March 1, 2006
Lowering U.S. Goals in Iraq
The bombing on February
22 of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Iraq, was a tragedy, but
it was not an American or a coalition tragedy.
The destruction of
the Golden Dome, built in 1905 and one of the holiest shrines
of Shiite Islam, represents an escalation of the Sunni assault
on the Shiites, a purposeful outrage intended to provoke an emotional
backlash. It signals not Sunni weakness but the determination
of elements in Iraq's long-ruling community to reassert its dominance.
Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, has rightly warned, "The
fire of sedition, when it breaks out, can burn everything in its
path and spare no one." One shudders at the possible carnage
That said, Iraq's
plight is neither a coalition responsibility nor a particular
danger to the West.
When Washington and
its allies toppled the hideous regime of Saddam Hussein, which
endangered the outside world by beginning two wars of expansion,
by building a WMD arsenal, and by aspiring to control the trade
in oil and gas, they bestowed a historic benefit on Iraqis, a
population that had been wantonly oppressed by the Stalinist dictator.
his regime quickly fell to outside attack, proving to be the "cakewalk"
that many analysts, including
myself, had expected. That six-week victory remains a glory
of American foreign policy and of the coalition forces. It also
represents a personal achievement for President Bush, who made
the key decisions.
But the president
decided that this mission was not enough. Dazzled by the examples
of post-World War II Germany and Japan – whose transformations
in retrospect increasingly appear to have been one-time achievements
– he committed troops in the pursuit of creating a "free
and democratic Iraq." This noble aim was inspired by
the best of America's idealism.
of purpose did not suffice for rehabilitating Iraq, as I predicted
already in April 2003. Iraqis, a predominantly Muslim population
newly liberated from their totalitarian dungeon, were disinclined
to follow the American example; for their part, the American people
lacked a deep interest in the welfare of Iraq. This combination
of forces guarantees the coalition cannot impose its will on 26
It also implies the
need for a lowering of coalition goals. I cheer the goal of a
"free and democratic Iraq," but the time has come to
acknowledge that the coalition's achievement will be limited to
destroying tyranny, not sponsoring its replacement. There is nothing
ignoble about this limited achievement, which remains a landmark
of international sanitation. It would be especially unfortunate
if aiming too high spoils that attainment and thereby renders
future interventions less likely. The benefits of eliminating
Saddam's rule must not be forgotten in the distress of not creating
a successful new Iraq.
Fixing Iraq is neither
the coalition's responsibility nor its burden. The damage done
by Saddam will take many years to repair. Americans, Britons,
and others cannot be tasked with resolving Sunni-Shiite differences,
an abiding Iraqi problem that only Iraqis themselves can address.
The eruption of civil
war in Iraq would have many implications for the West. It would
Syrian and Iranian participation, hastening the possibility of
an American confrontation with those two states, with which tensions
are already high.
the dream of Iraq serving as a model for other Middle Eastern
countries, thus delaying the push toward elections. This will
have the effect of keeping Islamists from being legitimated by
the popular vote, as Hamas was just a month ago.
coalition casualties in Iraq. As noted by the Philadelphia
Inquirer, "Rather than killing American soldiers,
the insurgents and foreign fighters are more focused on creating
civil strife that could destabilize Iraq's political process and
possibly lead to outright ethnic and religious war."
Western casualties outside Iraq. A professor at the U.S. Naval
Postgraduate School, Vali
Nasr, notes: "Just when it looked as if Muslims across
the region were putting aside their differences to unite in protest
against the Danish cartoons, the attack showed that Islamic sectarianism
remains the greatest challenge to peace." Put differently,
when Sunni terrorists target Shiites and vice-versa, non-Muslims
are less likely to be hurt.
Civil war in Iraq,
in short, would be a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic
is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures