Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What should have happened in Iraq?

In the comments, my opposition to the war in Iraq raised the question of what we should have done differently. It was even suggested that I was indifferent to the death and suffering in Afghanistan or the suffering and death caused by the sanctions and the No-Fly Zone bombings.

Thomas wrote:

I know your plan. Keep the low-grade war going, as it had been going for more than a decade, at tremendous human cost. Dead Iraqis. Dead from our fighters and from our embargo. But those lives don't count in your calculus, do they? The oppression and violence in Iraq under Saddam? Something to be ignored, not to be discussed. Is it racism? Hatred of your domestic political enemies? What is it that hardens you to some deaths, but not to the deaths that you'd cause, that you'd have us own?
It turns out, of course, that Thomas didn't know my plan and didn't bother asking.

The No-Fly Zones were working, especially in the north. American planes kept Iraqi armor from advancing into Kurdish regions, and the peshmerga were doing very nicely at holding their territory and the Kurdish leaders had created a stable regional government.

The same thing had not fully taken effect in the south, though it's clear that the two regions under the no-fly are the ones with coherent leaders and a collective identity which is allowing them to push the Sunni center around like a puppet.

If there were concerns about ongoing weapons programs, here's an easy thing we could have done instead of invading. (It's worth noting that, while I never thought the WMD programs were at any threatening stage, I think everyone was surprised that nothing at all remained.) The major problem inspection teams had was that they kept getting blocked by the Iraqi leadership.

Rather than invading and rebuilding the country, the right solution would have been to send in a strong multinational force to support the inspectors. A bunch of Marines, some Egyptians, some Jordanians, maybe some folks from Turkey or Pakistan, armor, air support, the works. Station personnel around the country at key sites. Their job would be to monitor various facilities and storage sites, and to make sure food distributed from the Oil for Food program actually makes it to the people's plates.

If the Iraqi army got in the way of those operations, BOOM. If local people rose up against the Army, the force would know who to help.

This would extend the safety bubble of the No-Fly throughout Iraq, leaving Iraq with the option of either fighting a UN force (and losing), withdrawing from vast swaths of the country (surrendering), or introducing real reforms to alleviate international concerns.

That would have had numerous merits.

First, the infrastructure, physical and political, would stay in place. Local officials who are doing good stay in power, others get cut out of power. A unified resistance would emerge. WMD programs would be destroyed completely. In time, Iraq would change for the better.

The other advantage is that it would serve as a credible deterrent to other nations. There's no doubt that a similar coalition could come together to guard Iranian or North Korean WMD sites and administer aid programs, especially in North Korea.

Instead, we tied our military down in Iraq so deeply that we can't sustain another conflict of comparable size or scale. We can't do effective peacekeeping in Haiti, let alone North Korea.

Would people die under the other plan? Maybe, but only to the extent that Iraq broke the rules. The starvation and shortage of medicine would be reduced, and far fewer Americans or Iraqis would die than have done now.

This is what I thought was the right solution before we invaded, and nothing I've seen has convinced me that wouldn't have been a better plan all along.