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Middle East 2006
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An American fiasco,
an Iraqi tragedy


By Richard Falk

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 Iraq.

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.

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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 Middle East.

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 and China.

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 to Iraq.

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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