[VIEWPOINT]Iraq: a U.S. strategy gone sour

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[VIEWPOINT]Iraq: a U.S. strategy gone sour

More than 1,000 American soldiers have now been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war. More than one hundred hostages ― foreigners and Iraqis alike ― have been kidnapped, including Koreans and now Frenchmen. It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of the country. The American ambition to bring democracy to the Middle East starting with Baghdad does not only seem far away, but slightly surrealistic, given the reality of daily violence on the ground. Even the much more modest objective of stability seems unreachable these days. The United States, less than two months before the presidential elections of November, is trying more than ever to limit the number of its casualties. Iraqis and beyond them radical Muslim forces are engaged in a spiral of suicidal violence. In this context it is not surprising that the forces of chaos are mounting.
But from a cynical standpoint, 1,000 American deaths are not enough for President Bush to lose the election. Contrary to the war in Vietnam, which in less than ten years caused the deaths of more than 50,000 American soldiers, the war in Iraq involves only “professionals.” With the end of conscription, university campuses in the United States will most probably remain quiet. Since 9/11, even if the tragedy had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein’s regime, Americans have been at war. They have changed their way of looking at the rest of the world. If Americans intervene militarily abroad today, it is above all to protect themselves from the world by changing it. But even with this revisionist policy prevalent, American casualties have to remain “reasonable,” a preoccupation that is both humanistic and political if not plainly electoral. That concern explains why on the ground in Iraq, the American Army seems more keen to protect itself than to impose order and stability. In this context, American forces are at the same time much too absent and too heavy-handed in the brutality of their interventions. They are not efficient enough to impose respect but sufficiently brutal to encourage nationalistic reflexes of rejection. American soldiers are also too distant culturally and linguistically from the Iraqi people.
For many observers on the ground, one of the key weaknesses of the U.S. soldiers in their peace-making role is their inability to carry out their law enforcement mission, to distinguish between Iraqi and non Iraqi accents, the latter more likely to indicate a terrorist . They have a woeful lack of interpreters. Washington’s margin of maneuver is extremely limited. A withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to total and bloody chaos. It would constitute an admission of defeat, an acknowledgment that its postwar strategy to reconstruct Iraq was based on false assumptions and improvised tactics. By contrast, to send many more troops would make the Bush administration fragile and invoke the ghost of Vietnam. And it would not necessarily bring greater stability on the ground.
As for Iraqi society, it is on the verge of implosion, caught between despair, fatigue and revolt. The present Iraqi government, whatever its merits (and they exist), has neither the legitimacy of universal suffrage nor the credibility that would result from the return of some kind of stability and order. Progress is much less spectacular than the spread of violence. For many Muslim religious authorities, the holy war against the West, jihad, has turned against Islam. It has led to a war within Islam, a fratricidal fight between Shiites and Sunnis and Arabs against Kurds.
In Iraq, this fitna has led to a nationalist escalation within the Shiite movement which has aided the supporters of a young and irresponsible ayatollah, Moqtada Al-Sadr. The problem for the United States today is not to divide and rule but to limit the divisions and to attempt to slow down the balkanization of Iraq. This is a formidable challenge, all the more so because the relative artificiality of yesterday’s Iraq can only facilitate the deep divisions of today. How is it possible in 2004 to recreate a country that may have never existed?
The latest war in Iraq has had one very positive result. One of the bloodiest regimes on the surface of the globe has disappeared. But Washington has created in Iraq a new terrorist sanctuary around the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, a paradoxical result for an administration so proud of its quick reaction to 9/11. As a result of its premature withdrawal of some forces in Afghanistan as it became distracted by Iraq, Taliban fighters are back in force in at least some parts of Afghanistan, and the world is not a less dangerous place today than it was yesterday. The next deadline in Iraq will be the elections of January 2005. It is unlikely, even if they take place, that they will have a positive impact on the future of the country.

* The writer is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.

by Dominique Moisi
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