Islamic law, etc
— Are the Sunnis and Shi-ites capable, as an international community, of working out this situation without a full scale war?
— I believe that getting further into the details of such a plan would raise other issues we have with the regional players and that they have with each other that I am not informed enough to know of
— This strikes me as a totally untenable position to take politically if you are a presidential candidate in today’s politcal climate of non-dialogue

I can fully imagine that this is a strategy that opens itself to ridicule, especially from any hard-ass type (typically, but not exclusively Republican) who thinks that we need to be tough to maintain our superiority; that this is sniveling liberal weakness. But I am not interested in being nice nor tough, nor weak nor strong; nor do I think it important to protect our reputation abroad (primarily because I think that we have thoroughly trashed it). I am interested in achieving our goals in the region and stopping the pain and bloodshed.

I welcome comments and critiques, holes in the logic or missing elements that can forward the reflection.


Shayne Hughes