Why Are We in Iraq?

The wages of fear


You have posed really the most crucial question now: Who is causing all this murder, mayhem, and terror, and what do they want?

In your first response, you identified the insurgency as “largely foreign,” with no interest in gaining popular support. Yesterday, you said, “The insurgents and their advocates have never wanted to be in the government”; all they want to do is destroy.

Let me be clear: I find all the insurgent and terrorist violence morally repugnant. But we can’t succeed in Iraq unless we sharply reduce this violence, and we can’t do that unless we understand who is waging it and why.

It is a common (if not deliberate) misperception to portray the violent resistance in Iraq as all of one piece—or as largely foreign. The overwhelming majority of the roughly 10,000 detainees are Iraqi, not foreign. So are the vast majority of the insurgents who are planting roadside bombs, killing American troops, assassinating officials, and obstructing the transition.

The most spectacular terrorist acts—the suicide bombings—appear to be staged mainly by foreign Islamic extremists, like Abu Musab al Zarqawi. With these zealots, there is no negotiating. Similarly, Saddam’s surviving top loyalists, who finance and orchestrate much of the destruction, have nowhere to go in the new order except jail or the gallows. These two diehard groups must be killed, captured, or at least cut off and expelled from where they are hiding. But they represent only a small slice of the resistance.

These two groups are tolerated, used, and supported by a wider circle of Iraqis (mainly, but not exclusively, Sunnis) who wage a more diffuse violent resistance. They represent a diverse mix of tribal, political, and religious groups. The spinal cord of the insurgency consists of surviving elements of the Baath Party and former Iraqi army officers. Cooperating with them are myriad other political, tribal, and religious elements, many of them radical Islamists (including, at times, Muqtada al Sadr’s Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army). These groups have sharply diverging philosophies, but they share two key aims. First, they feel excluded from the emerging political order, and they want in. Second, they feel that their country is under indefinite occupation, and they want it back.

For at least a year and a half now, representatives of a number of the Sunni-based insurgent groups have been signaling through intermediaries a desire to talk to the United States and a potential readiness to end the violent struggle through negotiation. While some talks have occurred, these have mainly been at a low (local, tactical) level. The Bush administration has been halfheartedly probing possibilities and adjusting its posture but has not yet seized the initiative.

The political steps needed to widen the political arena and wind down the resistance have been clear for some time, and I mentioned them on Wednesday. The indigenous Iraqi resistance is not demanding immediate American withdrawal. But they want a schedule by which they can look over the horizon and see, even if three or five years hence, a time when Iraq will be free of foreign troops. We do not need to commit to a fixed timetable in order to articulate some time frame by which we expect to be gone, if those who are waging the resistance will cooperate in building the new political order. This then shifts the burden to the insurgents and their supporters to rein in the violence if they really want American troops gone. But it also puts the burden on us to renounce the pursuit of long-term military bases in Iraq.

Dan, why has the administration repeatedly skirted this issue of long-term bases? Will you address it in closing this dialogue? What are we in Iraq for: to build democracy—which requires not only freedom but order, and thus a dramatic reduction of this violence—or to secure the long-term projection of American military power from Iraqi soil, which most Iraqis will not accept?

I share your hope for democracy in Iraq, Dan, and the belief that it is possible. But it requires now a dramatic new initiative from the Bush administration to join with the Iraqi transitional government and international mediators, including the United Nations, in a concerted effort to negotiate with the Iraqi resistance groups.

Some will object that this would bring Baathists into the government, offending the Shiites. But, there are important Shiites whose leaders grasp the imperative of dialogue and inclusion and are now pursuing it even with the Baathists. Moreover, if the Baathists do come into the political game, they won’t win more than a handful of seats. A reconstituted Baath Party participating in elections would be profoundly illiberal in many of its beliefs and proposals—but so are many of the parties now competing in Iraq. To slightly paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, “I would rather have my enemies inside the tent spitting out than outside the tent spitting in.”