Sept. 26, 2007

SMU Political Forum: A Way Forward in Iraq

Jon B. Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Jon Alterman

America has stopped talking about victory in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean defeat is inevitable, according to Jon Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program.

It does mean that Americans must start asking tough questions, such as “Can we prevent genocide in Iraq?” and “What does defeat look like?” he said Monday, Sept. 24, at the Park City Club during the SMU Political Forum sponsored by SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies and the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Fort Worth.

“We’re on the hook for Iraq, and we have to go beyond the politics of blame and look forward to the fact that we have a responsibility and some capacity to change,” said Alterman, who previously served as part of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department and also was an expert adviser to the Iraq Study Group.

Here are more highlights of his talk, “Thinking Small: The Way Forward in Iraq”: Listen to the full presentation .

Where are we now in Iraq?

The sectarian death rate is high, but it’s gone down because people have moved out of their neighborhoods. If you think about breaking Iraq apart, it doesn’t break on easy seams – there are still mixed communities trapped on the wrong side, and more than 2 million Iraqis have moved.

We don’t know how many Iraqis have been killed, and it’s too dangerous to go out and poll, so we’re dealing with uncertainty.

Governance is a persistent problem. The central government is increasingly marginal in Baghdad, and much more so out of Baghdad.

The economy is limping, with unemployment between 35 and 50 percent. Oil production is below prewar levels, and the money isn’t equally distributed. They’re producing only 14.5 hours a day of electricity nationwide and 8 hours daily in Baghdad.

How do we go forward?

One scenario is rapid withdrawal. People talk about bringing U.S. troops home in 9 to 12 months, which is about what it would take. The reality is that massive and sudden U.S. withdrawal could unleash massive and sudden killing, on a scale of Rwanda or more.

Another thing that would happen is that the U.S. would lose control of the outcomes in Iraq, and it would give a victory to U.S. enemies – not so much that they defeated us, but in their propaganda universe they’d say the Islamic resistance started in Afghanistan and defeated the Soviet Union, and then defeated Israel in Lebanon, and then defeated the U.S. in Iraq.

An alternative to rapid withdrawal is “durable presence.” We’re going to continue to back the still-weak Iraqi government, and it ends up being an open-ended commitment.

I don’t like that idea, either.

What is “thinking small”?

I’ve come to the idea that we have to take this third approach, and that’s “thinking small.” The deep, dark secret is this now represents the U.S. government strategy.

The first part of “thinking small” is to de-emphasize the central government. If you can’t make the central government work, then you stop trying to make it work.

You also have a reduction in goals. You’ll start to hear: “Promote accommodation, not reconciliation” – or manage problems, but not necessarily solve them. We’re done hearing “victory in Iraq.”

Going forward, we have to help people move. We have to give regional neighbors limited roles to get buy-in about where this is going.

And here’s something really frightening. This makes me uncomfortable to say, but as we think about this new strategy, the models are Afghanistan and Lebanon. These are the models! Afghanistan and Lebanon have required huge amounts of U.S. intervention for the last half-century. There aren’t good options, but these are the least-bad options.

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