The United States is stuck. The situation in Iraq on the surface appears better than in the past — violence is down significantly. And, while pro-war types will try to spin this as success, one can only do that by closing ones eyes to the last five years and pretending all the death and destruction didn’t happen.
However, the Iraqi government remains divided and corrupt, women are suffering worse treatment than during Saddam’s era, Iran has thoroughly infiltrated government and militias alike, and Iraqi oil officials chaffe at efforts by the US to make Iraq the most oil-corporation-friendly state in the region. So what’s going on?
First, it’s very clear now that this war was about two things: Oil and Israel. The seductive illusion that somehow the US could not only defeat Saddam (that was never in doubt) but then engage in a massive social engineering experiment to reshape Iraq into a pro-western pro-Israel democracy failed. The illusion was seductive because it appeared we would be able to address the most difficult issues facing us: how to bring about a secure Israel and enhance American oil supplies. Moreover we could do this through a means that would be seen as benevolent: helping Iraq achieve democracy.
Iraq is not a democracy. The central government has little power, corruption is endemic, and militias operate freely through much of the country. The Kurds control their region, the Sunni tribal leaders theirs, and Iran has infiltrated nearly all aspects of Iraqi society. Moreover, Iran has emerged stronger, and the rest of the Mideast has been forced by a strong anti-American surge in public opinion to move away from support of the US. The Saudis no longer need us; lucrative Chinese deals are on the table. The US is moving from center stage to that of a fallen superpower. How far we fall depends on the nature of the economic crisis which is just starting to unfold.
Given that, what should the new President do? First, dismiss and deny the seductive illusions. Admit that not only was invading Iraq a mistake, but one that has cost the United States and the Iraqi people severely. Make clear that while we hope to be able to patch up some kind of stable solution, it was not worth the cost, that the United States learned a very hard lesson about how military power does little to shape political and social outcomes. That bit of humility, something difficult for the hard ball politicians in Washington to show — they seem to think humility means weakness, betraying something about themselves — will go a long way in creating reconciliation. Not just reconciliation between governments, but between peoples. In this globalizing world, that is more important than ever.
Second, military threats against Iran must be taken off the table. They are ineffective. They have not led to any substantive Iranian concessions. Now and then Iran will show a “willingness to talk,” which is good. But the hard ball hawks in DC think it’s because of the threats and thus they use the Iranian willingness to talk as a rationale not to treat Iran better! In an absurd irony, if Iran does something good, the hawks use it to justify continued hostility. Thus the Iranians always end up retreating back to a hard line position, their efforts to open dialog get met with only continued belligerence.
Third, the US must start immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and the President should eschew the kind of long term commitment President Bush wants to have. This will remove a major irritant in regional affairs, as hostility to the US motivates numerous groups, and makes it more difficult for governments to be conciliatory. The US is the main problem in the region, not the solution. This should be done slowly, during a time which multilateral diplomacy involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi government, Turkey, and Iraqi Sunnis take place to hammer out a post-occupation security arrangement. It may well be that some Americans do stay — most likely in Kurdish areas — but this should only be done on the basis of a broad regional security agreement, not as part of ongoing animosity.
At this point, no American interests can conceivably be considered compromised, but Israelis would likely believe such a solution would leave them vulnerable. The US must find a way to assure Israel that this diplomacy and an Iraqi solution is better for Israel than the status quo, even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. Iran isn’t about to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Israel, they know that will be suicide, even if they get weapons, they won’t have much — and Israel has a lot! The fear mongering about Iran has to stop; their foreign policy has been cautious and patient, not radical. Ahmadinejad may have said some wild rhetoric, but so has President Bush. Nonetheless, at some point in the diplomacy the US will have to make a very public commitment to support and defend Israel, one both credible and constructive. The Arab states and Iran will protest, but behind the scenes they’ll know this is part of the dance.
The idea we could shape Iraq into some kind of pro-western democracy was never realistic; as Edmund Burke noted in writing about the French revolution, you can’t simply overturn existing customs and traditions for a new system based on ‘reason,’ or in this case, what we consider reasonable. Our democracy started with slavery, women being subjugated, and rights focused only on the privileged propertied. It took centuries of struggle to get to where we are. Iraq will have to develop in its own ways, dealing with its own problems. If we recognize the folly of neo-colonialism and back down from the effort to try to control events, they will have a chance to do so. The good will we’ll create, while not ending the conflicts and animosities, may set up conditions far more conducive to better future relations than those currently in play.
In short, the next President must undertake a radically different policy towards Iraq, one that questions not just past tactics, but fundamental goals and assumptions about US foreign policy. I do not know if Barack Obama is up to the task. I do know that John McCain is not.