From Dobbins to Dustbin


As wonks scramble to find a silver bullet to slice the Gordian Knot in Iraq, a revealing, and very confused, piece has been posted on the Foreign Affairs magazine website by former ambassador James Dobbins, who must have earned a bundle in hardship pay after serving in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia and Afghanistan.

His article is titled "Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War", and though that's pretty catchy, there is much to lament in it. Dobbins opens with this argument:

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won–but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States. Achieving such wide consensus will require turning the U.S.-led occupation into an Iraqi-led, regionally backed, and internationally supported endeavor to attain peace and stability based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This is hardly the place for an extended critique, but one can see where Dobbins is heading here: toward building a consensus that will essentially stabilize Iraq without paying too much attention to what kind of regime is left there. The Iraqis may work out some pluralistic power-sharing arrangement, but Dobbins is little concerned about democracy:

The United States should continue counterterrorism cooperation with regional governments and support for democratic forces in the region. But if Washington hopes to build regional support for the regime in Baghdad, these goals will have to recede from the fore of its public diplomacy and its rhetoric at home.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the piece, however, is that it rests on an assumption that the major problem in Iraq is that the people there fear for their country's sovereignty. That is indeed an obstacle, but far less so than one Dobbins ignores: the minority issue. The real problem in Iraq today is how to resolve the growing tension between the different Iraqi communities, and there the countries of the region, the UN, and most others, have very little positive to add.

Only the U.S., among the non-Iraqis, has a fundamental role to play in that context, and any decision to announce a withdrawal (as Dobbins proposes, though he adds the key, and rather self-defeating, caveat that this must only occur once Iraq is stabilized) would merely heighten sectarian tensions, as all sides would prepare for the post-withdrawal vacuum. The fact is that by declaring a pullout, even without setting a deadline, the U.S. would turn itself into a virtual lame duck as far as the Iraqi communities are concerned. What stability would that bring?