Can we avoid catastrophe in Iraq?

Military analysis.
Aug. 13 2004 1:25 PM

No Way Out

Is there any hope of avoiding catastrophe in Iraq?

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Professor Juan Cole, whose blog remains essential for tracking events in Iraq, has an idea, though he admits its chances of success are remote. He thinks that, with the right mix of incentives, Russia and France might be persuaded to send troops. One key would be to play on their commercial ambitions. Give both countries—and any others—favored status to bid on vital contracts. Iraq's oil reserves alone might prove tempting. The other key would be to turn over the occupation, including its military command, to an outside entity: NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League—anything, as long as the general in charge is not an American. This would be a particularly difficult step. In all other multilateral peacekeeping operations involving U.S. troops, the military component has been kept under U.S. command. Yet the undisputable fact is that no outsider will send troops to Iraq if the United States remains in charge there.

Historical analyses suggest that at least 300,000—possibly as many as 500,000—troops are needed to impose order in Iraq. Fewer than half that many U.S. and British troops are currently stationed there, and neither country has many armed forces to spare. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, is training a new Iraqi army (much of which amounts to re-recruiting the less tainted members of the old Iraqi army), but that project will take a few years to bear fruit, and it's questionable, in any case, whether Iraqis would shoot their own. (Cole notes that, during last spring's aborted offensive in Fallujah, the local police chief told the U.S. Marines that his men would not attack the native insurgents. More recently, nearly all 4,000 Iraqi security forces in Najaf defected to Muqtada Sadr's army.)

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Even if our re-energized allies agreed to send more troops, they would be but a beginning, a holding action, and who knows how long they'd have to stay? What kind of country Iraq becomes, what kind of politics it practices, what kind of alliances it forms—all are mysteries. You don't hear Paul Wolfowitz waxing lyrical these days, as he did a year ago, over the universal truths of Alexis de Tocqueville. Even he must realize that the best we can hope for, at this point, is an Iraq that doesn't blow up and take the region with it. The dismaying, frightening thing is how imponderably difficult it will be simply to avoid catastrophe.