Torn over Iraq
Emad Fawzi Shueibi*
examines the repositioning of America's right wing as US fortunes in Iraq go from bad to worse
The question in the US is no longer whether US forces will exit Iraq, but when. Will troop withdrawals begin in March 2008, as was suggested to me by a US congressman during his visit to Damascus several months ago, or before then, if only in the form of token shipments of the boys back home around Christmas?
After nearly a year of digging in his heels, George Bush has finally come around to the recommendations of the Baker- Hamilton report, which he has begun to put into effect, slowly and with great reluctance. While sustaining a strident propaganda assault against Syria and Iran, his administration is now variously engaged in low-level direct talks with these governments, or in indirect talks via members of Congress, the media establishment, or strategic study centres, or through even more roundabout European channels -- whatever it takes to maintain the veneer of superpower prestige in the face of defeat. But as understandable as this circumlocution may be, one cannot help but detect, on closer inspection of the twists and turns of how the performance is staged, considerable obstinacy behind the diplomatic charade. How else can one explain the pronouncements against Syria and Lebanese officials and, subsequently, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as though Washington is determined to remind all concerned that "We're still here," when in fact it desperately needs Damascus and Tehran in order to find an honourable way to be elsewhere?
If the Bush version of the Baker-Hamilton report is meant to tell the world that Washington is not desperate to get its hands on Iraqi oil and that it has no intention of setting up permanent military bases against the wishes of the Iraqi people, it has another message to proclaim. Since all manifold crises in the Middle East are interconnected, the only way Washington will find an honourable exit strategy from the Iraqi quagmire is to deal with them simultaneously. This, of course, entails a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, with regard to which the Bush script calls for an international peace conference that is not quite a conference, that does not have a clear frame of reference and that, as things stand now, will not only not be "international" but will exclude one of the major parties concerned, Syria. But the situation is much more fluid than it appears on the surface, and in anticipation of the forthcoming report from the top US general in the field, Damascus is waiting for the ball to return to its court, as it has often done in the past, and is already laying down conditions.
American political and strategic research centres have produced a compilation of studies that collectively indicate that the need to disengage from Iraq today has acquired greater urgency than the withdrawal from Vietnam had in the past. Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that a political solution in Iraq must take priority over security there. In her testimony to the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, she opined that the premise of Bush's policy, which is that insecurity blocks reconciliation and that if violence can be reduced significantly reconciliation will follow, is simply false. She also harshly criticised experts who held that reconciliation would be possible within a year. "To reconcile means to restore friendship and harmony," she said. "That's not what's involved here. What's happening on the ground is the natural second stage of a government overthrow (through revolution or, in this case, externally-imposed regime change), namely a domestic struggle for power, within sectarian groups as well as between them... A political solution -- a power sharing agreement -- will eventually emerge, but only after the various parties have tested each others' strength and will, when their desire to fight has burned itself out, and when the key parties decide that they can do at least as well at the negotiating table as they can in the streets. This will not happen by September, or by next spring. Based on recent history, it is unlikely to emerge even in five years. Since 1945, civil wars have lasted 10 years on average, with half running for more than seven years."
In order to believe that the Bush strategy will succeed, she continues, one has to embrace three myths: that we (the US and Iraqi security forces) have a large enough force to contain over the long term guerrilla violence that springs from many sources; that a combination of political and military assistance and coercion can impose an artificial peace that could leap over the usual phase of the internal struggle for power; and that we can maintain that artificial peace for long enough that people will put aside their fears and hopes and believe that the present distribution of power represents a stable and inevitable future. "If we were willing to stay for a decade or more this might be true. But no one believes we will stay that long."
Many administration officials and some experts have tried to persuade Congress that the violence in Iraq would spill over into neighbouring countries and perhaps spread through the entire region if American forces leave. Mathews put paid to this claim as well. Why should it, she asks? "Iraqis are fighting among themselves over power. There is no reason why they would travel abroad to do so. Moreover, there is a history that argues strongly in the opposite direction -- that civil wars in this region suck others in rather than spread across borders. Algeria, Afghanistan and even Lebanon, which sucked in direct deployments by Syria and Israel, are among the civil wars that did not spread. The case for a spreading war has not been made."
Mathews' arguments rest primarily on the perception that what is happening in Iraq is a power struggle. She speaks little on the higher dimension of the foreign occupation which fuels the resistance and anti-American sentiment in general and upon which thrive mercenary groups on both sides.
William Lind, director of the Centre for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation, offers another point of view. In "How to win in Iraq," which appeared in the 30 July 2007 edition of The American Conservative, he writes that it is impossible to realise the maximalist objectives that the Bush administration, in its folly, still insists on pursuing, these being to transform Iraq into an American satellite, friendly to Israel, happy to provide the US with a limitless supply of cheap oil and vast military bases from which American forces can dominate the region. He therefore espouses a multi-pronged alternative strategy, based on a new definition of what is meant by "winning".
The first component of this strategy is for Washington to resolve its problem with Iran in a manner similar to American rapprochement with China in the 1970s. In other words, the US must come to accept the reality of Iranian influence and deal with Tehran in the interests of reducing the intensity and frequency of Iranian-supported conflict against the US and to curb the spread of groups that derive their strength from continued American presence in Iraq and, hence, from luring American forces deeper into that and other regional quagmires.
The second element of the new strategy is for the US to allow any elements with the potential of restoring an Iraqi state to rise within Iraq. This means primarily Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi army: "On the ground, Al-Sadr is the leader most likely to restore an Iraqi state, and thanks to his steadfast opposition to the American occupation, he has legitimacy... Under his leadership, or that of anyone else in Iraq with a shred of legitimacy, a restored Iraqi state will not be a friend of America. Given what we have done to that country, we can hardly expect it to be."
The third and final element of a strategy for winning in Iraq is to withdraw all American forces as rapidly as possible, which means within 12-18 months. That is the only way, Lind opines, that we can create the space necessary for Al-Sadr or someone else to re-create an Iraqi state. Lind stresses that, in this strategy, US withdrawal should not be regarded as that of a defeated army. Rather, "It is a strategic withdrawal -- a necessary part of our strategy."
For his part, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, once an ardent supporter of the war against Iraq and no friend of the Arabs or Iran, sees few viable options. He cautions against a reduction of American forces and restricting their mission to training purposes only as this would play into the hands of "the terrorists," "as it did in Lebanon." In addition, partial withdrawal would trigger new chaos, hamper the process of building up a domestic security force, and forestall opportunities for reconciliation between Iraqi factions. Nor does he favour a redeployment of American forces in neighbouring countries. That would exact an exorbitant diplomatic toll and, simultaneously, curtail US force manoeuvrability as they would need the approval of relevant governments to move across state borders and use their air space. It would be similarly futile to redeploy to Iraqi Kurdistan, since the provincial governor there, Masoud Al-Barzani, had initially given the Iranian Revolutionary Guard permission to intervene in Iraq and continues to be instrumental in promoting Iranian influence in the country.
As for option four -- partition of Iraq into three autonomous provinces -- this, too, would not be a sound move. Even if the enormous operation of transferring populations could be remotely conceived, the Balkans model suggests that it would have little chance of success. Partition on the basis of sectarian/ethnic affiliations would invite outside meddling, which would so exacerbate tensions as to raise the spectre of an interminable civil war. In the Bosnian civil war, 200,000 people were killed. If the same ratio were applied to Iraq in the event of partition, the death toll could exceed a million and refugees and displaced persons could exceed 12 million.
So what does this neo-conservative, who until recently inveighed vehemently against Syria and Iran, propose? Nothing short of opening diplomatic channels with Tehran and Damascus because they have prevailing leverage over the most important political forces in Iraq.
This remarkable about-face by an American arch- conservative, no less than the strategic reprioritising advocated by the more traditional conservative, Lind, must be seen in context. Iraq has become the primary determinant of the US presidential elections, which are only months away. No Republican worth his salt is about to pass up any opportunity to distance himself from Bush and to fend off the taint of such a grotesquely botched policy in the hope of preventing the Democrats from monopolising both the executive and Congress for years to come. Nor are the Democrats, for that matter, about to let this unique opportunity to reshape US policy over the coming years elude their grasp, after the immense damage inflicted upon US strategic interests as the result of the imposition of an evangelistic foreign policy agenda on a country that had preferred the pragmatic realpolitik approach for more than 70 years.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Damascus University and director of the Centre for Strategic Data and Studies.