MARINELLI: Coming out on top won’t be easy

Augustine Marinelli

As the next presidential election starts, candidates are hard at work crafting their latest Iraq slogans. Campaign operatives are rounding up every last American flag, glossy banner and uniformed employee in arm’s reach to park on the stage behind their bosses who are attempting to look presidential. While they distort the Iraq war for their own ends, I will try to offer a sound prediction of where American efforts in Iraq are headed.

As of now, President Bush is sending at least 28,000 extra combat and support troops to Iraq in order to battle militias in Baghdad and Sunni insurgents in Anbar Province. As this goes on, Congress debates toothless measures demanding the removal of all combat troops. This serves the dual purposes of satisfying the core constituency of the Democratic Party and keeping pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government to cooperate with American troops battling Shiite militias in Baghdad. Perhaps this is why the United States has been able to arrest members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (whose party is the largest seat holder in the Shiite ruling coalition). If the surge is successful and the United States is able to win credible victories against Shiite militias in Baghdad and Sunnis in Anbar, the next president will use this position of strength to camouflage an initial drawdown of combat forces in the name of “newfound stability” sometime in 2009. Despite the relative peace, insurgents will be able to make the credible claim that IEDs, not stability, hastened the American exit, thus resulting in a public relations disaster for the United States.

But what is to stop the United States from making the same mistakes the Israelis made in Lebanon during the 1980s? The Israelis backed and cooperated with a government that was regarded as the largest Christian militia by the combined majority of Druze, Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other. By battling the Sunni insurgency and taking on inconvenient Shiite militias, the United States runs the risk of being perceived by other Iraqis as doing the Shiites’ dirty work for them. This will give the Iraqi government credibility once the American military is gone. And that day seems to be fast approaching as presidential candidates jockey for standing among the electorate as November ’08 quickly approaches.

So what happens after the United States withdraws troops from Iraq? More than likely, a civil conflict combining sectarian violence reminiscent of Lebanon and the brutally effective tactics that proved so successful in 1980s Afghanistan will occur. In the Shiite South, the Iranians will find their “Iraqi Hezbollah” among the remaining militias jockeying for influence. Iran will use this chosen group in conjunction with a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to insulate themselves from Iraqi Sunnis with Saudi backing. The Saudis will counter Iranian influence by financing Sunni insurgents to fight the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiites. This will recall the heady days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, when the Saudis poured millions of dollars into the anti-Russian insurgency and brought in “Arab Afghan” fighters from all over to augment this effort. The Kurds will use this distraction to take Kirkuk from the Sunnis and hold off violence long enough to court foreign investment in “Kurdistan: the Other Iraq” as they like to call themselves in press releases. Will the Turks stand for that? Perhaps. They’ve been the No. 1 foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan thus far.

As for the United States, the Iraq conflict will haunt a future generation of policymakers. The Donald Rumsfelds, Paul Wolfowitzs and Douglas Feiths will write their books and make thousands of dollars on the lecture circuit comparing themselves to Winston Churchill in the 1930s. This will not disguise the fact that our ability to use military force credibly will be diminished. For better or worse, the Iraqi experience will make American policymakers and military leaders even more reluctant to stake American lives on civil wars and insurgencies. In other words, this conflict will inhibit American political will to commit troops to anything remotely resembling an irregular civil conflict after 2009.

Other potential enemies will take away from Iraq the same lessons that today’s terrorists learned from Beirut in 1983, Somalia in 1993 and Iraq in the 21st century: kill enough American soldiers on TV and the politicians who hastily involved the United States in nebulous conflicts will bring the troops home. Thus, they can declare victory against the world’s foremost military power, bolster recruiting and consolidate power. Perception is reality. The perception that the United States is a paper tiger will be with many in the world for some time. All else aside, I hope and pray I am wrong.


Augustine Marinelli is a senior political science major from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at [email protected].