Salvaging the Iraq War

 Two positions dominate and polarize the American body politic today. Some say the war is lost, so leave Iraq. Others say the war can be won, so keep the troops in place.

I split the difference and offer a third route. The occupation is lost but the war can be won. Keep U.S. troops in Iraq but remove them from the cities.

I already predicted failure for an American-led military occupation of Iraq in February 1991, right after the Kuwait war ended, writing then that an occupation lasting for more than some months "would probably lead to one of the great disasters in American foreign policy." I reached this conclusion on the basis of the Iraqi populace coming "very strongly to resent a predominantly American occupying force." Therefore, I concluded, as the ignominy of sniper fire buries the prestige of high-tech military superiority, "the famous victory achieved by Tomahawks, Tornadoes, and Patriots would quickly become a dim memory."

In April 1991, I added that "American troops would find themselves quickly hated, with Shi'is taking up suicide bombing, Kurds resuming their rebellion, and the Syrian and Iranian governments plotting new ways to sabotage American rule. Staying in place would become too painful, leaving too humiliating."

With the occupation a half-year old in October 2003, I forecast that "the mission in Iraq will end in failure" because the Iraqi motivation to remove coalition forces greatly exceeds coalition motivation to remain. "The US-led effort to fix Iraq is not important enough for Americans, Britons, or other non-Muslim partners to stick it out."

Now again, I reiterate that lack of will (how many Americans or Britons care deeply about Iraq's future course?) means that coalition forces cannot achieve the grandiose goal of rehabilitating Iraq. In calling for withdrawal, critics reflect the national mood that leaves the Bush administration increasingly isolated, a trend that almost surely will continue.

But President George W. Bush is right to insist on keeping troops in Iraq.

In part, America's credibility is on the line. The country cannot afford what Victor Davis Hanson notes would be its first-ever battlefield flight. The cut-and-run crowd deludes itself on this point. Senator George Voinovich (Republican of Ohio) holds that "If everyone knows we're leaving [Iraq], it will put the fear of God in them," to which Jeff Jacoby sardonically replies in the Boston Globe: sure, "Nothing scares al-Qaeda like seeing Americans in retreat."

The troops should remain in Iraq for another reason too: Iraq offers an unrivaled base from which to influence developments in the world's most volatile theater. Coalition governments can use them to:

>Contain or rollback the Iranian and Syrian governments.

>Assure the free flow of oil and gas.

>Fight Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations.

>Provide a benign presence in Iraq.

At present, however, coalition forces barely have time to tend to these strategic goals, so bogged down are they with the tactical objectives they do least well — clearing alleyways, keeping the electricity flowing, protecting themselves from suicide bombers, defending the "Green Zone," and many other small-bore tasks.

I call for international troops to be released from improvised explosive devices, urban foxholes, and armed convoys, and redeployed to the deserts and borders where they and their high-tech equipment can play a strategic role.

This implies the coalition abandoning its overly ambitious goal of a democratic, free, and prosperous Iraq, aiming instead for an Iraq that is secure, stable, and decent. In particular, holding elections in January 2005, a mere 22 months after the tyrant's overthrow, was premature and unrealistic; Iraqis will need years, perhaps decades, to learn the subtle habits of an open society.

Removing Saddam Hussein was a realistic and welcome act of international sanitation but repairing Iraq in the face of a liberated, fractured, and ideological Iraqi populace remains beyond the coalition's will. The coalition gave Iraqis a fresh start; it cannot take responsibility for them nor rebuild their country.

Focusing on the strategic level also means the coalition distancing itself from Iraq's internal developments and treating Iraqis as adults shaping their own destiny, not as wards: no more hugging the country's leaders, treating its parliamentarians as subalterns, nor encouraging local partners to emigrate to Denmark or the United States.

That means staying the course but changing the course, redeploying to desert bases, not leaving Iraq.

Daniel Pipes


Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

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  • Guest

    I know Daniel Pipes's idea might be considered very out of the ordinary.  But, I consider this genius and actually a win/win situation for Iraq and the surrounding area.

    Great idea Mr. Pipes.  Run with it.  I'd love to see this happen.

    GK – God is good!

  • Guest

    Strange way we conduct wars these days. They are more conducted in the media and in the political haggling than on the battlefield. The war is of course winable militarily but it's not winable to everyone's satisfaction. A pullback to safe positions is the only option. Our infintrymen should not be mine-sweepers and split-second truck bomb experts.


  • Guest

    Kent C. Bois

    As always Mr. Pipes opens the discussion up to a broader vision. His insights are helpful to an average citizen like me who needs to hear from a variety of sources on any given subject to be reasonably informed. Thank You!

  • Guest

    The very day I first read this article (I believe it's already been on CE somewhere in the columns section.) I had writen that we should remove most troops from Iraq and leave enough behind to secure oil production and distribution.  We also need to leave troops there for the same reason we have them in South Korea and around Europe and in Cuba…to protect US interests and as a base.

    I have no idea how the US presence would look…I'm all words, however, I was a Marine and love my country; BUT, I would send all 4 of my sons to Canada, so to speak, rather than allow them to be deported/drafted to Iraq for service.

    Thanks to CE for the many years they have run Daniel Pipes' articles.  I would never have thought about many of the topics he discusses otherwise.

  • Guest

    I stand corrected, this aritcle first appeared as

    Salvaging the Iraq War

    by Daniel Pipes
    New York Sun
    July 24, 2007

    I must have had it emailed directly to me since I subscibe to Daniel Pipes' articles.


  • Guest

    How is this viewpoint really different from all the rest out there?


    Using our military to "influence developments" in the area is the same old tired interventionism that the liberals (both Democrat and Republican types) have been pushing on us for the last 100 years.


    What has that gotten us? A pile of dead, continued warfare and a mountain of IOUs. Not very Christ-like, is it?


    How about a return to Jeffersonian foreign policy, wherein our government minds its own darn business. If John Q Public cares enough about the situation in Country B, he or she can go enlist in that country's armed services.

  • Guest

    I returned from a year of training the Iraqi Army earlier this year.  All below is just my opinion to generate some thought and maybe discussion. 

    I spent a lot of time pondering and even offering a very similar solution – in general I recommended we move to the borders (stop the influx of terrorists and weapons), protect the oil infrastructure (provide the Iraqi government money), and protect the main power lines and stations (provide a chance of comfort (heat, a/c, light, cooking, etc) to the Iraqi people) and let the Iraqi govt handle the population/cities. 

    The problem I could never overcome was that I believe the Iraqi govt would use methods we could not support or be associated with to get control in the cities (remember the picture of the VC with the gun to his head and what that did to us a few decades back?).  But that is very possibly what it will take to get the less hardened out of the terrorist business.

    Terrorists swim thru the population like fish thru water.  We were turning the population toward us (they were turning in the bad guys) until all the talk about leaving started getting the headlines.  I blame those politicians for many of our wounded and dead.

    If the Iraqis get caught working against us they get arrested and normally released within 6 months (the judicial and prison systems have a long ways to go).  If they are suspected of supporting us, they and their family are often murdered.  When the Iraqi people thought we would stick it out, they were with us.  Now they don't think we will see it thru so most won't take the risk of helping us (though numerically many still do).  The vast majority are not against us.

    If we don't finish it there, I strongly suspect we will fight it here.

  • Guest


    I agree with you completely except for the reality that we are there now.  And the only two options I have heard are 1) stay and fight inch by inch and 2) bolt like mindless dolts.

    But what you bring up has so much merit about where we should go in the future.  And if as you say our policy was simply "If John Q Public cares enough about the situation in Country B, he or she can go enlist in that country's armed services" then no one I know or care about would be in Iraq.  And furthermore, our tax money would be in the concern/protection/support of the Family.  We'd be 20 years (or a generation) away from bliss. 

    GK – God is good!