Iraq: America must finish the job

The Age,17th May 2004

It is fashionable to say the US is failing in Iraq. It is also dangerous nonsense states Des Moore

The sky is falling in, say many, even of those who supported the US led Coalition’s forcible refashioning of Iraq.

Far from safeguarding our national interests, not least regarding terrorism, improving the lot of the Iraqis, and initiating change for the better in the wider region, the intervention, it is widely said, has simply made everything worse.

In particular, the growing consensus has it, while America has proved its military prowess it has also damningly revealed its strategic incompetence, political shortsightedness, and moral waywardness.

Soon, many say, America will reveal its lack also of national resolution, by cutting and running, abandoning Iraq to bloody chaos.

A good thing too, say a growing number, for it would mark the end of America’s dangerous wrong-headedness: its urge to unilateralism, its crusade to impose democracy, its readiness to resort to pre-emption, its naive belief that transforming the political and economic arrangements of failed, rogue, and retrogressive states requires only a firm fashioning hand.

What America should do, say many — indeed what America is being forced by circumstances and its own shortcomings to do - is to remove itself from the driver’s seat, handing over full sovereignty to representative Iraqis, with the United Nations, not the Coalition, in a supporting role.

Most of all this is fashionable nonsense, which does not appreciate the realities.

The first unappreciated reality is that the use of armed force by Iraqis and others against the Coalition, the UN, and international reconstruction efforts is not because they are foreign occupiers but because they are radically re-distributing political and economic power among the three main Iraqi power groupings: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

So the real driver is not Iraqi nationalism or Islamic outrage but a sectarian and ethnic jockeying over the shape of the new Iraq and for power and influence within it.

Because Shiites are the majority, with therefore the most to gain from Iraq’s becoming a democracy, even of sorts, they are the least troublesome.

But they are not united, with factions - notably Muqtada al-Sadr’s - fighting to get recognition and a bigger share of Shiite power.

The Sunnis have most to lose from the new dispensation, and so are intent on preventing it. They see that the only way to do that is to force the Coalition into premature withdrawal, mission unaccomplished, and then to take their chances in the resulting civil war chaos.

The Kurds, for their part, have a positive interest in new arrangements, so long as they embody at least semi-autonomy for a Kurdish state within essentially a federation.

The second unappreciated reality is that the UN cannot be a substitute for the USA. For the UN is not a sovereign power with its own political direction, financial means and military power, but a riven Security Council and a secretariat of bureaucrats.

UN direction of a large enterprise such as the transformation of Iraq is feasible only if the USA is the real power behind it or allows another powerful state to be.

But no way will France and others allow the UN to be a fig leaf for continued US direction. And no way will America allow France and others to provide the command while America meekly provides the forces and the money.

The third unappreciated reality is that a US defeat would not be a good thing.

Many affect to think that the USA has grown too big for its boots, that defeat in Iraq would teach it a much-needed lesson, and that the world would be a safer and a better place with an America put in its corner, wings clipped.

But the world would be worse off, not better off, in that event. In an anarchic, WMD-proliferating, Islamist-terrified world, only an America which has retained its credibility and resolve can provide the necessary leadership.

America is not perfect. But it is a lot better than past aspiring world leaders such as Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany.

And better even than the last actual leader, Britain - which unlike America was all too ready actually to govern foreign lands and to monopolise their trade and resources.

Still, we should not forget that many of the policies and techniques America now avails itself of were once used to beneficial effect by Britain.

Pre-emptive war, for instance, reviled by many as an American invention, was justified during the Napoleonic War by appeal to the "law of self-preservation".

Australia and others like us should work not for America’s downfall but for its strengthening. For only America’s shoulders can hold the sky suspended.