Yet, in this dispatch from Baghdad in Britain's Prospect Magazine, which I'm told is generally left-of-center, the sober assessment is the war is strategically won!
The gist of the argument is the political issues are settled, and what violence remains is essentially gang-like in nature and cannot alter the future trajectory of Iraq becoming something more prosperous and free and functional than it was when a Sunni minority exploited the remaining 80% of the country under Hussein's brutal rule.
Because there's just too much money at stake.
And because the Surge convinced the Sunnis they can't win militarily and return to their position of rulership, and therefore the Taliban-like al-Qaeda elements they temporarily allied themselves with have outworn their welcome.
And they need to come into the fold to avoid being totally exterminated by Shiite militias.
By any normal ethical standard, the coalition's current project in Iraq is a just one. Britain, America and Iraq's other allies are there as the guests of an elected government given a huge mandate by Iraqi voters under a legitimate constitution. The UN approved the coalition's role in May 2003, and the mandate has been renewed annually since then, most recently this August. Meanwhile, the other side in this war are among the worst people in global politics: Baathists, the Nazis of the middle east; Sunni fundamentalists, the chief opponents of progress in Islam's struggle with modernity; and the government of Iran. Ethically, causes do not come much clearer than this one.No amount of hyperventilating can change this objective Truth of the facts on the ground.
Some just wars, however, are not worth fighting. There are countries that do not matter very much to the rest of the world. Rwanda is one tragic example; and its case illustrates the immorality of a completely pragmatic foreign policy. But Iraq, the world's axial country since the beginning of history and all the more important in the current era for probably possessing the world's largest reserves of oil, is no Rwanda. Nor do two or three improvised explosive devices a day, for all the personal tragedy involved in each casualty, make a Vietnam.
The great question in deciding whether to keep fighting in Iraq is not about the morality and self-interest of supporting a struggling democracy that is also one of the most important countries in the world. The question is whether the war is winnable and whether we can help the winning of it. The answer is made much easier by the fact that three and a half years after the start of the insurgency, most of the big questions in Iraq have been resolved. Moreover, they have been resolved in ways that are mostly towards the positive end of the range of outcomes imagined at the start of the project. The country is whole. It has embraced the ballot box. It has created a fair and popular constitution. It has avoided all-out civil war. It has not been taken over by Iran. It has put an end to Kurdish and marsh Arab genocide, and anti-Shia apartheid. It has rejected mass revenge against the Sunnis. As shown in the great national votes of 2005 and the noisy celebrations of the Iraq football team's success in July, Iraq survived the Saddam Hussein era with a sense of national unity; even the Kurds—whose reluctant commitment to autonomy rather than full independence is in no danger of changing—celebrated. Iraq's condition has not caused a sectarian apocalypse across the region. The country has ceased to be a threat to the world or its region. The only neighbours threatened by its status today are the leaders in Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran.
The mission in Iraq may be on the way to being accomplished, but it has clearly been imperfect and costly. At least 80,000 and perhaps 200,000 or more Iraqis have been killed since the invasion, almost all of them by Iraqis and other Arabs (although this should be weighed against the 1.5m people killed by war and political violence during the 35-year Baath reign).
Some of the violence—that paid for by foreigners or motivated by Islam's crazed fringes—will not recede in a hurry. Iraq has a lot of Islam and long, soft borders. But the rest of Iraq's violence is local: factionalism, revenge cycles, crime, power plays. It will largely cease once Iraq has had a few more years to build up its security apparatus.
It was always clear that Iraq's Sunni tribes would eventually take up arms against the Saudis, Jordanians and Syrians in their midst who were banning smoking, killing whisky vendors, executing sheikhs of ancient tribes and forcibly marrying local girls to "emirs" of the soi-disant "Islamic state of Iraq." Of course, Anbar's tribal leaders and Baathists could be bought off either directly or by the indirect promise of owning a chunk of what will be a very rich country now that the basic question of who owns Baghdad has been resolved. At least 14,000 Anbari young men have joined the state security services since the surge began in February and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, started reaching out to the chiefs.
The Sunni insurgents have recognised that there is little point fighting a strong and increasingly skilled enemy—the US—that is on the right side of Iraq's historical destiny and has a political leadership that—unlike that of the British in Basra—responds to setbacks by trying harder. (That is essentially the Petraeus doctrine: more resources more intelligently applied further forward.) There is even less point doing so when you are a discredited minority, as the Sunnis are after 35 years of Baathism followed by their disastrous insurgency, and the enemy is in fact your main guarantor of a fair place at the national table.
Iraq's Sunnis would not be needing the help of the US today had the Sunni leadership not made a historic miscalculation back in 2004. Saddam, a rational man, made an understandable but fatal misjudgement about the people he was up against, and paid for it with his throne and his neck. His Sunni supporters did not learn from this. Thinking they were dealing with the post-Vietnam America of Carter, Reagan and Clinton, they took up arms to prevent the Americans from delivering on their promise of an Iraq that could freely choose its leaders. The habit of centuries of overlordship also fed the Sunni miscalculation: to them, Shia control was unthinkable and so the insurgency was sure to succeed.
By the second half of 2004, the insurgency had had six months to show what it was capable of, and it became clear that its goal could not be the military defeat of the Americans. The Sunnis were now fighting not for a military victory but a political one, to win in the US congress and the newsrooms of CNN and the New York Times the war they could not win in the alleys and date palm groves of Mesopotamia.
The world held its breath after Samarra: here, we thought, comes the cataclysm, the civil war that many had feared and that others had sought for three years. But it never happened. The Shia backlash in parts of Baghdad was vicious, and the Sunnis were more or less kicked out of much of the city. But over 18 months later, it is clear that the Shias were too sensible to go all the way. It was never a civil war: no battle lines or uniforms, no secession, no attempt to seize power or impose constitutional change, no parallel governments, not even any public leaders or aims. The Sunnis rolled the dice, launched the battle of Baghdad and lost. Now they are begging for an accommodation with Shia Iraq.
What is the evidence for this? This summer, Maliki's office reached out to Baathist ex-soldiers and officers and received 48,600 requests for jobs in uniform; he made room for 5,000 of them, found civil service jobs for another 7,000, and put the rest of them on a full pension. Meanwhile leading Baathists have told Time magazine they want to be in the government; the 1920 Revolution Brigade—a Sunni insurgent group—is reportedly patrolling the streets of Diyala with the 3rd infantry division, and the Sunni Islamic Army in Iraq is telling al Jazeera it may negotiate with the Americans. The anecdotes coming out of Baghdad confirm the trend. The drawing rooms of the capital's dealmakers are full of Baathists, cap in hand. They are terrified of the Shia death squads and want to share in the pie when the oil starts flowing.
Iranian-made rockets will continue to kill British and American soldiers. Saudi Wahhabis will continue to blow up marketplaces, employment queues and Shia mosques when they can. Iraqi criminals will continue to bully their neighbourhoods into homogeneities that will give the strongest more leverage, although even this tide is turning in most places where Petraeus's surge has reached. Bodies will continue to pile up in the ditches of Doura and east Baghdad as the country goes through the final spasm of the reckoning that was always going to attend the end of 35 years of brutal Sunni rule.
But in terms of national politics, there is nothing left to fight for. The only Iraqis still fighting for more than local factional advantage and criminal dominance are the irrational actors: the Sunni fundamentalists, who number but a thousand or two men-at-arms, most of them not Iraqi. Like other Wahhabi attacks on Iraq in 1805 and 1925, the current one will end soon enough. As the maturing Iraqi state gets control of its borders, and as Iraq's Sunni neighbours recognise that a Shia Iraq must be dealt with, the flow of foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria will start to dry up. Even today, for all the bloodshed it causes, the violence hardly affects the bigger picture: suicide bombs go off, dozens of innocents die, the Shias mostly hold back and Iraq's tough life goes on.
In early September, Nouri al-Maliki said, "We may differ with our American friends about tactics… But my message to them is one of appreciation and gratitude. To them I say, you have liberated a people, brought them into the modern world… We used to be decimated and killed like locusts in Saddam's endless wars, and we have now come into the light."
The other half of the moral hazard argument is about security: if we provide Iraqis' security for them, they will never do it for themselves. This is equally inaccurate. First, Iraqis are increasingly providing their own security. Second, Maliki and his colleagues run an elected government. They are subject to the judgement of their people in two years' time. They have every reason to try as hard as possible to deliver an end to the embarrassing reliance on the foreigner. It would be foolhardy to bet on Iraq, of all places, becoming the first Islamic state in the middle east not to achieve a basic monopoly on domestic violence.
The argument of this article—that with nothing more to resolve from political violence, Iraqis can now settle down to gorge themselves at the oil trough—is based on two premises: Sunni acknowledgement of the failure of their insurgency and the need to reach an accommodation with the new Iraq, and a conjunction of interests between the coalition on one hand and the Kurds and Shias on the other.
Petraeus has already announced the first marine and army drawdowns for September and December respectively. His boss, defence secretary Robert Gates, is hoping publicly for a net withdrawal of 60,000 troops next year. Bush too is promising cuts. These plans are a recognition that the job in Iraq is moving rapidly towards something closer to Iraqi police work than American war.