The Consequences of Failure in Iraq By Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Weekly Standard

The Consequences of Failure in Iraq
They would be awful. But failure can still be averted.
by Reuel Marc Gerecht

01/15/2007, Volume 012, Issue 17

What would be the consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq?
Trying to wrap one's mind around the ramifications of a failed
Iraq--of an enormous, quite possibly genocidal, Sunni-Shiite clash
exploding around American convoys fleeing south--is daunting. In
part, this is why few have spent much time talking about what might
happen to Iraq, the region, and the United States if the government
in Baghdad and its army collapsed into Sunni and Shiite militias
waging a battle to the death. Among its many omissions, the Iraq
Study Group's stillborn report lacked any sustained description of
the probable and possible consequences of a shattered Iraq.

Before embarking on such an inquiry, a few remarks are in order about
American attitudes and about the continuing reasons for hope in Iraq.
Americans, for whom foreign policy has always been loaded with moral
imperatives and ethical restraints, don't like staring into a bloody
moral abyss that we largely dug. The growing bipartisan endeavor to
blame the mess in Iraq on the Iraqis is, among other things, a human
reaction to screen out all ugly incoming data. For most of
Washington, if not the country, Iraq is already Vietnam--no
possibility of success, thousands of wasted lives, a grim conviction
that it would be best to let the ungrateful, pitiless foreigners take
their country back. As the pro-war New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman wrote recently: "Adding more troops makes sense only if it's
to buy more time for positive trends that have already begun to
appear on the horizon. I don't see them."

In other words, if one can't envision victory--a political solution
where Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq live peacefully with each
other--then trying to forestall the ghastly consequences of an
American flight from Iraq isn't necessary. If we don't have a
workable definition of "success," then we don't have a moral
obligation to prevent a catastrophe, even one that is largely our
fault. The morality of this reasoning is precarious: Should we never
try to stop massive slaughters, or try to stop them only when we
didn't provoke them, or try to stop them only when we can't get hurt
in the effort? Seeing positive trends is difficult when physical
security in Baghdad has been declining, primarily because
then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals John Abizaid
and George Casey didn't see this elementary duty of an occupying
power as their mission.

But the quintessential American pragmatism of Friedman's reasoning is
beyond doubt. And the Bush administration has been remiss in
neglecting to describe what's probably over the horizon if we win,
and if we lose. Senior administration officials have remained largely
quiet about the good, the bad, and the truly calamitous
possibilities, allowing the president almost alone to sally forth in
Churchillian speeches. And those speeches have usually lacked what
Churchill's had in spades: acute appreciation of the hardships and
vivid descriptions of what failure would mean. Rhetorically, Iraq has
become too difficult to handle.

Iraq overwhelms. Yet it shouldn't. Even a pessimist can still look at
the place and believe it isn't beyond hope. The counterinsurgency
plan proffered by retired four-star General Jack Keane and the
military historian Frederick Kagan offers a decent chance of
success--probably the last one the Bush administration will have
before Iraq cracks up. If the president commits the necessary
resources along the lines recommended by Keane-Kagan, the
radicalization of Iraq can likely be reversed. The political and
democratic possibilities in Mesopotamia remain greater than most in
Washington's foreign policy establishment imagine. Post-Saddam Iraq
was never going to be a liberal democratic country dominated by
Westernized, secular Iraqis. The great Iraqi accomplishment will not
be the establishment of a model for peaceful transition from
dictatorship to democracy. That possibility died in the autumn of
2003. But the odds of Iraq's becoming a profoundly imperfect yet
functioning democracy, where power changes hands through elections,
remain at least as good as those favoring the birth of a Shiite
dictatorship--provided the United States adopts the right tactics.

Post-Saddam Iraq has become for us and the Iraqis an act of tenacity.
It is overwhelmingly the story of one community, the Shia,
endeavoring to adopt a democratic political arrangement while being
bombarded by Sunni Arab insurgents and holy warriors, and dismissed
as disloyal Arab Muslims by the Middle East's Sunni Arab intellectual
and religious classes. The Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera has
its virtues--watching Arab religious fundamentalists and pan-Arab
nationalists scream at each other is an unalloyed good in the Middle
East--but its coverage and commentary on the Iraqi Shia have been on
the whole disgraceful, a nonstop apologia for murderous anti-Shiite

With little American appreciation, Iraq's Shiite leadership,
particularly the traditional clergy behind Grand Ayatollah Ali
Sistani, has endeavored to keep its own from imploding into hostile,
warring militias. A Shiite dictatorship, the only other possible
outcome in Iraq, is still a verboten subject among the Shia. By
comparison, it's not hard to find Sunni Arabs pining for the return
of a Sunni strongman; since its early love affair with Ayad Allawi,
much of Washington would have gladly compromised democratic principle
for dictatorial strength.

The Iraqi Shia still seem to know that they cannot go down the
dictatorial road without provoking internecine strife. As Sistani and
his followers have tried to point out, democracy for the Shia is
first a matter of communal survival. And as long as this conviction
holds, the compromises necessary to keep the Shiites together offer
Iraq's Sunni Arabs a way out of insurgency and holy war. This will be
neither easy nor pretty. Even in the best of circumstances--even if a
successful American-led counterinsurgency takes hold and Iraqi
politics slowly becomes more normal--Shiites wanting revenge for
Sunni atrocities, and Sunnis wanting revenge against Shiite death
squads, will seek opportunities to strike. If Westerners reflected on
the violence of their own democratic evolution, they might be more
appreciative of the distance the Iraqis have come under ghastly

The miracle in Iraq is that the Iraqi government, feeble and
sectarian as it is, hasn't given up trying to play by the rules and
hasn't forsaken completely its imperfect constitution. The presence
and power of Americans is undoubtedly the primary reason the worst
hasn't happened. But only the blind, deaf, dumb, or politically
malicious cannot see that the Iraqis themselves, especially the Shia,
are still trying desperately to avoid the abyss. Having seen, then,
that there is still sufficient political hope on the Iraqi horizon,
let us return to the matter of what will likely happen in Mesopotamia
and the Middle East if the United States departs.

Certainly the most damning consequence of failure in Iraq is the
likelihood that an American withdrawal would provoke a
take-no-prisoners civil war between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, which
could easily reach genocidal intensity. The historical parallel to
have in mind is the battle between subcontinent Hindus and Muslims
that came with the independence of India. Although of differing
faiths, the pre-1947 Hindus and Muslims were often indistinguishable
culturally, linguistically, and physically. Yet they "ethnically
cleansed" their respective new nations, India and Pakistan, with
exuberance. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Muslims and
Hindus perished, tens of thousands of women were raped, and more than
ten million people were forced to flee their homes. This level of
barbarism, scaled down to Iraq's population, could quickly happen in
Mesopotamia, long before American forces could withdraw from the
country. (And it's worth recalling that few British officials
anticipated the communal ferocity that came with the end of the Raj.)

Certain Western observers of Iraq, and many Arab commentators, have
suggested that it is the American presence in Mesopotamia that
aggravates the differences between Shiite and Sunni. If the Americans
were to leave, then a modus vivendi would be reached before massive
slaughter ensued. Shared Arabism and the Prophet's faith would
helpfully reassert themselves. Yet, this seems unlikely. Iraq since
2003 strongly suggests a different outcome. Violence in both the
Shiite and Sunni zones has gone up, not down, whenever American and
British forces have decreased their physical presence in the streets
and their intrusion in government affairs. Sunnis and Shiites who see
no Americans are killing each other in greater numbers than Sunnis
and Shiites who do see Yanks patrolling their neighborhoods.

Although it would be very difficult for either Sunni or Shiite
Baghdadis to say so, they probably both look back nostalgically to
those days in 2004 when anxious, trigger-happy American military
convoys posed the greatest risk to life and property on the roads.

There are, fortunately, still many places in Iraq where Shiite and
Sunni Arabs are not killing each other. In Baghdad, this is less the
case precisely because Baghdad is the center of power. The Iraqi
Sunni identity as it has developed since the fall of the Ottoman
Empire is in many ways all about Baghdad. The centripetal eminence of
the city for them is far greater than for the Shiites--even for the
Shiites of the "Sadr City" ghetto, who have provided the manpower for
the worst of the capital's Shiite militias. The Sunni insurgency and
holy war have always been more about maintaining Sunni power than
about repelling infidel invaders. They stand in sharp contrast to the
great Shiite rebellion of 1920, which was a reaction against the
religiously intolerable dominion of the British in Mesopotamia, not a
Shiite assertion of power among the Arab denizens of what soon became

Breaking the back of the Sunni insurgency has always meant denying
the rejectionist Sunni Arab camp (possibly a pretty large slice of
the city's Sunni population) any hope of dominating Baghdad and thus
the country. If the Americans undertake this task, the Sunni Arab
population, especially those who don't back the insurgents and the
holy warriors, will sustain relatively little damage. We know how to
clear Sunni neighborhoods in the capital--we've just never had the
American manpower to hold what we've cleared. However, if the Shiites
end up doing this (and it will be the Shiite militias that do it, not
the Iraqi army, which would likely fall apart pretty quickly once
U.S. military forces started withdrawing from the capital), the Sunni
Arab population of Baghdad is going to get pulverized. The Sunni and
Shiite migration we've so far seen from Baghdad is just a trickle
compared with the exodus when these two communities battle en masse
for the city and the country's new identity.

If we leave Iraq any time soon, the battle for Baghdad will probably
lead to a conflagration that consumes all of Arab Iraq, and quite
possibly Kurdistan, too. Once the Shia become both badly bloodied and
victorious, raw nationalist and religious passions will grow. A
horrific fight with the Sunni Arabs will inevitably draw in support
from the ferociously anti-Shiite Sunni religious establishments in
Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and on the Shiite side from Iran. It will
probably destroy most of central Iraq and whet the appetite of Shiite
Arab warlords, who will by then dominate their community, for a
conflict with the Kurds. If the Americans stabilize Arab Iraq, which
means occupying the Sunni triangle, this won't happen.

A strong, aggressive American military presence in Iraq can probably
halt the radicalization of the Shiite community. Imagine an Iraq
modeled on the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard
Corps. The worst elements in the Iranian regime are heavily
concentrated in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the
Ministry of Intelligence, the two organizations most active inside
Iraq. The Lebanese Hezbollah is also present giving tutorials. These
forces need increasing strife to prosper. Imagine Iraqi Shiites,
battle-hardened in a vicious war with Iraq's Arab Sunnis, spiritually
and operationally linking up with a revitalized and aggressive
clerical dictatorship in Iran. Imagine the Iraqi Sunni Islamic
militants, driven from Iraq, joining up with groups like al Qaeda,
living to die killing Americans. Imagine the Hashemite monarchy of
Jordan overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunni Arab
refugees. The Hashemites have been lucky and clever since World War
II. They've escaped extinction several times. Does anyone want to
take bets that the monarchy can survive the implantation of an army
of militant, angry Iraqi Sunni Arabs? For those who believe that the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the epicenter of the Middle
East, the mass migration of Iraq's Sunni Arabs into Jordan will bury
what small chances remain that the Israelis and Palestinians will
find an accommodation. With Jordan in trouble, overflowing with
viciously anti-American and anti-Israeli Iraqis, peaceful Palestinian
evolution on the West Bank of the Jordan river is about as likely as
the discovery of the Holy Grail.

The repercussions throughout the Middle East of the Sunni-Shiite
clash in Iraq are potentially so large it's difficult to digest.
Sunni Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will certainly view a
hard-won and bloody Shiite triumph in Iraq as an enormous Iranian
victory. The Egyptians or the Saudis or both will go for their own
nukes. What little chance remains for the Americans and the Europeans
to corral peacefully the clerical regime's nuclear-weapons
aspirations will end with a Shiite-Sunni death struggle in
Mesopotamia, which the Shia will inevitably win. The Israelis, who
are increasingly likely to strike preemptively the major Iranian
nuclear sites before the end of George Bush's presidency, will feel
even more threatened, especially when the Iranian regime underscores
its struggle against the Zionist enemy as a means of compensating for
its support to the bloody Shiite conquest in Iraq. With America in
full retreat from Iraq, the clerical regime, which has often viewed
terrorism as a tool of statecraft, could well revert to the mentality
and tactics that produced the bombing of Khobar Towers in 1996. If
the Americans are retreating, hit them.

That would not be just a radical Shiite view; it was the learned
estimation of Osama bin Laden and his kind before 9/11. It's
questionable to argue that the war in Iraq has advanced the radical
Sunni holy war against the United States. There should be no
question, however, that an American defeat in Mesopotamia would be
the greatest psychological triumph ever for anti-American jihadists.
Al Qaeda and its militant Iraqi allies could dominate western Iraq
for years--it could take awhile for the Shiites to drive them out.
How in the world could the United States destroy these devils when it
no longer had forces on the ground in Anbar? Air power? Would we
helicopter Special Forces from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf
into a distant war zone when our intelligence information on this
desert region was--as it would surely be--somewhere between poor and
nonexistent? Images of Desert One in 1980 come to mind. Neither
Jordan nor Kuwait may be eager to lend its airfields for American
operations that intend to kill Sunnis who are killing Shiites.

What successes we've had in both Iraq and Afghanistan have come from
our having boots on the ground. There is simply no way in hell the
CIA or military intelligence will have reliable collection programs
once the United States significantly draws down. Are we going to
reinvade Western Iraq? Senators John Kerry and Barack Obama say they
would've been tougher on al Qaeda than the Bush administration. One
wonders how they would prove that in Iraq after the Americans leave.
Give weaponry to a radicalized Shiite army slaughtering Sunnis on its
western march toward the Jordanian border?

All of this may be too abstract for most Democrats and many
Republicans. Americans are particularly weak when it comes to
understanding and empathizing with folks who express their love of
God through death. But these things matter to Islamic holy warriors
and those who have the psychological profile of would-be martyrs. We
had better hope that America's counterterrorist measures are
sufficient to block the likely substantial increase in jihadist
recruits. Rest assured that with America in retreat, and the Iraqi
Shia slowly grinding the Sunni Arabs into the dust, Egypt and Saudi
Arabia are unlikely to be helpful in the war on terrorism. The
Egyptian and Saudi reflex to support militant fundamentalists in
times of stress (even as they also repress them) will surely shift
into hyperdrive as Cairo and Riyadh grow ever more fearful of an
Iranian-led Shiite offensive. The Egyptians and the Saudis, the two
intellectual powerhouses for Arab jihadism against the United States,
are likely to view a Shiite conquest of Iraq that creates hundreds of
thousands of Iraqi Sunni Arab refugees in the same light as Iran's
Islamic revolution.

More than any other event, that revolution provoked a global Wahhabi
and Salafi missionary movement to counter the spread of Iranian-led
radical Islam, which in turn set the stage for the rise of bin
Ladenism. Combine a Shiite triumph in Iraq with a resurgent hard core
in Iran who may soon acquire nuclear weaponry, and the provocative
possibilities of a shattered Iraq could be even greater than those of
the Islamic revolution in 1979. And with a U.S. defeat in
Mesopotamia, the reborn Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan,
too, will gain ground.

It is hard to imagine any event that could give the virulently
anti-American Islamists in these two countries more inspiration and
hope. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is already cutting deals
with al Qaeda-supporting tribes along the border with Afghanistan. Is
it really reasonable to imagine, as many Democrats apparently do,
that the United States, its European allies, and the Afghans and
Pakistanis who like us will become stauncher in the defense of
Afghanistan after the Americans abandon Iraq? Isn't it much more
likely that the Taliban, al Qaeda, and General Musharraf will see
things just the other way round? Will the Russians and Chinese, who
increasingly are engaging in nefarious practices in the Middle East
and elsewhere, be so gracious as to not exploit America's flight from
Iraq? Russia has already become an assassination-happy rogue state
that sells antiaircraft missiles, which could only be used against
the United States and Israel, to Tehran. Soviet patterns in the
Middle East are returning.

It is in our power to prevent these awful scenarios. We should have
taken great hope in the recent refusal of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to
bless a "unity" government that might well have led to violent strife
among the Shia--a surefire recipe for destroying the country.
Sistani's refusal to endorse this plan effectively killed it. The
good and indispensable news: Sistani's power isn't dead. Even Sadr's
men are still making pilgrimages to see the old man. Almost
politically neutered after Sunni militants blew up the Golden Shrine
at Samarra in February 2006, the cleric and the peaceful Shiite
consensus he represents are still alive. On the Shiite side, men of
moderation still have the power of moral suasion and tradition.

No one on the Shiite side has publicly challenged Sistani's support
for democracy. There are certainly many men in the dominant Shiite
political parties who would privately prefer some kind of religiously
oriented dictatorship. But as Thomas Friedman once insightfully
remarked, it's what people say publicly in the Muslim Middle East
that matters. In public, Shiite support for democratic government
appears as strong today as it was before the attack on the Golden
Shrine, the event that caused Shiite forbearance against Sunni Arab
depredations to run out.

By contrast, the question that remains open is whether the United
States can take the pounding from the Sunni insurgents and holy
warriors and stay true to its original mission. Despite his mistakes
and his poor choices in personnel, President Bush has kept faith with
the Iraqi people. He has fought the good and honorable fight. He has
clearly seen the future if we falter. We can only hope that in
America's coming great battle for Baghdad, both he and Sistani prove

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He served
on an expert working group of the Baker Hamilton Commission.