In the winter of 2003, the Journal of the International Institute published commentary from a panel on the pending Iraq war[1]. Two of the panelists featured in that discussion, Robert Howse (U-M Law School) and Juan Cole (U-M Department of History), here provide new reflections on the state of the war, implications for U.S. policy in the region, and consequences for stability and security in the Middle East.

    Although many actors on the current political scene in the U.S. are calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, I suspect this is more a matter of catering to popular dissatisfaction with our involvement there than a realistic and reasonable strategy. At the moment, the conflict claims a significant number of lives each day, and the resultant insecurity is an important obstacle to social and economic reconstruction. In this sense, “victory” is elusive in Iraq, if victory means a peaceful stable liberal democracy in the foreseeable future. This has nothing to do with the Middle East as such: how long has it taken for the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Cyprus to be managed without frequent recourse to violence?

    The idea that the United States and its military should only try to address problems of international peace and security where short-term “victory” is assured is simply not a tenable position for a superpower. It gives the upper hand to anyone adverse to our interests, if they are capable of a little endurance. In principle, there is nothing intolerable or unacceptable in the idea that America and its troops should be prepared to fight and to sacrifice, not just for a quick and decisive “victory,” but also to prevent an enduring conflict from becoming worse. One possible consequence of withdrawal from Iraq could be violence, even genocidal violence, at enormously higher levels. Another might be the delivery of an entire state—with oil!—to terrorist and criminal gangs. Even if American values were isolationist enough—and I doubt they are—to live today with an outcome like genocide as a human consequence of our disengagement, American security interests would be seriously threatened by the political consequence of allowing the country to become a terrorist/criminal stronghold.

    To speak of these unacceptable consequences of withdrawal is not to endorse the Bush Administration’s present strategy or to excuse the failings of its previous ones. To the contrary, demanding rapid withdrawal simply avoids the real debate, which should be about all the options or choices we have to best manage the conflict in Iraq, both for the sake of its people—to whom we owe a moral if not international legal duty, having intervened in the first place—and for the sake of our own security and that of the region.

    Once we stop thinking in terms of victory on a timetable, we will find that there are choices that can reduce the level or intensity of the conflict while improving the long-term prospects for a peaceful, stable, and democratic Iraq. A credible strategy to restructure the energy industry while also diversifying economic activity would create the kind of real opportunities for ordinary people that the terrorists are unable to provide. Here the U.S. could be more proactive in engaging other states, multinational corporations, and development agencies, as well as NGOs, in Iraq’s future. Of course, as already noted, the security situation is an obstacle, but not all parts of Iraq are equally dangerous. There are opportunities as well as risks, and it is not as if other places are risk free (multinationals remain deeply involved in the oil industry in Nigeria, for instance, despite regular violence). We can also do more to support educational opportunities, especially for women, who have often, in conflict-ridden societies, proven to be an important force for peace and progress. While we cannot make Iraq secular, we can use our influence and resources to promote religious tolerance and effective access to alternative sources of ideas, culture, and education.

    We hear, again and again, the situation in Iraq described as “bleak.” In my adult lifetime I have seen so many highs and lows in world history that short-term judgments of that nature seem hard to take seriously as credible analyses or prognostications. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, the new epidemics, and so on, it is hard to believe that any impasse or quagmire is hopeless or permanently intractable, or on the other hand, that any “victory” for humanity is permanent and secure.

    Robert Howse is Alene and Allan F. Smith Professor of Law, and is an internationally recognized authority on international economic law as well as a specialist in twentieth-century European legal and political philosophy. He is a frequent consultant or adviser to government agencies and international organizations including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Howse has published widely on comparative international law, global economics, and social justice.

      1. “Iraq: The Costs of War and the Risks of Peace,” Journal of the International Institute (volume 10, no. 2, winter 2003), page 1. On the web at to text