Juan Cole: How to get out of Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.]

Both houses of Congress have now backed a timeline for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq in 2008, which George W. Bush has vowed to veto. He gives two major rationales for rejecting withdrawal. At times he has warned that Iraq could become an Al Qaeda stronghold, at others that "a contagion of violence could spill out across the country--and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict." These are bogeymen with which Bush has attempted to frighten the public. Regarding the first, Turkey, Jordan and Iran are not going to put up with an Al Qaeda stronghold on their borders; nor would Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis. Most Sunni Iraqis are relatively secular, and there are only an estimated 1,000 foreign jihadis in Iraq, who would be forced to return home if the Americans left.

Bush's ineptitude has made a regional proxy war a real possibility, so the question is how to avoid it. One Saudi official admitted that if the United States withdrew and Iraq's Sunnis seemed in danger, Riyadh would likely intervene. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has threatened to invade if Iraq's Kurds declare independence. And Iran would surely try to rescue Iraqi Shiites if they seemed on the verge of being massacred.

But Bush is profoundly in error to think that continued US military occupation can forestall further warfare. Sunni Arabs perceive the Americans to have tortured them, destroyed several of their cities and to be keeping them under siege at the behest of the joint Shiite-Kurdish government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. American missteps have steadily driven more and more Sunnis to violence and the support of violence. The Pentagon's own polling shows that between 2003 and 2006 the percentage of Sunni Arabs who thought attacking US troops was legitimate grew from 14 to more than 70.

The US repression of Sunnis has allowed Shiites and Kurds to avoid compromise. The Sunnis in Parliament have demanded that the excesses of de-Baathification be reversed (thousands of Sunnis have been fired from jobs just because they belonged to the Baath Party). They have been rebuffed. Sunnis rejected the formation of a Shiite super-province in the south. Shiites nevertheless pushed it through Parliament. The Kurdish leadership has also dismissed Sunni objections to their plans to annex the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which has a significant Arab population.

The key to preventing an intensified civil war is US withdrawal from the equation so as to force the parties to an accommodation. Therefore, the United States should announce its intention to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, which will bring Sunnis to the negotiating table and put pressure on Kurds and Shiites to seek a compromise with them. But a simple US departure would not be enough; the civil war must be negotiated to a settlement, on the model of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon.

Talks require a negotiating partner. The first step in Iraq must therefore be holding provincial elections. In the first and only such elections, held in January 2005, the Sunni Arab parties declined to participate. Provincial governments in Sunni-majority provinces are thus uniformly unrepresentative, and sometimes in the hands of fundamentalist Shiites, as in Diyala. A newly elected provincial Sunni Arab political class could stand in for the guerrilla groups in talks, just as Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, did in Northern Ireland.

The United States took a step in the right direction by attending the March Baghdad summit of Iraq's neighbors and speaking directly to Iran and Syria about Iraqi security. Now the United States and Britain should work with the United Nations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to call a six-plus-two meeting on the model of the generally successful December 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan. The Iraqi government, including the president and both vice presidents, would meet directly with the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to discuss the ways regional actors could help end the war as the United States and Britain prepare to depart. Unlike the Baghdad summit, this conference would have to issue a formal set of plans and commitments. Recent Saudi consultations with Iranian leaders should be extended.

The Saudi government should then be invited to reprise the role it played in brokering an end to the Lebanese civil war at Taif in 1989, at which communal leaders hammered out a new national compact, which involved political power-sharing and demobilization of most militias. At Taif II, the elected provincial governors of Iraq and leaders of the major parliamentary blocs should be brought together. Along with the US and British ambassadors to Baghdad and representatives of the UN and the OIC, observers from Iraq's six neighbors should also be there.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has credibility with Iraq's Sunnis, especially now that he has denounced the US occupation as illegitimate. They could trust his representations, which would include Saudi development aid in places like Anbar province. Since the Sunnis are the main drivers of violence in Iraq, it is they who must be mollified, bribed, cajoled and threatened into a settlement. The Shiites will have to demobilize the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization as well, and Iran will have to commit to working with the Maliki government to make that happen. A UN peacekeeping force, perhaps with the OIC (where Malaysia recently proffered troops), would be part of the solution.

On the basis of a settlement at Taif II, the US military should then negotiate with provincial authorities a phased withdrawal from the Sunni Arab provinces. The Sunnis will have to understand that this departure is a double-edged sword, since if they continued their guerrilla war, the United States could not protect them from Kurdish or Shiite reprisals. Any UN or OIC presence would be for peacekeeping and could not be depended on for active peace-enforcing. The rewards from neighbors promised at Taif II should be granted in a phased fashion and made dependent on good-faith follow-through by Iraqi leaders.

From all this the Sunni Arabs would get an end to the US occupation--among their main demands--as well as an end to de-Baathification and political marginalization. They would have an important place in the new order and be guaranteed their fair share of the national wealth. Shiites and Kurds would get an end to a debilitating civil war, even if they have to give up some of their maximal demands. The neighbors would avoid a reprise of the destructive Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which killed perhaps a million people and deeply damaged regional economies. And by ending its occupation, the United States would go a long way toward repairing its relations with the Arab and Muslim world and thus eliminate one of Al Qaeda's chief recruiting tools. A withdrawal is risky, but on the evidence so far, for the US military to remain in Iraq is a sure recipe for disaster.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Cole's article addresses the question of "How to get(the USA) out of Iraq" and NOT " How to Get Iraq Out" of its predicament which should be the main question.

His analysis and proposed way out, for either the USA or Iraq, from the made in USA hell that Iraq is now fails to tackle the most important point re any prospective agreed settlement , be it a la Lebanon or a la Ireland:
*how that settlement will be executed?
*Who will enforce its application?

For neither the present Iraqi Army and security organizations nor the whole machinery of the Iraq state are the neutral unaffiliated bodies to be entrusted with such a mission. All being , on top of their made and approved by the USA, partisans and/or at the command of one or other of the factions that have consciously brought Iraq to its present state.

For neither the USA ,nor its Iraqi present and erstwhile allies that are the Iraqi state now, want a reunited and restabilized Iraq that frustrates their ultimate plans for it.

Four years of American occupation of Iraq were single mindedly devoted to produce the present actual state of deep polarization and inter communal conflicts starting with the empowering of one single faction and culminating in the disbandment of the Iraqi Army, all security organizations and the deBaathification of the civil service that led to present state.

The initiators and output from these four years of dedicated work can not be expected to actively participate in undoing their own handiwork!

With the continued presence of the USA in Iraq , even in the envisioned limited and isolated "mega bases", a long term resolution of the conflicts initiated and unleashed by its encouragement and active actions,is NOT a practical option.


The full replacement,asap, of all USA forces by panArab-panIslamic forces, under a single command, to undertake and supervise :
a -a return to the rule of law
b-the rebuilding of a non partisan Iraqi army and security organization, civil service and , in general, a non prtisan state machinary that will implement any agreement.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This proposal for "negotiated settlement" is worth considering, and probably better than "staying the course" of Bush's everlasting ineptitude.

But there are some big problems with the approach outlined here.

1. It is not all clear why "foreign jihadis in Iraq" would be "forced to return home if the Americans left." Who will "force" them?

2. I can see that a multlilateral negotiating effort might be vastly more welcome in the region than the Bushies parade of carpetbaggers, greenhorns, following its "shock and awe," but I can't see Saudi Arabia and Turkey having some magic potion to make Iraq Shias and Sunnies stop hating and killing each other.

3. This whole region is sitting on a demographic powderkeg. As unsatisfactory, from an American perspective, as the current regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are, there are certainly worse alternatives waiting in the wings, for right mix of instability and power vaccuum.

Thanks to Cheney-Bush's neo-con chickenhawk fiasco in Iraq we are now in a situation much like 2002: with a bad and failing Iraq policy, to which the most likely alternatives look even worse. But there are these two key differences: (1) In 2002, Iraqis were suffering under Saddam and blaming him for their woes. Now they blame America. (See today's headlines about the demonstrations in Baghdad). (2) In 2002, we had a strong military and solid international support for our foreign policies. No matter what we do now, our capabilities and options will be diminished for years as a result of the failed cakewalk. We are likely to cut and run from Iraq, and there is likely to be new bloodshed and new tyranny as a result for which America will be blamed.

We could, however, at least stop denying the extent of our self-inflicted disaster in Iraq, and stop failing to bring those responsible for it to account.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

In the post above,

Change of Heart and flawed thinking (#108463) by N. Friedman on April 9, 2007 at 3:34 PM

a selective and rather misleading set of quotes from Juan Cole is presented.

Here below are a few others -from his voluminous blog- which alter that picture. Cole certainly has some serious explaining to do about the major inconsistency of (a) criticizing the Bush administration's plans and actions on Iraq heavily going into and after the 2003 invasion, while (b) effectively sanctioning giving that Administration a blank check to put its butterfingers all over Iraq.

Cole's blog is an example quantity triumphing over long-run quality. But, a lot of other people made a similar if not identical mistake on Iraq. It doesn't mean that Cole does not understand what is going on in the Kurdish regions. Nor that his proposal here, as questionable as it certainly appears, would not likely be at least a slight improvement over the current planless and ineptitude-laced disaster.

From http://juancole.com/ (his blog which Friedman also quoted from):

posted by Juan @ 10/28/2002 09:00:00 AM

Sunday, October 27, 2002

President Bush said in Mexico City that he is willing to go to war with Iraq without a mandate from the UN Security Council.

Earth to George: This would be a Very Bad Idea.

posted by Juan @ 4/08/2003 08:59:00 AM

Monday, April 07, 2003

if 18 months from now the poor Shiites in al-Thawrah township are really infuriated about US govt policies in Iraq...I don't actually think it will be easy for the Pentagon to deal with the sort of resulting urban guerrilla threats that could emerge. If the Bush administration has any sense, it will get out of direct administration of Iraq before such a scenario could unfold.

posted by Juan @ 4/09/2003 08:17:00 AM 0 comments
Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The Bush administration just never "got it" about the UN. It was worth waiting a little bit to get that Security Council majority. The US has lost major good will and legitimacy by proceeding in the teeth of world opinion. It did not have to be this way. And, note that the US is having to loudly tell India, "Do as I say and not as I do." The Indians say that they could use the same arguments Bush put forward about Iraq to justify a preemptive strike on Pakistan, which they regard as a sponsor of terrorism in Kashmir and as a military regime addicted to weapons of mass destruction. The US does not have any moral authority left in lecturing the Indians on restraint.

posted by Juan @ 4/12/2003 06:36:00 AM 0 comments
Thursday, April 10, 2003

The situation is still rather dire in Basra...looting is now the city's major industry. And now the Red Cross has pulled out of Baghdad because of disorder there. The coalition needs to restore order to these cities if it is to have any political credibility.

The difficulty comes about because the US and the UK do not have mobile gendarmeries that can step in to handle such situations. Some European countries do, but they were not on board with this invasion. It is another reason for which getting a UN umbrella would have been better.

posted by Juan @ 4/14/2003 06:19:00 AM 0 comments
Sunday, April 13, 2003

The breakdown of order and widespread looting in Iraqi cities continues. The US government knew there would be this problem, and just did not prepare for it sufficiently. If they had been more patient and gotten the Europeans on their side, some of them have mobile gendarmeries that could have been inserted to keep order. The US military lacks such a capacity. Would it really have mattered if the war had started in September? Rumsfeld's umbrage at criticism on this issue is misplaced. Under the 4th Geneva Convention, the US as occupying power is responsible for ensuring order and the security of life and property. It is failing in that responsibility so far.

posted by Juan @ 4/23/2003 08:47:00 AM
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

...it is a crying shame that Rumsfeld had no real plan for Iraq after Saddam...

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Only showing how selective your quoting of him was, by providing additional quotes revealing a much more complex picture.

I don't disagree with your remark that

"Our presence in Iraq - which, for other reasons, probably ought to end now - will not help quell violence."

I don't see where Cole disagrees either.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Your quotes were not selective?
What a hoot!

WHERE did you get them?

Certainly not by examining his blog fairly and comprehensively.

You can misattribute all you want about my "defending" Cole and "liking" him. My statement above shows the truth.

Cole's views are less absurd and less unworkable than those of the neo-con chickenhawks who got us into Iraq, in the first place, WITH the acquiesence of narrow-blindered "critics" such as Cole. Calling something "less absurd" does not mean I endorse it fully or "like" it.

N. Friedman - 4/12/2007


I was not being selective. I was quoting him so that it was clear he was for the war, thinking it a noble enterprise, at least for other people's children. That is a fact. That was his view. It is important to know. It is not something to ignore. It is not countered by knowing other facts.

That was my interest in quoting him. That and only that.

N. Friedman - 4/11/2007


I do not see how my quotes were "selective." I was not trying to paint a picture of the man. I was noting that he thought the Iraq war a noble venture, at least for other people's children. That, as I noted, is important to understanding his current views. I stand by that as I think it is an important point to consider.

By contrast, I do think that your quotes are selective. You are trying to rescue a scholar you like from your incorrect perception that I was attacking him. So, you have found quotes you believe rescues his reputation from my mere quoting his actual views regarding overthrowing Saddam.

So, I do not see your point at all. I think you are way off base.

N. Friedman - 4/10/2007


I merely quoted Cole so that people would get a picture about his view on Iraq. He has a lot of company among people who, at one point, supported the war but later changed their minds.

My point was to understand that his perspective may be colored by his initial judgment in favor of the war - or, at least for people he does not know going and fighting the war.

None of the material you quote is remotely on a par with his claiming the Iraq war to be a noble venture. That is a gem of a comment, showing his true view on the matter and where he stands. So, mine is a not an unfair point. It is directly on the point of understanding the bias in his new position.

As for his suggestion, I stand by my view that it is entirely wrongheaded. Our presence in Iraq - which, for other reasons, probably ought to end now - will not help quell violence. It will almost certainly spur it on. That is the case anywhere and everywhere in the Muslim regions where more than one group has a really viable chance to assert itself. Think Lebanon. Think, the PA territories. That is the way of things in that region. It is the very thing not well understood about that region, evidently not by Cole and not by you.

And the why? Because the issue of who rules is a religious issue par excellance in that part of the world. Hence, people are not often ready to compromise - unless a gun is put to their heads - on such issues. That is the unfortunate truth of the matter.

Tom Willis - 4/10/2007

There's trying to look to the sunny side of things. Then there's looking too long into the sun itself. The latter being the only possible explanation for Cole's blind faith that all would be hunky dory if only the U.S. would just pick up and leave Iraq.

Dana Smith - 4/10/2007

I think it has become clear to most that there is no military solution to what is happening in Iraq. A political solution must be persued.

Bush has made it clear he will veto any democratic sponsered bill that includes benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet, and/or timelines.

The Iraqi government has made unkept promises that include:

A program of national reconciliation

Setting up a committee to amend the constitution to incorporate Sunni concerns

New election laws

Scheduling of provincial elections

...to name a few, none of these promises have been fulfilled.

Obviously allowing the Iraqi government to go at their own pace is accomplishing nothing. Why shouldn't they be held accountable and responsible for some forward progress.

If the Iraqi government, and it's people, won't move forward, then we should move out!

N. Friedman - 4/9/2007

According to Professor Cole on February 5, 2003

There is no doubt that Saddam launched this chemical weapons campaign (which was also waged on the battlefield against Iranian troops, with devastating results). Persons may argue in good faith about whether his resort to weapons of mass destruction in 1988 justifies forcible regime change now. My own knowledge of the horrors Saddam has perpetrated makes it impossible for me to stand against the coming war, however worried I am about its aftermath. World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power.

Moreover, Professor Cole wrote on April 1, 2003:

As someone who was myself alarmed last fall by reports of Saddam getting nukes, I have to say that I increasingly feel I have been duped. But I hold on to the belief that the Baath regime in Iraq has been virtually genocidal (no one talks about the fate of the Marsh Arabs) and that having it removed cannot in the end be a bad thing. That's what I tell anxious parents of our troops over there; it is a noble enterprise to remove the Baath, even if so many other justifications for the war are crumbling. But it looks to me like an increasingly bad idea for the US (read: the Pentagon) to try to run Iraq in the aftermath. We should win, cut our losses, and turn Iraq back over to Iraqis.

Such is the professor's starting point. Later, he wrote:

With regard to Iraq, the answer to both questions in my case is "no." I would not have been willing to risk my own life to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. And, I would certainly not have been willing to see my son risk his, nor would I like to see him ever sent to Iraq as a draftee, because I believe the entire aftermath of the war has been handled with gross incompetence, and I certainly don't want my flesh and blood mauled by the machinations of Richard Perle and his buddies.

[Courtesy to Martin Kramer for noting the above Cole gems.]

Evidently, it was a noble enterprise for the children of other parents. Be that as it may, Professor Cole would have us now withdraw in a way - and, perhaps had he thought the adventure a bit less noble - i.e. less noble for other parents' kids - in the first place, he might have opposed the war in principle.

Be that as it may. It seems to me that the flaw in Cole's thinking is his failure to see the difference between what exists in Kurdish territory and what exists in the rest of Iraq.

The key issue in the Kurdish regions is that such regions have their own political life and unity. That does not exist in the Sunni regions and it is not on the way no matter what the US does.

If the US withdraws, the most likely occurrence would be the acceleration of the fighting in places like Baghdad so that Sunnis and Shi'a become entirely separated. After that and a lot of bloodshed, perhaps things will settle down. But, not before then. Whether or not that is a good thing is an open question.

The assumption of the article is that preventing regional fighting is in the interest of the West. Is that really the case? Maybe.

But it is worth noting that if the Middle East were not an oil laden place, the world would almost surely encourage the various sects to fight it out in the hope of distracting attention from us and of sapping the strength of those who would otherwise prefer to fight with us. I have no answer to this. I merely note the point that preventing a sectarian fight does not necessarily lead to good things for the West.

Stephen Kislock - 4/6/2007

When Israel, thinks it's OK!

The United States bases our security and best interest, on first what Israel demands.