Jeffrey LewisSteinbruner on Iraq

I usually limit my commentary about Iraq to WMD-related issues. That reflects both my own relative expertise, as well as my sense of futility about the entire endeavor.

The course of this catastrophe follows a terrible, inexorable logic that I believe immune to the efforts of policymakers or protestors.

In a way, that’s moral cowardice on my part—shielding my discomfort with the moral issues behind a thin veneer of detached fatalism.

So I am glad that my boss, John Steinbruner, has asked some tough questions about the moral implications of failure in Iraq.

The subject is a little off-topic, but John’s principal theme—the importance of legitimacy—will be familiar to any regular reader of the blog.


John Steinbruner
University of Maryland

As long as there is any plausible hope that the continuation of the United States military operation in Iraq will eventually produce an acceptable outcome, the Bush administration will predictably cling to it. So will the president’s domestic political base, the American press and much of the broader electorate. It is increasingly evident, however, that the circumstances in Iraq cannot be molded to American sentiment. It is time to begin to face the probable implications of what we have done.

It remains possible that the violent process of attrition now occurring will eventually turn in our favor and that those in Iraq who primarily want personal security and economic opportunity will be able to forge a political system able to establish basic legal order. It is at least as probable, however, and very likely more so that the insurgency generated by United States occupation will prove to be the social equivalent of a lethal infection as violent dissidents infiltrate and abort the efforts to establish viable Iraqi institutions. Unwelcome as the thought may be, we have to consider the grim possibility that continued American presence will drive the reconstruction process to a disastrous outcome – one that assures repression in Iraq and violence in the region for decades to come.

The irremediable problem is that the United States did not initially establish the legitimacy of its assault on Iraq and has no realistic prospect of doing so after the fact. With that vital ingredient missing, the United States cannot itself accomplish stabilization and reconstruction and cannot provide the tutelage that might enable an emerging Iraqi government to do so. Ultimate outcomes in these circumstances depend far more on legitimacy than on firepower, the adroitness of military operations or sheer political will.

Unfortunately and indeed tragically, arbitrarily scheduled termination of the United States military operation promises to be even worse than indefinite continuation. As is widely recognized, American withdrawal could readily trigger a yet more violent civil war in Iraq with yet more dangerous regional implications. The only meaningful alternative even remotely visible depends on transferring primary responsibility and operational control of the stabilization and reconstruction process to a more representative international entity not implicated in the original assault and better able to evoke universal justifying principles. That entity does not currently exist. It would have to be created for the occasion. The United States would have to provide financial and military support without attempting to exercise control.

Such a formula would be anathema to those who initiated the war and very unpopular within the American political system generally. It could well come to that nonetheless. Exploring the possibility can reasonably be considered a moral obligation.


  1. mark gubrud (History)

    The invasion was not merely illegitmate, it was illegal.

    That said, legitimacy of the occupation could have been established within a few months had the United States, first, made it a top priority to deliver relief, services and reconstruction to the people of Iraq, and second, established an elected sovereign government in the shortest possible time. A purely procedural constitution could have been decreed by fiat, subject to future amendment in accord with procedures outlined in that constitution. Elections could have been announced within two months and held in the Fall following the invasion, and the US could have announced that it would respect the decisions of the Iraqi people’s elected representatives if those decisions were made in accord with the constitution – specifically including any decision regarding the continued presence of US military forces.

    Instead, the Bush gang did little to help the people, attempted to impose a far-Right economic agenda including massive privatization and exploitation by foreign corporations, commenced the construction of permanent military bases and imposed a series of illegitmate governments. The growing resistance was met with the use of brutal military force in densely populated cities, killing thousands of noncombatants. No textbook contains a purer example of modern imperialism.

    The US military is continuing to use bombing and other forms of excessive military force, killing more innocent people and further inflaming and embittering the resistance. According to sevaral polls, more than 80% of the Iraqi people want us out now.

    A new occupation army formed out of non-US foreign forces will not produce a better situation. The present Iraqi government, of questionable legitimacy, unquestionably imposes the will of a Shiite-Kurdish coalition on Iraq’s Sunni minority. The latter includes both the former Baathist military and civilian elite, and the bulk of the jihadi fighters who have now made Shiite civilians a prime target of mass terror attacks. They will not stop fighting just because French or Egyptian soldiers are the ones attempting to uphold the regime. On the contrary, those attempting to set up regional separatist regimes will be strongly encouraged that they can succeed in breaking a weak foreign coalition and driving it out of their areas.

    The best course for the US at this point is to announce a date certain for complete withdrawal of all US military forces from Iraqi soil. I would suggest the end of 2006; the date should be far enough into the future to give the Iraqi government a chance to organize an effective security system, perhaps in part by accomodating local powers, but soon enough to compel immediate movement in that direction and to provide assurance to the Iraqi people that the withdrawal will happen and soon. Let the Iraqi government appeal to the international community for help.

    And we should damn well be paying reparations to the people of Iraq for 15 years of genocidal cruelty visited upon them by the 1991 bombing of civilian infrastructure, the 1991-2003 sanctions and bombing, the invasion and the occupation. The amount should be at least comparable to what we’ve spent destroying their country (while continuing to drive our cars with their oil).