Monday, 13 January 2020

David French's Letter From America

Iraq: The More You Know, the Worse You Feel.

The French Press

I’m not going to rehash all the events of the last few days in Iraq. The short version is relatively simple—after an escalating series of attacks on American bases (including an attack that killed an American contractor), the United States responded with a series of air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that killed more than two dozen militants. Earlier this week, these militias responded by besieging the American Embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. reinforced its defenses, and the militias have withdrawn. For the moment, the immediate crisis seems to have passed. So, what should we make of the week’s events?

First, don’t tell Twitter, but this was no Benghazi. In Libya, an outmanned, outgunned detachment of American diplomats and intelligence officers faced a sustained, organized assault from jihadist militias without meaningful assistance. The diplomatic outpost was overrun, a CIA facility was abandoned, and we lost four American lives, including the life of the American ambassador. It was a terrible defeat, and only extraordinary American heroism kept it from becoming a massacre.

By contrast, the American Embassy in Baghdad did not fall, and an American show of force (including Apache helicopters over the embassy and rapid Marine reinforcements) demonstrated to the Iraqi militants that the U.S. would defend its diplomats. There was no American defeat. The embassy still stands.

Second, the protests were no “grassroots uprising.”
It would be terrifying indeed if an American embassy was besieged by a true popular revolt. A small band of Americans trapped in a seething city of millions would represent a true emergency and could necessitate a dramatic evacuation. But the best reporting indicates that’s not what happened in Baghdad. Embassy guards faced an Iranian-backed militia operation, not a true urban uprising. This was a focused, localized act of retaliation for American air strikes.

Third, don’t believe everything you read about Iraqi outrage at America. If you’ve been following events in Iraq at all, you’ll know that the nation has been convulsed by large-scale protests against Iranian influence. These uprisings are far more extensive, far more violent, and far more deadly than the localized attack on the American Embassy this week. Hundreds of Iraqis have died, thousands have been injured, and they’ve thrown the Iraqi government into (another) state of chaos. Moreover, the Iraqi government knows that it faces a tremendous challenge from Iranian-backed militias. Thousands of fighters exist within Iraqi territory. They’re outside of Iraqi government control, and they can even (as we just witnessed) conduct operations within Baghdad itself.

Critics of the Trump administration’s air strikes claim that the administration squandered rising anti-Iran sentiment and united Iraqis (and the Iraqi government) against the U.S. That may be correct. I’m not so sure, however. Public condemnation sometimes conceals private support (or at least acquiescence), and I’ve heard indications that the Iraqi government was perhaps more supportive than its public posture would indicate.

In short, don’t draw conclusions about the long-term effect of the air strikes just yet. They didn’t adjust the structural dynamics that triggered the anti-Iran protests, and many Iraqis know that the American presence does help prevent even greater degrees of Iranian domination and influence.

Finally, every party is playing with a weaker hand than it would like. Iran’s economy is crippled by sanctions, the regime is facing a rising wave of opposition across the region, and it’s wracked by its own round of deadly internal protests. The Trump administration is taking a firmer approach to Iran than Obama did—and we’re unquestionably the dominant military power in the region—but Trump has no interest in a renewed Middle Eastern conflict, and neither do the American people. In fact, a new Middle East war (and the global economic disruption that could result from serious combat in the Persian Gulf) could doom his re-election chances. As for Iraq, it’s still reeling from its horrific war against ISIS, its politics are still chaotic, and they have no real plan for dealing with the Iranian militias in their midst.

Against that background of complexity, there is, however, a simple truth. The United States cannot allow Iran’s proxy forces to kill Americans. It cannot tolerate continued rocket strikes against American bases. Self-defense is a deadly necessity.

The longer I live, the more I understand a cardinal truth about the human condition—evil often leaves virtue with few good options. I have real sympathy for the Trump administration. There is simply no clear path forward that will diminish Iran’s malign influence and permanently block its progress to a nuclear weapon without risking wider war. At the same time, easing the pressure on Iran would reduce short-term tensions while likely rendering Iran a much greater long-term threat. Moreover, the American people often present American policy-makers with a set of difficult—often irreconcilable—goals. Keep America safe. Don’t let Iran go nuclear. Limit the terrorist threat. Oh, and end all the wars and bring the troops home.

I defy any administration—Republican or Democrat—to accomplish all those goals together.

The administration should continue to play its weak hand as best it can. The American people are not ready for a new and very serious shooting war in the Middle East. But the Obama approach of easing sanctions in exchange for a temporary hold on Iran’s nuclear program did nothing to moderate Iranian behavior. And the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was perhaps its worst (and most consequential) foreign policy mistake of his two terms in office.

American forces should stay in Iraq, they should defend themselves from Iran’s militia allies, and we should maintain (and, if possible, increase) both our economic sanctions and proxy/covert actions against Iran. There are no good answers in the Middle East, but folding in the face of Iranian pressure would be the worst answer of all.

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