Cockburn on Iraq

As some of you know, I believe that the United States needs to stay and fight in Iraq. Believe it or not, I’m always eager to find smart and convincing critics of this view. Patrick Cockburn is exactly that — “Who Is Whose Enemy?” does a brilliant job of explaining the ambiguities and illusions of the present situation in Iraq, and he argues that any security gains are extremely fragile. And of course Cockburn’s dispatch has been overtaken by events. Nonetheless, it’s worth a look.

The present American strategy may look like smart politics back in Washington. It is better to pay Sunni gunmen $300 a month to guard the road than have them planting bombs along it to blow up American Humvees. The US is losing one soldier a day compared to a daily toll of three or four a year ago. Since American casualties are the main barometer by which the US electorate judges success or failure in Iraq, these are important figures in an election year. The lower American casualties also reflect an important political change in Iraq. The Sunni and Shia now hate and fear each other more than they do the Americans. This puts the US in a stronger position because it can control the balance of power between the two communities. The Sunni in Baghdad would prefer to have American soldiers kick down their door in the middle of the night than the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and police, who are likely to torture and kill them. In many ways the US position in Iraq is like Syria’s status in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, when it partly occupied the country. The Syrian army prevented the civil war from escalating, but also stopped anything being resolved between the different communities.

The US cannot play this intermediary role for long. The fact is that neither Sunni nor Shia Arabs in Iraq want the US to stay. It would be very easy for any of the myriad armed groups in Iraq to launch an offensive and send American military casualties soaring.

Here is the terrible question for supporters of a continued US presence, like myself: do we want to play Syria’s role? And for how long? The vexing practical question is: can reconciliation happen while we’re tamping down the violence? I find the Luttwakian idea of letting the warring parties “work things out” through a massive bloodletting deeply distasteful, and I question whether that is the only way to create a lasting settlement. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part. The real problem advocates of withdrawal recognize is that we’ve become hostages to fate.