Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Confusion on Iraq

James Skillen


October 27, 2006

At his press conference on Wednesday, President Bush combined the following assertions: the United States must defeat terrorists in Iraq; this is an ideological war that will take a long time to win; our mission is to help the sovereign government of Iraq bring peace and stability to Iraq; we won't take sides in an internal sectarian struggle; the Nouri al-Maliki government must make some difficult decisions to stop sectarian violence; the U.S. does not have unlimited patience. This is the jumble of policy aims that most Americans no longer accept.

After the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration worked with a timetable and deadlines to set up a government in Iraq. At every stage, however, including the approval of a new constitution, nothing we helped establish was strong or stable. The constitution is still incomplete; the parliament is fractured; the government is beholden to militias and can't stop insurgents.

Yet state building is not really what the Bush administration has worked for in Iraq. The president speaks mostly about the war against terrorism. And most Americans, including most Democrats, think about Iraq in military terms. How long will the troops have to stay? When will the Iraqi military be strong enough to defend the country on its own?

Confusion has arisen because state building in Iraq and our war against terrorism are disconnected. The Iraqi government is not really sovereign. The American military is still mostly in charge of internal security and President Bush treats the Maliki government like an immature and dependent child. But the Iraqi military—and police—are not weak because the U.S. has not tried to train them but because their own government does not control them. Thus, it makes no sense for President Bush and many of his Democratic critics to expect the almost powerless Iraqi government to make tough decisions.

The most fundamental problem in Iraq is not terrorism but the weak constitution and government that the United States helped to establish. The internal Sunni-Shiite conflict is now responsible for most of the unstoppable killing there. There is no American military solution for that.

However, since most of us continue to think in military terms, we ask, when will we win the war so our troops can come home? President Bush said again that we are winning. Democrats doubt that. But both sides now appear to be tending in the same direction—getting ready not to "cut and run" but, as Zbigniew Brzezinski puts it, to "blame and run." We won't blame ourselves for having failed to govern Iraq adequately after removing Hussein or for helping to set up a nearly powerless government. Instead, we'll say that we've done all we can to free Iraq and our patience is now running out because its government is failing to make tough decisions to stop the internal sectarian conflict.

Where does this leave President Bush with his long war against terrorism and the ideological extremists? It leaves him about where he was prior to the invasion of Iraq. All of the might of the American military seems not to be the right tool to defeat terrorism and anti-American ideologies or to bring democracy to Iraq. What is needed in Iraq—and Afghanistan as well—is sound government, and the American military cannot produce that. That job requires local will supported by persistent international cooperation in state building.

The November election results are not likely to bring about a major, long-term change for the better in American foreign policy. Yet if the election produces a vote of no confidence in the president and congressional Republicans, it may hasten the sad day when the president and his critics agree to blame and run.

—James Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”