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Juan Cole Blog: "Myth That US Can Win"
This and Nine Other Fantasies About Iraq
12/26/2006 5:25 PM ET
Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, writes in his blog Informed Comment, about the top ten myths regarding Iraq for this year.

Below, his best for the year:

1. Myth number one is that the United States "can still win" in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what "winning" means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi "government" is barely functioning.

2. "US military sweeps of neighborhoods can drive the guerrillas out." The US put an extra 15,000 men into Baghdad this past summer, aiming to crush the guerrillas and stop the violence in the capital, and the number of attacks actually increased...The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don't want us there.

3. The United States is best off throwing all its support behind the Iraqi Shiites. This is the position adopted fairly consistently by Marc Reuel Gerecht. Gerecht is an informed and acute observer whose views I respect even when I disagree with them. But Washington policy-makers should read Daniel Goleman's work on social intelligence. Goleman points out that a good manager of a team in a corporation sets up a win/win framework for every member of the team...Gerecht, it seems to me, sets up a win/lose model in Iraq.

4. "Iraq is not in a civil war," as Jurassic conservative Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly insists. There is a well-established social science definition of civil war put forward by Professor J. David Singer and his colleagues: "Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain." (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)"

5. "The second Lancet study showing 600,000 excess deaths from political and criminal violence since the US invasion is somehow flawed." Les Roberts replies here to many of the objections that were raised. See also the transcript of the Kucinich-Paul Congressional hearings on the subject. Many critics refer to the numbers of dead reported in the press as counter-arguments to Roberts et al. But "passive reporting" such as news articles never captures more than a fraction of the casualties in any war. I see deaths reported in the Arabic press all the time that never show up in the English language wire services. And, a lot of towns in Iraq don't have local newspapers and many local deaths are not reported in the national newspapers.

6. "Most deaths in Iraq are from bombings." The Lancet study found that the majority of violent deaths are from being shot.

7. "Baghdad and environs are especially violent but the death rate is lower in the rest of the country." The Lancet survey found that levels of violence in the rest of the country are similar to that in Baghdad (remember that the authors included criminal activities such as gang and smuggler turf wars in their statistics).

8. "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." From the beginning of history until 2003 there had never been a suicide bombing in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Baath-ruled Iraq. When Baath intelligence heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might have entered Iraq, they grew alarmed at such an "al-Qaeda" presence and put out an APB on him! Zarqawi's so-called "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" was never "central" in Iraq and was never responsible for more than a fraction of the violent attacks.

9. "The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq." This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them).

10. "Setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is a bad idea." Bush and others in his administration have argued that setting such a timetable would give a significant military advantage to the guerrillas fighting US forces and opposed to the new government. That assertion makes sense only if there were a prospect that the US could militarily crush the Sunni Arabs. There is no such prospect. The guerrilla war is hotter now than at any time since the US invasion. It is more widely supported by more Sunni Arabs than ever before. It is producing more violent attacks than ever before. Since we cannot defeat them short of genocide, we have to negotiate with them. And their first and most urgent demand is that the US set a timetable for withdrawal before they will consider coming into the new political system."


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