Some plain truths about IraqAs people become increasingly curious about what the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton will recommend to George W Bush, the US president himself is reported to have "launched a sweeping internal review of Iraq policy". The purpose is "to salvage US policy in Iraq, develop an exit strategy, and protect long-term US interests in the region".
The unstated part of this review is that it underscores a feeling of confusion, even despair, related to Iraq. Bush does not want to preside over the second defeat of the United States, the first defeat being the Vietnam War. But that is where his administration seems to be heading. An important question is how many more reviews and commissions the US will need before it faces the ugly fact that it might have to withdraw from Iraq.
The Washington Post reports: "The president has asked all his national-security agencies to assess the situation in Iraq, review the options, and recommend the best way forward." What unique insights would these agencies develop about what went wrong in Iraq? More to the point, in what way would their insight would be different from what is already well known about what the US is faced with in Iraq?
Here are some plain truths about Iraq. As much as the Iraqis appreciated the toppling of a brutal dictator, they now hold the US presence as the chief reason for their continued misery and endless deaths. That is an unfair assessment, but it is also a factual one. It is hard to take a scientific measurement of how many Iraqis want the Americans to stay in their country and how many want them to leave. However, the US might have reached a point when its best option is to leave Iraq.
But what happens if the US gets out? The sectarian war is not likely to be affected either way. That is an unfortunate development, which no one can pin on the US presence, except through circuitous logic. That logic goes along the following lines: since democracy is about the rule of the majority, America's insistence on inserting democracy has only heightened the sectarian differences in Iraq.
The intensification of sectarian differences is also related to sectarian-based hatred. However, that was bound to happen because democracy transformed the traditionally tormented group, the Shi'ites, into a governing group. And a governing group in the Iraqi political arena brutalizes the group that is not in control of the government. The Sunnis did that to the Shi'ites when they were in charge, but the shoe is on the other foot now.
What is the solution to the sectarian war in Iraq? That is also obvious but not attainable. The obvious part is that Iraq needs professional security forces that can raise themselves from sectarian-based hatred and serve as an honest law-enforcement entity and work assiduously to eradicate sectarian-based killings. The unattainable part is that Iraq is not likely to develop such a force any time soon, regardless of whether the US stays or leaves.
Bush faces a situation in Iraq where his previous swagger is no longer in control. Because the security situation in Iraq is worsening, the American people want their country out. However, for Bush, getting out would be an admission of failure, and being forced out would be nothing short of humiliation of the lone superpower, whose forces could topple Saddam Hussein through an impressive show of "shock and awe", but seem to have become hapless before the rising tide of insurgency and sectarian warfare.
It also seems that Bush has ordered a review of Iraq policy because he has a strong sense that the ISG will make certain recommendations that go against his staunch frame of reference regarding Iraq and its immediate neighbors. While that ISG's recommendations will be driven by a powerful sense of realism aimed at minimizing America's losses in Iraq and in the Middle East at large, Bush's preference about those issues is driven primarily by his private sense of moral certainty and his fundamental beliefs, which do not allow him to make concessions to the "forces of evil". And Iran and Syria, in his frame of reference, present nothing but evil forces.
As the ISG is wrapping up its series of interviews, British Prime Minister Tony Blair came out with his own solution to the instability in Iraq and the larger Middle East. He is interested in engaging Iran and Syria. In addition, Blair told the ISG that the most decisive step that the US must take is to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For improving the security situation in Iraq, according to Blair, Washington must "improve its [Iraq's] army, end sectarianism within its security forces, and distribute revenue more fairly across the country". The Bush administration has no particular quarrel with those suggestions, but it is not yet ready to assign the resolution of Palestinian conflict its top priority.
Now that former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is out of the picture, the Pentagon is doing its own assessment for the president with renewed vigor. According to reports, the military brass is asking such questions as "Where are we going? What are we trying to do? Are we going to get there this way?" US military officials are also looking at the scenarios of keeping more forces as well as fewer forces in Iraq.
In the meantime, the Democrats have their own agenda, which assigns top priority to a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. It is possible that the Bush administration is also using its back channels to feel the pulse of major Arab countries to see whether they have an "Arab plan" for stabilizing Iraq, a plan in which Iran has no role. The Sunni Arab states would be most eager to play a leading role in Iraq, but they have to be convinced that they have the full backing of the Bush administration.
As 2006 draws to a close, Iraq has not only become the most studied conflict on the part of the US government for the purpose of finding an "honorable" solution, but it is also a place where America's foreign-policy failure is becoming glaringly obvious. Like a heavyweight wrestler who is exhausted in a long but losing battle, the US refuses to go down.
That is one reason it is conducting endless appraisals of its failed foreign policy in Iraq. In the final analysis, the Bush administration might even accept a defeat and get out of Iraq. However, it is not at all ready to lose its influence, prestige and presence in the Middle East at large. Three other countries also understand the implications of America's defeat and ouster from Iraq. They are Iran, Syria, and Israel.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.