Neither Democrats nor Republicans have the right approach on Iraq


In the recent U.S. Senate debate over a time frame for troop withdrawal from Iraq, both sides of the aisle seem to have missed the point. Neither the Republicans’ “stay the course” approach nor Sen. John Kerry’s proposal to establish a specific timetable addressed the reality of postwar Iraq. And applying a more flexible time frame, as advocated by other Democrats, failed equally. Irrespective of how and when American troops are withdrawn, Iraq will gradually edge closer to an all-out civil war unless the country is first divided and then put back together in some kind of confederation.

Although the Democrats were defeated on the Senate floor, the flaws in both approaches remain relevant, because the issue of troop withdrawal will continue to be publicly debated as long as American forces continue to die. But the arbitrary establishment of a timetable for withdrawal will lead not only to genocidal sectarian killings affecting group survival; it will plunge Iraq into anarchy and inflict irreparable damage to America’s already tarnished global image. Moreover, it could endanger the political stability of U.S. allies in the region, dramatically disrupt oil supplies, further entrench Iran’s influence, and engulf other mixed Sunni and Shiite communities in neighboring states in deadly conflict. Of course, the insurgents will await such a departure date, seeing it as their time to have their heyday in Iraq.

The more flexible time-frame approach, as indicated, does not fare much better. As long as the pace of troop withdrawal is influenced by how well Iraqi security forces can battle the insurgents and maintain order, the viability of any planned pullout, flexible or otherwise, is speculative at best. It can also send a negative message to the insurgents that U.S. staying power is running out, and further allow them to develop a strategy to outwit the Americans by creating a temporary false calm. In addition, a flexible approach cannot work in a climate of uncertainty or depend on prospective power sharing when the Shiites are too strong to want to share power. The absence of any trust among the three main rival communities, of there being any real prospect of their living safely beside one another, makes it even more impossible to achieve at present or in the conceivable future.

The Bush administration’s approach to stay the course remains as thoughtless as the way the Iraq war has been conducted from the beginning. Suggesting that America cannot simply cut and run is hardly a substitute for a well thought out and carefully coordinated plan. The staying-the-course approach presupposes that the creation of a national unity government will automatically solve other daunting political problems; the Iraq government will agree on a constitutional amendment to reflect greater Sunni interests; internal security forces will be well trained and effectively deal with the growing insurgency; these forces will be purged of Saddamists, Ba’athists, and Shiite militants; Shiites and Kurds will agree to disband their militia, and reconstruction of Iraq will proceed, creating the renewal to which most Iraqis aspire. Unfortunately, all these prerequisites to success are unlikely to develop because: a) they run contrary to the long-term interest of the Shiite majority, who also control 80 percent of Iraq’s oil; b) the Kurds already enjoy complete autonomous rule, with a 20 percent share of Iraq’s oil; c) neither Shiites nor Kurds are willing to dismantle their militia; d) widespread ethnic cleansing is already a reality throughout the country, consolidating communities by ethnicity instead of by reconciling their differences; e) the Bush administration has decided to end assistance for economic reconstruction, and without it, there is no way the insurgency can be defeated; and f) Washington has reduced funding for the democratic institutions in Iraq. In short, nothing on the ground suggests that the Bush administration is serious about its own “staying the course” notion. While Mr. Bush claims he is pursuing victory (very appropriate in an election year), all he really seeks is to avoid outright defeat and to leave the mess for the next administration to clean up.

Iraq has been broken, and this administration can do nothing to put it together again short of a constitutional amendment that provides independent autonomous rule for the three main factions. For this to happen, the Sunnis must be granted true constitutional control over their destiny and land, as well as an equitable share of Iraq’s oil, and each of the three groups needs to have political, religious, cultural, and economic freedom. Once self-ruled regional governments are established, the three groups should then be willing to move toward federalism, with vested powers in foreign policy, national security, and equitable distribution of oil and its revenues. Each might find this option preferable to an otherwise inevitable civil war that will devastate the country and leave behind no victors. In my view, this is the only way to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity and so prevent it from falling prey to neighboring states and other unfriendly outside influences.

American and Iraqi stakes are too high to be subject to politics as usual. To achieve a more peaceful transition in Iraq, the Bush administration needs and may now be able to secure the assent of the United Nations and the European Union to play significant roles while enlisting the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors. Only in this context can Mr. Bush decide on the pace and the level of an orderly and honorable troop withdrawal.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.

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