Shooting for a C- in Iraq

Can we use our presence as leverage to make the Shi’a coalition ruling Iraq govern on a national, rather than an ethnic and sectarian, basis?

The discussion about Iran seemed to me the most exciting piece of Wes Clark’s discussion with bloggers in Los Angeles yesterday, but it wasn’t the focus of his presentation.

Mostly he talked about Iraq. He argued that all the chances to get an A in the course were behind us, and we had a choice now between going for a C- and accepting an F.

The C- solution involves using our capacity to help the Iraq government on the security and reconstruction side of things to convince the ruling Shi’a coalition to share political power &#8212 and, more significantly, leadership of the army, police, and interior ministry &#8212 with the Sunnis. The F alternatives are civil war, which Clark sees as the likely result if the security forces continue to be used as the instruments of Shi’a revenge on the Sunnis, and partition.

The artificiality of Iraq as a nation-state has led me, among many, to wonder whether partition would really be a bad thing, especially since Kurdistan might be both democratic and friendly to the U.S. But Clark pointed out that the intermingling of the populations would force large-scale “ethnic cleansing” as a side-effect of any partition.

Clark made what seemed to me a sensible case against phased withdrawal on a timetable. When we’re ready to go, either because we’ve gotten what we can get or because we’ve decided that we can’t get what we want, we should just pack up and go, quickly. Once we’ve announced a timetable, we’ve mostly lost our leverage.

Clark also made a political/operational point: it’s not reasonable to expect Democrats to coalesce around a single detailed road-map for handling the Iraqi mess. It should be enough for us to point out how badly the whole situation has been handled by the other guys.

A point Clark didn’t make, but Mike O’Hare did: Associating the Democrats with the “we’ve lost, so we should just get out” position has catastrophic political risks. The German Right rode to power in the 1930s on the “Dolchstoss” claim that the democrats and civilians who constituted the Weimar Republic in the 20s had stabbed the military – and therefore the nation – in the back by surrendering in WWI when a German victory was just around the corner. The American Right has gotten similar traction from a similar claim about Vietnam. (That’s what gave the Swift Boat nonsense its punch; to millions of people, Kerry the War Protester negated Kerry the War Hero.) So it would be better for Democrats to say “We should withdraw our troops from Iraq to punish the Shi’a for establishing a sectarian dictatorship” or “We should withdraw our troops from Iraq to increase our leverage with Iran” or “Democrats have a plan for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq” rather than adopting the John Murtha line.

It seems to me that too many people on both sides are using the Iraq situation as a way of continuing their quarrel about Vietnam. That was then. This is now.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: