Fixated on Tactics: Iraq War Supporters Lack Strategies

For the last five-plus years, America’s foreign policy and national security strategy have been subordinated to a fixation on the tactical problems in Iraq. Pressing strategic problems—the unfinished war in Afghanistan, North Korea’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other issues—have received inadequate resources, inadequate attention, or both. At the same time, the U.S. military is suffering unprecedented strain on its personnel and equipment in the grinding war in Iraq.

Despite these grave and growing strategic problems, supporters of the Iraq war continue to advocate a tactical argument for an open-ended military commitment to Iraq under the misleading label of “strategic patience.” In fact, there is nothing strategically wise about maintaining an indefinite military presence in Iraq in the hopes that Iraq’s major political problems will somehow magically be solved.

As was evident recently in Basra, Iraqis remain all too willing to settle their internal political disputes through violence, not just in the southern part of the country, and not just among rival Shi’a political rivals, but across the entire Iraqi political landscape. The upshot: Maintaining “strategic patience” in Iraq will lead to a strategic blunder of great proportions. Continuing to keep 140,000 American troops in Iraq has a number of detrimental strategic effects:

  • Afghanistan continues to be under-resourced. As Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted, “having forces in Iraq don’t –at the level they are at—don’t allow us to fill the need we have in Afghanistan.”
  • Iran’s regional position continues to be enhanced. Contrary to the Bush administration’s description, Iran’s best ally in Iraq isn’t Muqtada al-Sadr’s fickle militia; it’s the U.S.-supported Iraqi government that is dominated by parties with extensive links to Tehran.
  • U.S. military readiness continues to erode. Outgoing Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it. If unaddressed, this lack of balance poses a significant risk to the all-volunteer force and degrades the Army’s ability to make a timely response to other contingencies.”
  • Al Qaeda continues to derive propaganda benefits from a continued American military presence in Iraq, while continuing to operate largely unmolested in its safe-haven on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

America needs to rectify these existing strategic problems, not exacerbate them through “strategic patience.” What the United States needs is not more of the same in Iraq, but rather a strategic reset of its policy to set its strategic priorities straight.

Peter Juul is a Consultant for the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.

For more on the Center’s policy for the war in Iraq, please see: