The Iraq experience has laid bare the limits of raw military power
The next US president must reject the juvenile Bush vision, reach out to Iran and seek justice for the Palestinian people
By Max Hastings
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The Iraq war has shown how high is the pain threshold of the west. Five years after the 2003 invasion, the daily roll call of Iraqi suicide bombings, murders, firefights and body-bags has become as familiar a part of our landscape as traffic jams on the M1 and Los Angeles freeway.
The media class on both sides of the Atlantic is deeply engaged, indeed impassioned. The war is much discussed in the US presidential election campaign. But most Americans and Europeans display vastly less interest in the Middle East than in troubles closer to home - the global banking crisis foremost among them.
They have grown used to Iraq in the way they do to a chronic personal ailment. It is there. It is nasty. They wish that it would go away. But it does not inflict the sort of agonising pain that causes democracies to force urgent action upon their governments.
At this week's bleak anniversary, statisticians measure the cost. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes tell us that the US faces a total bill of $3 trillion, and still counting. About 4,000 American soldiers, 171 British and anything between 200,000 and 600,000 Iraqis have died. It would be madness to describe these numbers as acceptable. But they have not proved so unacceptable that the US or British government, or even the Iraqi administration in Baghdad, has found it necessary to adopt any radical shift of policy.
The Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki still recoils from empowering Iraq's Sunnis. The Bush administration declines to make serious advances to Iran and Syria, vital players in any credible Iraqi outcome, or to qualify its unstinting support for Israel. Gordon Brown maintains a token British contingent outside Basra, which does little, but avoids an outright breach with Washington.
It seems futile, five years on, to waste words rehearsing once more the folly of the invasion, launched under false pretences, on the basis of WMD evidence that some of us, including me, were foolish enough to swallow. Likewise, the blunders of the early occupation are common ground even in sentient zones of the White House. All that matters now are the present and future.
George Bush's troop surge has been a tactical military success. Though violence in February and March has increased from the low January level, with 10 US soldiers dying last week, far fewer Iraqi lives are being lost than at this time last year. Local ceasefires have made notable progress, with militias receiving American pay to refrain from attacks on either US forces or other factions.
Al-Qaida insurgents have suffered repeated military defeats, and political eclipse. Many Sunni communities have rejected al-Qaida's murderous hegemony, together with the cost of allowing their towns and villages to become battlefields.
The great unanswered question is whether this amounts to sustainable progress, or merely to a temporary hiatus which fails to address the fundamental issues that will decide Iraq's future. Dr Stephen Biddle of the US Council on Foreign Relations has acquired an intimate knowledge of Iraq, and offered an interesting assessment to the House armed services committee in January.
While accepting that all the options remain bleak, he suggested that there is today a better chance of salvaging something than seemed possible six months ago. He argued that a long-term US peacekeeping commitment - perhaps for 20 years - remains essential.
"We are the only plausible candidate for this role for now - no one else is lining up to don a blue helmet and serve in a UN mission to Iraq," he said. "We are not widely loved by Iraqis ... Yet we are the only party to today's conflict that no other party sees as a threat of genocide ... we are tolerated across Iraq today in a way that is unique among the parties."
Biddle cherishes no delusions about the weakness, approaching paralysis, of the national government in Baghdad. The Shia prime minister, Maliki, he says, can more readily live with continuing war than address the political challenges of reconciliation and compromises with the Sunnis, which peace would render inescapable.
Instead, he suggests that "a patchwork quilt of uneasy local ceasefires" may be attainable, with adjoining areas run by local Sunni and Shia militias, and essential services provided by trusted co-religionists. All this fits with the bottom-up rather than top-down approach that has been at the heart of General David Petraeus's strategy since he assumed command in Baghdad.
Yet massive uncertainties overhang the vision propounded by Biddle and others. Will the local ceasefires and reduction of violence be maintained, as US troop numbers on the ground inevitably decline ? Can intercommunal stresses, not least with the Kurds, be contained while the key issue of dividing oil revenues remains unresolved? And whoever becomes president in January, will the American people be willing to sacrifice the blood and treasure involved in a long-term troop commitment to Iraq?
Whether McCain, Obama or Clinton reaches the White House, each will face the same dilemma: would any of the three accept responsibility for presiding over a possible bloodbath, if he or she gives an order to bring the boys home?
A familiar tension will persist, between the visible cost of staying, and the huge unknown of getting out. If violence on the ground seems containable, if the present flickering candle-flames of optimism remain unextinguished, the next president seems likely to persevere in Iraq. If, on the other hand, pain increases, bloodshed worsens, then the American people will surely force the hand of the White House, and insist upon a closure.
No American general is likely to accomplish more than Petraeus. Current US political strategy in Iraq is probably as enlightened as it is going to get. The big, empty field is that of wider American policy in the Middle East, which is critical in determining the context in which Iraq's fate will be decided. Under Bush, this has been sterile. In theory at least, a big opportunity awaits a new president - that of making a new start with Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The British historian Professor Hew Strachan, one of my heroes among academics, has for years deplored the west's failure to act abroad in accordance with a plausible framework of strategy. We will dismiss the Washington neocons' claim, underpinning the 2003 Iraq invasion, that their campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East represented just such an overarching idea. What is needed is informed particularism in place of ignorant universalism.
The challenge for the next US administration is to create a new Middle East strategy that rejects the juvenile Bush vision of Iraq as a playing field against al-Qaida; which reaches out to moderate Iranians; and which accepts that until there is justice for the Palestinians, American mood music can never play right anywhere in the Muslim world.
The Iraq experience has laid bare the limits of raw military power. It would be naive to suggest that an abrupt American departure would now promise the country a happy future. But there seems no purpose in a continued US military presence, save within the context of new regional policies vastly different from those that prevail today.