an Iraqi tragedy
December 4, 2006
A year or so ago, it was still possible to
avoid the worst in Iraq. It made sense for the United States to set a
timetable for withdrawal, and use its leverage to encourage Iraqi political
rivals to seek an accommodation as the alternative to a bloody civil war
that might have either lasted indefinitely or produced what would have
amounted to an oppressive re-Baathification of the country.
It is still likely even now that if the American
and British forces leave Iraq over a period of some months one of these
two alternatives will shape the future of the country.
But with each passing month and regional
conflagration the more positive outcome of accommodation becomes less
likely, civil war has already become a fact of life in Iraq, and a wider
regional conflagration can happen at any time. If this is so, Iraq probably
faces a long violent political stalemate involving a tangle of ethnic,
sectarian, geographic, and interventionary fault lines. If the Kurds are
lucky and smart they will be able to remain mostly on the sidelines, doing
their best to consolidate their position in the North without agitating
their Turkish neighbor, and await the political outcome in the rest of
Unfortunately, the more positive set of Iraqi
futures depends on a willingness of the United States to commit itself
at the earliest possible moment unconditionally to phased withdrawal over
a period of a year or less. American willingness to withdraw is not likely,
despite the repudiation of the policies in Iraq being pursued by the Bush/Cheney
presidency in the American elections that surprisingly handed over control
of Congress to the Democratic Party.
But George W. Bush remains president and
commander-in-chief, and the Democrats are split on every aspect of Iraq
policy except to assert that a change is needed. Bush has so often insisted
that withdrawal is not an option that it is difficult to envision a political
scenario in which the White House does an about face, adopting withdrawal
as its policy.
Many observers place their hopes on the Baker/Hamilton
‘Iraq Study Group’ that is expected to propose a number of
pragmatic adjustments, including an effort to enlist regional actors,
including Iran and Syria, and hopefully, Turkey, in a major diplomatic
conference. Such a step would be welcome, but it is unlikely to make much
of a difference unless it is linked to American withdrawal. The depth
and intensity of the civil war now ravaging Iraq cannot be settled by
outsiders ever, and it is highly unlikely to be resolved by insiders so
long as the country is occupied, a consensus of the population supports
a war of resistance, and the most respected religious leaders appear to
prefer resistance to occupation.
Besides, it is far from clear that President
Bush will go along even with the Baker/Hamilton recommendations, which
are likely to be modest, far short of what is needed to have some realistic
hope of restoring normalcy to Iraq in the near future. The White House
has also encouraged independent studies to be produced by the Pentagon
and the intelligence community. It is likely that it will pick and choose
in such a way as to blunt the recommendations calling for a reversal of
policy, while essentially persisting with its increasingly pathetic efforts
to nurture Iraqi ‘democracy’ amid the bombings and fires.
Vietnam was "the exact opposite"
There are many comparisons with Vietnam being
drawn these days, including even by President Bush after his recent visit
there. If the situation in Iraq was not an unfolding tragedy, we could
smile knowingly in response to Bush’s comic misreading of history,
claiming that the American experience in Vietnam lent support to his claim
that ‘staying the course’ eventually produces positive results.
Of course what took place in Vietnam was the exact opposite, the American
refusal to change course by acknowledging defeat, producing years of heavy
casualties after the realities of failure were obvious.
Finally, the United States abandoned South
Vietnam in a humiliating fashion, with a defining image of Vietnamese
collaborators hanging onto to the rails of a helicopter taking flight
from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Those in Vietnam that Washington had backed were utterly defeated, North
Vietnam prevailed, and the war was decisively lost. If the United States
had announced its withdrawal a few years earlier tens of thousands of
lives would have been saved, and the outcome would have been seen as an
example of brave and prudent diplomacy because the leaders at the time
would have admitted the failure of the policy, and taken responsibility
for an abrupt change of course.
But there is one sense in which the Vietnam
story might be helpful. Despite the outcome of the war, and the extraordinary
death and devastation over a period of more than a decade (not counting
the earlier anti-colonial war against the French), Vietnam has recovered,
and is now flourishing.
This was the irony underneath Bush’s
false analogy drawn between Iraq and Vietnam. But what should be also
encouraging is that the United States is today Vietnam’s leading
trading partner, that relations between the two countries are friendly
and positive, and that the political difference between winning and losing
in Vietnam is happily blurred in the mists of historical memory.
Against this background, what is
the best way forward?
As argued, the way forward seems rather decisively
blocked by the American refusal to withdraw combined with a double political
move: encouraging internal compromise within Iraq and convening an ambitious
gathering of regional actors that will connect Iraq with the precarious
situation in Lebanon, the ordeal of the Palestinian people, the risks
of confrontation with Iran, a regional nuclear arms race, and the distinct
possibility that sectarian violence in Iraq will spill over the borders,
igniting an ugly struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ia throughout the
This is a formidable agenda, but acknowledging
these policy challenges is the first step toward alleviating the severe
risks that are present and growing. Such a regional initiative would have
to include all the players in the region, including Israel, Turkey, and
Palestinian representation, and the major external actors with regional
interests, including the United States, Europe, Russia, and possibly India
It would be foolish to expect solutions to
flow immediately from such a regional conference, but if the convening
parties could be seen as seriously committed to addressing the legitimate
grievances that beset the region, especially finding a way to bring stability
to Iraq and produce viable statehood for Palestine, the whole atmosphere
in the Middle East might change for the better, and the various escalating
pressures might begin to diminish giving rise to hope for the future.
Of course, this kind of regional conference
contains many risks if it ever did get off the ground, which is unlikely,
but it also offers the only possibility of the comprehensive approach
to the inter-connected problems region that alone offers hope of a better
future. It is should be clear that such a regional approach goes far beyond
the Baker-Hamilton proposal to enlist regional actors to bring stability
Calling for such a regional conclave seems
like a pipedream at present. Yet the region is at a tipping-point, and
requires urgent and drastic diplomatic initiatives to avert catastrophe.
Alternative: the Middle East as a
gigantic war zone
The Middle East is at risk of becoming a
gigantic war zone. The Lebanon War of last summer suggests one dimension
of the worsening security environment. The inflamed relations between
Iran, Israel, and the United States may be the greatest menace of all.
As the civil tensions in Iraq intensify, with mass religious massacres
occurring with alarming frequency, the prospect of repercussions beyond
Iraq are daily growing.
At such a tipping-point the choices are stark:
either allow the lethal drift continue or acknowledge urgency by undertaking
a drastic change of course.
It may not be wise in such circumstance to
wait until Washington is ready, or put differently, waiting for Washington
appears to be waiting for Godot!
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