Magazine article The Spectator

Iraq Will Never Have a Happy Ending

Magazine article The Spectator

Iraq Will Never Have a Happy Ending

Article excerpt

The famous 'surge' has proved a complete failure, says John C. Hulsman. Whatever Obama may say, nation-building is a luxury America can no longer afford

With Britain now withdrawn from Basra and American troops gone from the streets of Baghdad, Iraq is no longer front-page news.

While there are still intermittent reports of carnage, and obscure stories written about political rumblings there, the problem seems manageable, far away, forgotten. Americans worry about the great recession, healthcare reform, and a little bit about Afghanistan. But Iraq has been conveniently forgot-ten.

This case of collective amne-sia has been aided and abetted by a narrative that allows us to forget both Iraq's frustrating intricacies and its horrors. The convenient narrative is this: that at the last possible moment the surge - the desperate build-up of American troops led by a dynamic American general, David Petraeus - snatched vic-tory from the jaws of defeat, turning around the Bush admin-istration's grand exercise in nation-building. Sadly, and not for the first time, wishful think-ing, rather than concrete reality, underlies this much-touted success.

For the simple truth remains that the surge, by its own professed political yard-stick, has clearly failed. Iraq is, remains and will be a basket case; it certainly will not be sorted out a year from now, as President Obama has implied in announcing that the American combat mission will end on 31 August 2010. Perhaps the only bit of bleak good news is that any further significant American adventures in nation-building, following the doleful experiences in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, will prove difficult to justify politically at home.

In a sense, that is why the surge narrative is so important for the Washington elite, which continues to live in the never-never-land of American unipolar dominance that flowered so briefly with the end of the Cold War. For if Iraq is generally seen to be a fail-ure, how can the favoured policy of nation-building/humanitarian intervention sup-ported by a majority of foreign policy think-ers in both parties (be they Wilsonians in the Democratic party or neoconservatives in the Republican party) remain credible in a country increasingly aware that it urgently needs to set its own house in order? Success in Iraq is becoming a place-marker for a wider fight about the efficacy, morality and desirability of nation-building as a strategy writ large.

Modern policy-makers should spend some time reading Carl von Clausewitz. Echoing the great 19th-century Prussian military the-orist, nation-building advocates must always keep in mind that military strategies are for-mulated to reach political outcomes, and not the other way around.

No one has ever doubted America's abili-ty temporarily to overwhelm other countries with its military might. But that is not the same as using US troops as part of a larger strategy to solve political problems. Fixing Iraq has always been more about politics than military matters, more about culture than wherewithal, and more about psychol-ogy than weaponry. Obviously, this central lesson was almost entirely forgotten by the Bush administration in the early days of the Iraq campaign.

But unlike the Bush decision-makers, General Petraeus and those who designed the surge did, initially, seem to have read their Clausewitz. The goals of the offensive were resolutely political, and could not have been stated more clearly. The military push was designed to give the local Iraqi political elites some breathing space to tackle their intractable problems, particularly related to dividing oil revenues between the regions and the central government, to make the minority Kurds and Sunnis stakeholders in a Shia-dominated governing system, and to disarm the ever-present militias, then mak-ing a mockery of Baghdad's control over the country.

There is little doubt that the military did provide such a breathing space. …

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