The Three Nos From CNAS: Sloganeering Is No Substitute For Actual Policy

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

iraq-occupation.jpgIn a recent post, our good friend Ilan Goldenberg over at the National Security Network recommended the “three nos” on Iraq advanced by the Center for a New American Security as a guide to U.S. policy: no regional war, no al Qaeda safe havens, and no genocide. This of course has a lot of rhetorical appeal – who can be in favor of those three things? The problem is that the three no’s really aren’t very helpful when it comes to addressing the challenges posed by Iraq and examining ways to advance U.S. national security interests globally.

The overall problem is that the three nos framework constitutes mostly a wish list not unlike the Bush administration’s early fantasies of a secular, pro-Israel democracy on the Tigris. As the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Beyond this basic conceptual problem, there are three main problems with the three nos.

First, it ignores the fact that large scale sectarian cleansing, if not outright genocide, has already occurred in Iraq and is even occurring TODAY, with the U.S. troop presence at its likely maximum. Most people are aware of the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian cleansing that happened at the height Iraq’s civil war in 2006-2007, which led to the murders of tens of thousand and displacement of millions — even while the surge was being implemented. But less visible is the plight of Iraqi minority groups, particularly Christians. Just last month sectarian violence forced large numbers of Iraqi Christians from Mosul, their last major safe haven. Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George’s church in Baghdad, estimates only 200,000 Iraqi Christians of a population of 800,000 remain in the country. All of this has occurred despite the presence of 140,000-plus U.S. troops in Iraq; the three nos ignore the fact that massive sectarian cleansing has already occurred despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of American troops in Iraq –- and this of course raises the question of how useful the three no’s framework is beyond a rhetorical device and mantra Americans can repeat to make themselves feel better. The tough work is actually in crafting a policy that simultaneously advances U.S. interests and actually improves the situation for Iraqis.

This obliviousness to past and ongoing events brings us to the second major problem with the three nos: they overstate the ability of the United States to control events on the ground in Iraq. By making the focus so much on what the United States does or does not do in Iraq, the three no’s ignore the reality that it is Iraqis who have shaped the recent course of the war in Iraq. Much of the success in reducing violence over the past two years came about because Sunni Arabs -– many of them insurgents — made a political decision to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. As we have seen, the United States proved unable to halt sectarian cleansing despite the presence of over 100,000 troops. Nor have U.S. troops been the key to averting regional conflict: Turkey has launched repeated air and ground strikes against northern Iraq, while Iran has shelled Kurdish separatists in the same region.

Finally, the three no’s do not offer any clear answers on setting U.S. policy in Iraq policy. It is a defensive approach –- framed as guarding against things that are actually occurring now — that does not articulate what the United States should achieve in Iraq. Nor does it address the fact that an almost inevitable transition is occurring in Iraq –- the U.S. troop presence will decline even more. It implies that the United States, without putting sufficient burden on other actors, should adopt an open-ended approach that does not give a reasonable idea as to what the United States can do to meet its negative goals. There is a disconnect between the ends proposed by the three no’s and the means available to get there. The United States needs to take practical steps toward realistic goals, and the three no’s provide only a list of wishes to hope for.

Ultimately, the three nos are grounded not in reality, but in an overestimation of the United States’ ability to shape events in Iraq. Like conservatives who insist that we can simply “choose victory,” the three no’s are built upon the assumption that the United States has the capacity to control what happens in Iraq. In the world of the three no’s, the United States, not Iraqis or neighboring countries, decides whether or not there is genocide, terrorist safe havens, or regional war. If only the United States adopts the right mix of responsible policies, the three no’s imply, we can prevent these terrible things from happening. In reality, the only thing the three no’s prevents is breaking free from the conceptual delusions that have led us to where we are today.