Over the summer, Americans were bombarded with a stream of contradictory reports about the progress, or lack thereof, of the Iraq War. The war has dragged on for four and a half years, and most politicians and commentators have long since thrown their support behind one perspective or another; unsurprisingly, war supporters tend to be more optimistic about America’s prospects in Iraq, and war opponents tend to be more pessimistic. Whatever is at stake in Iraq, a lot of reputations and careers are at stake here in America.
We are all eager to believe in our own judgment, and so those who supported the war and then supported the “surge” are flooding the nation’s networks and editorial pages with tales of the surge’s “success” and of military “progress” in Iraq. On the other side of the debate are those like Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who famously said this spring that the war is “lost.” I, too, have argued for years that there is no chance whatsoever that the U.S. will achieve its stated goal of turning Iraq into a democratic, stable, pro-Western ally.
The headlines, if not the opinion pages, still seem to be on the side of those of us who were opposed to the war and skeptical about the surge. The political impasses, civilian murders, water shortages, flight of the middle class, crumbling infrastructure, and stream of refugees continue apace.
War supporters point to positive developments: insurgent groups cooperating with U.S. soldiers to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, a more stable Anbar province—a former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency—and growing disgust with insurgency tactics among ordinary Iraqis. Opponents counter that gains in some regions are offset by backsliding in others and by the lack of progress toward political reconciliation.
So if hawks and doves seem to be observing two entirely different wars, what is the best way to assess reports of progress in Iraq? The drumbeat of pro-surge opinion pieces is having an impact: Support for the war edged up over the summer, reversing a steady decline, and a political consensus has emerged around the idea that the U.S. “must” stick around long enough to create, at a minimum, basic stability in Iraq.
But in the face of conflicting and partisan accounts of the facts in Iraq, observers can do better than throw their weight behind one or the other side of the debate. Decision-makers must constantly make judgments on the basis of incomplete information, and they do so by relying on theories, or mental models, of how the world works. Such tools can help us to step back from the headlines and put the day-to-day events in Iraq in perspective.
Rather than asking whether such-and-such neighborhood of Baghdad is stable or whether al-Maliki is an effective president, it may be useful to think in more general terms and ask: Is a force of 158,000 American soldiers capable of stabilizing a volatile, war-torn, failed state with over 27 million inhabitants? Does the U.S., whatever its military and economic strength, have the power—and the legitimacy, a crucial ingredient of power—to construct a peaceful and stable nation out of the shrapnel of armed, furious, and self-interested sects in the Iraqi political landscape?
So long as we can’t answer those questions affirmatively, it doesn’t really count for much if the Iraqi parliament passes an oil bill or if the Maliki government meets “benchmarks” set by the U.S. Congress. Most of the news stories coming out of Iraq are distractions from the larger picture, which is this: No number of American deaths or dollars will produce a stable Iraq, much less a stable and free Iraq. We simply do not have the power to micromanage Iraq’s future, which is exactly what the “surge” is attempting to do.
This is not to say that there are no achievable goals for the U.S. in Iraq. We can carry out pinprick strikes against foreign terrorist targets that enter Iraq. We can deter an Iranian invasion. We can act as a last-resort guardian against genocide, should the conditions for genocide arise.
War supporters promise that if the U.S. “cuts and runs” and lets “victory” slip through its fingers, Iraq is likely to turn into a Talibanized state sponsor of terrorism. But there is reason to be slightly more optimistic about the consequences of an American withdrawal than that. Most of the factions in Iraq have no aim more global or noble than installing themselves in power. Perhaps it is time to allow them to take the mess that is Iraq off our hands.
It is likely that the goals of whatever government emerges from Iraq’s civil war will diverge widely from American preferences. But one thing is certain: Iraqis, not Americans, will always be the most effective governors of Iraq.