Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Least Bad Choice


Published: September 6, 2007

The way the United States leaves places matters. Having armed mujahedeen fighters to undo the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, America lost interest in a backwater. Payback came in the form of Afghan-trained holy warriors bent on the destruction of the West. That was careless.

It is important to be less careless in Baghdad. As reports on Iraq reach Congress this month, it’s worth considering that blow-back from an oil-rich country at the heart of the battle for the Middle East could be even more severe than the violent legacy of funding Islam to fight communism in Kabul.

Nothing can undo the American blunders in Iraq that turned the liberated into the lacerated. Hubris is bad, careless hubris worse. The fraying Bush administration still can’t work out who took the decision to disband the Iraqi Army in 2003; that’s grotesque. Nobody in the administration should sleep easy over its ethical responsibility for calamitous mistakes.

But what we did matters less today than how we leave Iraq. It’s far easier to score backward-looking political points against Bush than serve the forward-looking interests of 27 million Iraqis. Still, the latter is more important than the former.

As Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has written: “It seems likely that the U.S. will ultimately be judged far more by how it leaves Iraq, and what it leaves behind, than how it entered Iraq.” America’s future ability to use its hard and soft power “depends on what the U.S. does now.”

Exit timing and U.S. election maneuvering stand at the center of this month’s Iraq drama, with testimony due next week from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, and several reports coming in. One, from the Government Accountability Office, has already given the Bush-Petraeus surge a failing grade: a feckless Iraqi government, unshared oil money, untamed militias and undiminished violence.

Not fair, Petraeus and Bush will argue, using the new catchphrase “bottom-up progress” to highlight headway in Sunni-dominated provinces like Anbar through cash-cemented alliances with local sheiks who have been persuaded to turn again to Al Qaeda.

Bush will also make a virtue of necessity on U.S. troop levels. The post-escalation presence of 160,000 can’t be maintained past next spring unless tours of duty are extended beyond 15 months. So some drawdown will start next year, with improved Iraqi conditions claimed to obscure domestic political realities.

Both views of Iraq are right: the situation is awful and, four years on, cleverer U.S. commanders are winning a few. The enduring horror counsels a swift exit. The positive shifts bolster a catchphrase Cordesman found doing the rounds in Baghdad: “strategic patience.”

I side with the latter, provided the patience is indeed strategic and not just a means to kick the mess into the post-Bush world. That strategy should involve the following elements.

First, continue bolstering Sunni power and allegiance through aggressive use of aid and local security deals. A rough balance of power between the main Iraqi communities — Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish — is in the interests of Iraqi stability.

Second, while accepting that Iraq’s central government will at best be a respectable fig leaf and that strong provincial authorities are essential, pressure the weak Shia-dominated coalition to share oil money, power and space. Stronger American-backed Sunnis and fewer U.S. troops may help focus Shia minds.

Third, establish, with United Nations help, a regional framework for talks between the neighboring powers. Use this to reach out to Iran. Tehran wants America to fail in Iraq but not to the extent that Shia gains are reversed. That provides some leverage.

Fourth, recognize that all Middle Eastern problems — Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq — are tied and that the U.S. needs a coherent diplomatic strategy for containing jihadist fanaticism through ideological persuasion. An uncritical embrace of Israel does not help. And whatever happened to Karen Hughes, our invisible public diplomacy czar?

Fifth, protect the countless Iraqis who have helped America and are vulnerable. The U.S. urged Iraqis to rise up in 1991 only to abandon them to slaughter. Never again should be our policy.

The above may just avert the worst: a regional war in which a disintegrating country’s neighbors are drawn into carnage that makes current bloodshed pale.

Some see Iraq as the ultimate demonstration of the demise of American power. Fast withdrawal is in that view’s logic. But if you believe, as I do, that global stability still hinges on the credibility of that power, “strategic patience” is the least bad of the terrible options Bush’s now amnesia-clouded incompetence has bequeathed.

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