By Vic Rosenthal
First of all, forget whether the Bush administration was dishonest about its reasons for invading Iraq. Forget about disbanding the Iraqi army, failing to stop looting, sending inexperienced personnel to the Coalition Provisional Authority, backing off from Falujah, allowing contractors to rip us off. Forget if you admire George W. Bush or hate his guts.
Forget “shoulda, coulda, woulda”.
What do we do now, today?
For an answer we need to back up a few steps. We need to understand where the United States fits in with what’s happening in the Middle East, what are the threats and what is our national interest. Next we need to examine alternative policies and try to predict their outcomes. There is not going to be a perfect solution. There may not even be a good solution, but there are certainly bad and less bad choices. We need to play the game right, starting now. We can’t bring back our 3000 dead and God knows how many Iraqis, but what we do now could doom or save many times that number.
Start with the relationship of the Middle East to the US. The region has begun to have enormous influence on world politics for several reasons: the influence on the world economy of the price of oil, which is determined to a great extent by the Gulf states; the emergence of terrorism as a high-leverage destabilizing force on our technological infrastructure; and the development of radical Islamism into the normative form of Islam.
The threat that we face is that radical Islamism – which is entirely opposed to the ideals of liberal democracy that our nation, and indeed, the West, aspire to, and is aggressive and expansionist – will get control of nations that can present real military and economic dangers to us.
Some argue that radical Islamism represents only a small minority of Muslims and therefore is not an existential threat to the West. But thanks to the support of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunni and Shia versions are flourishing and by their activism have become the leading edge of Islam in many places. And because of the devotion of radical Islamists to their belief and their willingness to employ terrorism, even suicide terrorism, they are powerful far beyond their numbers. There is no question in my mind that radical Islamism must be taken seriously and that our main policy goal in the Middle East should be to reduce the influence of radical Islam, and strengthen forces opposed to it.
In particular, Iran – which according to the statements of Ahmadinijad and the ayatollahs, views the United States as the ‘Great Satan’ which must be defeated – is a threat. The combination of a nation with significant oil reserves, a government dominated by radical Islamists, a propensity to use terrorist proxies to advance policy, and an advanced nuclear program presents a very serious, even existential, danger to our country.
Now this already indicates that some approaches to the Iraq situation, such as that proposed by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), are incorrect. The ISG suggests that the United States should ‘engage’ Syria and Iran; Syria in an attempt to buy her help in closing the Syria-Iraq border (through which Sunni insurgents are being supplied), and Iran to defuse Shiite militias in the south.
But Syria is closely allied with the radical Hezbollah organization (as is Iran), and the price she would demand would include freedom from US interference with a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, and the return of the Golan heights from Israel. The latter would remove the deterrent ability of Israel against Syria and Hezbollah, bringing about the end of Lebanon as a moderate, multi-ethnic state.
Iran, of course, is the epicenter of Shiite radical Islamism. And her price will be non-interference by the US or Israel with her nuclear program. From the standpoint of fighting radical Islamism, I can’t think of a worse policy than that suggested by the ISG. And since we have no leverage against Iran and Syria after we’ve met their demands, what will keep Iraq from falling under their control at that point?
The Left and much of the center are calling for either immediate full withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, or some kind of ‘phased’ withdrawal (i.e., setting a definite timetable to get out). Much of this is couched in language like “we should never have gone in there in the first place, let’s fix the mistake before more of our troops are killed”. It’s easy to understand this point of view, which is usually associated with arguments that our government is dishonest and corrupt, certain corporations are benefiting from the war, etc. But these statements, true or not, are irrelevant to our decision about what policy is in our best interest today.
Immediate or phased withdrawal would have several effects that are highly inimical to our interests. The Iraqi election, as David Lublin said, amounted to an ethnic census rather than a democratic election, so the Shiite-dominated government is likely to promote, rather than contain, ethnic strife. The minority Sunni enclave would either achieve a certain amount of autonomy, in which case there is a threat that it could be dominated by Islamic extremists such as Al-Qaeda, or it might engage in violent civil war with the Iran-backed Shiites. The greatest danger is that the Iraqi government will become an Iranian client. An Iranian-dominated Iraq would enable Iranian control over a ‘Shiite crescent’ in the heart of the region including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (through her Hezbollah proxy).
President Bush’s ‘surge’ plan also does not entirely make sense. 20,000 additional troops may be able to secure Baghdad. But the ‘surge’ can not be a short-term action, as the word suggests, unless major changes are made to the government lest it fall under Iranian control as soon as we leave. It’s not clear how to force this government to become ‘Iraqi’ rather then ethnic. To complicate matters, Bush has also sent Condoleeza Rice to the region, apparently to implement the bad ideas of the ISG with regard to Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians. This will only be perceived as a form of surrender.
So what do we do?
One option would be to empower the one group in Iraq that is a) able to impose order on the chaos (forget about imposing democracy, maybe that can happen in another hundred years), and b) independent of Iran: the secular Sunnis, ex-Baathists, former members of the Iraqi army and security forces under Saddam.
This would be a tall order. It would likely be necessary to suspend the constitution, create a new government and force the higher echelons of the army and police force to add enough Sunnis to change the balance of power. Since much of the police force consists of members of Shiite militias, there would have to be significant changes in the ranks as well. Of course this means that instead of fighting the Sunni insurgency, for a time we’d be fighting a Shia one. But we would have at least tacit support in this from Sunni Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, that have been nervous about the possibility of Iran establishing a ‘Shiite Crescent’, and it might become possible to drive a wedge between Sunni Iraqis and foreign Islamists such as Al-Qaeda. Finally, Iran would no longer be able to play both sides against the middle by supplying both the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias as they do today.
Is this even possible at this point? And what commitment of forces would we have to make in order to do it?
I don’t know the answer to the first question, nor am I qualified to try to answer the second one. I think that at last the Bush administration is starting to understand how deep a hole they have gotten us into. I hope they are capable of planning and executing a strategy something like the one that I’ve suggested, and that their earlier errors have not rendered them impotent in the face of an angry Congress and public.
What I do know is that a policy that places Iraq under Iranian control constitutes a strategic defeat for the United States.