THE WAR IN IRAQ is a historic strategic and moral calamity undertaken under false assumptions. It is undermining America’s global legitimacy. Its collateral civilian casualties, as well as some abuses, are tarnishing America’s moral credentials. Driven by Manichean impulses and imperial hubris, it is intensifying regional instability.
Yet major strategic decisions in the Bush administration continue to be made within a very narrow circle of individuals -- perhaps not more than the fingers on one hand. With the exception of the new Defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, these are the same individuals who have been involved from the start of this misadventure, who made the original decision to go to war in Iraq and who used the original false justifications for going to war. It is human nature to be reluctant to undertake actions that would imply a significant reversal of policy.
From the standpoint of U.S. national interest, this is particularly ominous. If the United States continues to be bogged down in protracted, bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and much of the Islamic world.
Here, for instance, is a plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran: Iraq fails to meet the benchmarks for progress toward stability set by the Bush administration. This is followed by U.S. accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure, then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the United States blamed on Iran, culminating in a “defensive” U.S. military action against Iran. This plunges a lonely United States into a spreading and deepening quagmire lasting 20 years or more and eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Indeed, a mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and potential expanding war is already being articulated. Initially justified by false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the war is now being redefined as the decisive ideological struggle of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism. In that context, Islamist extremism and Al Qaeda are presented as the equivalents of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia, and 9/11 as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack that precipitated U.S. involvement in World War II.
This simplistic and demagogic narrative, however, overlooks that the Nazi threat was based on the military power of the most industrially advanced European state and that Stalinism was not only able to mobilize the resources of the victorious and militarily powerful Soviet Union but had worldwide appeal through its Marxist doctrine.
In contrast, most Muslims are not embracing Islamic fundamentalism. Al Qaeda is an isolated, fundamentalist aberration. Most Iraqis are engaged in strife not on behalf of an Islamist ideology but because of the U.S. occupation, which destroyed the Iraqi state. Iran, meanwhile, though gaining in regional influence, is hardly a global threat; rather, it is politically divided, economically and militarily weak. To argue that the United States must respond militarily to a wide Islamic threat with Iran at its epicenter is to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy.
No other country shares the Manichean delusions that the Bush administration so passionately articulates. And the result, sad to say, is growing political isolation of and pervasive popular antagonism toward the United States.
Our international interest calls for a significant change in direction. We need a strategy to end the occupation of Iraq and to shape a regional security dialogue. Both goals will take time and require genuinely serious U.S. commitment. The quest to achieve these goals should involve four steps.
First, the United States should reaffirm explicitly and unambiguously its determination to leave Iraq in a reasonably short period of time. Right now, the U.S. occupation, even though resented by most Iraqis, is serving as an umbrella for internal intransigence. Nobody inside or outside the Iraqi government feels any real incentive to compromise while the U.S. is keeping the situation more or less afloat.
A public declaration that the U.S. intends to leave is needed to allay fears in the Middle East of a new and enduring American imperial hegemony. Right or wrong, many view the establishment of such a hegemony as the primary reason for the U.S. intervention in a region only recently free of colonial domination. That perception must be discredited. If the president is unwilling to do so, perhaps Congress could by passing a joint resolution.
Second, the United States should announce that it is undertaking talks with Iraqi leaders to jointly set a date by which U.S. military disengagement should be completed. Roughly a year might be a good goal -- but the date must be agreed on with the Iraqis and announced as a joint decision. In the meantime, the U.S. should avoid military escalation, including the troop “surge,” which can, at best, have only a passing tactical benefit.
Only by holding serious talks with Iraqi politicians about an exit date can we identify the authentic Iraqi leaders with the self-confidence and capacity to stand on their own legs, without U.S. military protection. The painful reality is that the current Iraqi regime, characterized by the Bush administration as representative of the Iraqi people, largely defines itself by its physical location: the 4-square-mile U.S. fortress within Baghdad -- protected by a wall 15 feet thick in places and manned by heavily armed U.S. military -- popularly known as the Green Zone. Only Iraqi leaders who can exercise real power beyond the Green Zone can eventually reach a genuine Iraqi accommodation.
Third, the United States should encourage Iraqi leaders to issue an invitation to all neighbors of Iraq and perhaps some other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Pakistan, to discuss how best to enhance stability in Iraq in conjunction with U.S. military disengagement and to participate eventually in a conference regarding regional stability.
Such a serious discussion about regional security cannot be undertaken with Iraq or its neighbors while the U.S. is perceived as an occupier for an indefinite duration. Iraq’s neighbors don’t fear any real explosion in Iraq because we’re there, and the volatile status quo comes at our expense and does not require them to make any real choices.
But an agreed-on departure date would have the effect of forcing all of the governments around Iraq to ask themselves: “How do we deal with the problem of stability in Iraq? Do we really want to have a regional war among ourselves?” Would a war that might, for example, pit the Saudis and the Jordanians against the Iranians, with the Syrians in between, be worth risking? Most of the regimes in the region know that that kind of a war could spread and destroy them.
That is why the effort to engage the neighbors is desirable; it could help prevent an escalating civil war in Iraq that also poses a mounting threat to their own stability. But it can only take place provided the United States is in the process of leaving. An announcement of our willingness to leave and to convene a conference to discuss the next steps would be a powerful trigger for change.
Fourth, the U.S. should activate a credible and energetic effort to finally reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The record shows that the Israelis and the Palestinians will never do so on their own. Without such a settlement, nationalist and fundamentalist passions in the region will in the longer run doom any Arab regime that is perceived as supportive of U.S. regional hegemony.
After World War II, the U.S. prevailed in the defense of democracy in Europe because it successfully pursued a long-term political strategy of uniting its friends and dividing its enemies. It soberly deterred aggression without initiating hostilities, and all the while, it explored the possibility of negotiating arrangements.
Today, American global leadership is being tested in the Middle East. A similarly wise strategy of genuinely constructive political engagement is urgently needed.