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BU Prof on the War: Admit Failure

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“In fairness to Congress and even the administration, no country has good plans for how to gracefully lose a war,” says Michael Corgan, a CAS associate professor of international relations, about the recent progress reports on Iraq. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Earlier this week, General David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Force Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified before Congress about the progress that’s been made in Iraq since the arrival of the 30,000-troop “surge” called for by President Bush in January.

Bottom line: while security has improved in some of the most violent areas of the country, little political progress had been made in reconciling Iraq’s rival ethnic and religious groups. Petraeus told Congress that a continued drop in violence could allow a reduction in U.S. forces to pre-surge levels by the end of next summer, but he made no further projections. Crocker called for patience with a nation-building effort that would be “slow and uneven.”

Their testimony, much of which had been gleaned from leaks and press reports even before Petraeus and Crocker sat before Congress, did not win over many of the Democrats who have been calling for a much faster reduction of American military forces in Iraq. Indeed, the two men warned of disastrous consequences if U.S. troops were to depart too hastily. But their answers failed to illuminate a path to the ultimate victory the president has described as America’s goal, leaving open the question of what circumstances would be favorable for an American withdrawal.

In a prime-time televised address to the nation yesterday, Bush said he planned to reduce U.S. troop strength to pre-surge levels by next summer, and he asked Congress and the American people to have faith in the mission, warning that leaving Iraq now would be disastrous. But with the 2008 presidential campaign already in high gear, it’s unclear how much patience Americans and their elected representatives have left.

For some analysis on the testimony, the policy, and the political fallout, BU Today spoke with Michael Corgan, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of international relations.

BU Today: In addition to General David Petraeus’ assessment, the Government Accountability Office and retired General James Jones have also recently issued Iraq progress reports. Do these reports reach any common bottom-line conclusions?

Corgan: Where General Petraeus, the GAO, and General Jones all agree is that there is no quick or cheap or easy or even dignified solution to the problem we have created in Iraq. The disagreement is basically on how long we have to provide some sort of security blanket for feuding factions in Iraq. All agree that a precipitate pullout would create unmanageable problems, but that’s where agreement really ends. General Jones is perhaps most pessimistic about chance for cobbling together any sort of workable coalition.

The 18 benchmarks for progress in Iraq cover a wide range of political and security goals. Which of these do you think are the most salient for real progress, and why?

Of the 18 benchmarked goals, the one that is most important is the achievement of a government that has overall legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. It doesn’t matter what elites want, because unlike in the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, there is no enforcement infrastructure that can make ordinary people bow to the will of a central government. We are a long way from any legitimized government for all of Iraq, and we don’t seem to be getting any closer, regardless of whether the surge is or is not working.

Do you think Congress will make any big moves on the heels of these reports, such as passing a resolution naming a date to start drawing down U.S. troops?

Congress is unlikely to make any bold moves for drawing down troops in Iraq unless there is some single salient event, like the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam (military defeat for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, incidentally) that will coalesce public opinion against continuation of the war. Even in that case, it took almost four more years for the United States to pull out completely. In fairness to Congress and even the administration, no country has good plans for how to gracefully lose a war.

What about any major shifts in President Bush’s Iraq policy before he leaves office?

It is unlikely President Bush will change his Iraq policy. Like military and civilian leaders in World War I, he will argue that just a little while longer or just a few more men will tip the balance. Most presidents in the last years in office start to worry about their legacy, and George Bush is, by his own choice, the “war president.” His place in history rises or falls on success in Iraq, and he will be unable to back out now.

Do you think these reports will have any effect or have had any effect on the Iraq war stances of either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidates?

I think the current presidential candidates will find enough in the reports to support their current positions. I don’t see anyone changing positions and risking being accused of “flip-flopping,” as was John Kerry in 2004.

Is a unified, democratic Iraq a realistic goal? And if so, in what time frame?

A unified democratic Iraq is not and never was a very realistic goal within the lifetime of anyone now living. That the administration thinks so too, and has all along, is evidenced by the massive U.S. Embassy we are building in Baghdad. It’s our largest embassy anywhere, and it is reminiscent of nothing so much as a crusader castle in the Holy Land of the Middle Ages. It is a fortress built for a long siege.

Given these progress reports and the Congressional testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, what do you feel would be our best move in Iraq?

In my opinion, the best solution for Iraq is for us to admit that we have largely failed in the follow-up action to Saddam’s overthrow and to invite the neighbors and the UN back in to help find some kind of solution everyone can live with. After all, look at a map. As the Syrians and the Iranians can and do point out to Iraqis, they’ll be around long after we’ve left.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.