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Time for a Reality Check on Iraq

By Pierre Atlas

Incomprehensibly, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the dwindling number of Iraq war enthusiasts continue to push the false argument of "They attacked us on 9/11, and we're fighting them in Iraq."

Who are "they"? There was no Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before we overthrew Saddam Hussein. The self-proclaimed "Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia"--a band of Iraqi and foreign terrorists who are, at most, loosely affiliated with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda--came into existence after our invasion. We are not in Iraq because of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq because of us. By invading Iraq, we created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we approach the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the "they" who actually did attack us on September 11, 2001 are still out there, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We long ago took our eye off the ball with our decision to launch a war of choice in Iraq.

Of course, this has all been said before, and not just by "mushy headed" liberals and anti-war Democrats. Many hard-nosed international relations scholars and security experts of the "realist" school, as well as most Middle East experts, rejected the war's logic from the very beginning and have since offered devastating critiques of how it's been waged.

In September 2002, six months before the invasion of Iraq, Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher gave a guest lecture in my US Foreign Policy class at Marian College. Pointing to a map of the Middle East, Alpher explained why, of all the Arab states that the US might try to "democratize," Iraq was the worst possible choice, due to its deep sectarian divisions, problematic national identity, and absence of civil society resulting from Saddam's long reign of terror.

Numerous political scientists and Middle East scholars made the same points before the war. And many argued that, even if Saddam had WMD, he was deterrable and that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would be a "gift" to Osama bin Laden. But the Bush administration and the mainstream media didn't care to listen.

Lost in the partisan rancor of the 2004 presidential campaign was an unusual "open letter" to the American people, signed by over 800 foreign affairs scholars and security experts calling for a serious reassessment of our policy in Iraq. The letter presaged many of the arguments that the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group would make two years later.

Looking back, even though it had no effect on the war, I am proud to have been one of the 851 signatories of that letter. The statement, released on October 26, 2004, opened with the following preamble:

"We, a nonpartisan group of foreign affairs specialists, have joined together to call urgently for a change of course in American foreign and national security policy. We judge that the current American policy centered around the war in Iraq is the most misguided one since the Vietnam period, one which harms the cause of the struggle against extreme Islamist terrorists."

The 2004 open letter and the 2006 Baker-Hamilton ISG report have become historical footnotes, while the Iraq war has become jet fuel for global jihadists. Today, as indicated in Foreign Policy Magazine's latest Terrorism Index, the majority of over 100 of America's most respected foreign policy specialists, both Democrats and Republicans, view the war in Iraq as a failure that has only benefited the radical Islamist cause.

The situation in Iraq is too tragic for anyone to say "I told you so." Indeed, although my own opposition to this war dates back to the autumn of 2002, I am uncomfortable with the current debate over how quickly we should withdraw from Iraq.

The new US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual (co-authored by Gen. David Patraeus) argues compellingly that protecting the civilian population is the key to successful counterinsurgency--even if it means putting US troops at greater risk. But how many Democrats or Republicans are willing to put "our boys" (and girls) even more into harm's way in order to protect Iraqis?

As we parse the results of the short-term "surge" and argue over the number of months before we're out of Iraq, millions of innocent Iraqi civilians endure a man-made humanitarian crisis exponentially worse than Katrina. Meanwhile, Iraq's sectarian factions arm and prepare for even greater bloodletting once we leave, in a civil war that could spill over to neighboring countries. We're focused on November 2008 and bumper-sticker politics, while Iraqis wonder whether they'll be alive tomorrow and if their country will still exist in ten years. What constitutes reality in America and Iraq is so different, the two could be on separate planets.

We started this war, we caused the chaos that inspired the insurgency, we created the vacuum that fostered the creation of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, we helped unleash the violent sectarian and ethnic hatreds that had been clamped down by Saddam's brutal rule, and we hand-picked Iraq's dismal Prime Minister, Nuri al-Malaki. We owe Iraq more than just a quick withdrawal and a washing of our hands.

There will be no "victory" in Iraq, only a set of choices and outcomes ranging from bad to catastrophic. But we won't be able to pursue even the "least-worst" options until our elected officials--on both sides of the aisle--demonstrate real leadership by moving beyond sound-bites and honestly acknowledging this complex reality.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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