Thursday, December 22, 2005

Iraq and the Future of the Middle East

We had an interesting discussion at the magazine today (covered by C-SPAN as per the previous post).

In opening the panel, I posed the question, are we at a turning point in the war in Iraq, that the heavy lifting has been done and now we proceed forward to success, or has the administration been laying the foundations for a "withdrawal with honor" (and abandonment of some of the more utopian rhetoric about a dramatic transformation of the Middle East).

Here are some of the comments as I have summarized them:

Paul Saunders, Associate Publisher of The National Interest: Victory in Iraq cannot be "declared" but must be defined in such a way that it is understood by all to have been a victory--namely, the destruction of a hostile regime and the establishment of a reasonably friendly and non-tyrannical government. The primary threat now to Iraq's stability is political, not military, and needs to be resolved by Iraqis--it cannot be solved via American military power.

David Rivkin, Contributing Editor of The National Interest: In reducing forces in Iraq, the U.S. cannot give the perception of weakness or that its actions are being driven by politics. Changing "hearts and minds" in the Middle East will take a generation but changing assessment of U.S. staying power is something that can be accomplished now.

What is the realpolitik/Jacksonian case for democracy promotion? To reach the same strategic accomplishment that the Sino-Soviet split did during the Cold War--to give the United States maneuvering room against a hostile ideology by demonstrating that a fusion between Islam and democracy--however imperfect that democracy might be--is an option.

The U.S. presence in Iraq is sustainable for many years--as a smaller force providing Iraqis with the capabilities they need, just as we are doing in Afghanistan.

Geoffrey Kemp, The Nixon Center: Iraq is not an island but exists within a neighborhood--Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran all have their own agenda. Iran in particular is becoming more embedded in Iraq--not only via intelligence operatives but through religious connections and business deals. Iran and the United States have a common objective of not wanting to see chaos and civil war in Iraq, but Iran, while it may quietly want the United States to squash the insurgency, does not want a decisive U.S. victory to the point that the United States feels encouraged to repeat the regime change policy again elsewhere in the Middle East.

Alexis Debat, Contributing Editor, The National Interest: Iraq has indeed become the new "base" and unlike in Afghanistan in the 1990s, recruits coming to Iraq are being trained in effective urban terrorist techniques, including how to carry out multiple car bombings, deal with surveillance, and so on. Some of these recruits are returning to Europe; arrests in France last week point to efforts to create new European cells.

There should be no illusions; a choice has to be made. Terrorism can be fought at all costs and by all means necessary; or we have to accept, to preserve civil liberties, that there will always be a residual amount of terrorism carried out.

Robert S. Leiken, The Nixon Center: Saddam Hussein and his allies are trying to find common ground with the Islamists to combat the United States; can the United States help to forge a working alliance between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq to reconstruct the country and isolate the remnants of the former regime and the international terrorists? We should be concerned about the election results; it proved that Iraq is nowhere near being able to transcend communalism in its political life, and this does not bode well for democracy.

Zeyno Baran, The Nixon Center: After her recent travels in the region (as well as in Europe and China), the question she is constantly asked is: what is the American "end game" in Iraq? What will happen to the unity of the country; will it become an Islamic state? Other states are concerned that the United States is not concerned about stability and seems to be more focused on process rather than outcomes.

Dimitri K. Simes, President, The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest: Regime change as a policy for Iraq was first adopted by the Clinton Administration and a broad bi-partisan majority in Congress in 1998. Regime change does not equal a policy of containment, and by 2001 it was clear that the limited efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power were not bearing fruit and that in a post 9/11 environment it was unwise to leave him in power. Was the way the United States proceeded the best way? A policy of regime change was then altered into one of regime transformation not only for Iraq but the entire region.

The United States needs victory "realistically defined" for Iraq, because the consequences of a perceived defeat is that others will be bolder in attacking American interests around the world.

Other comments:

Harlan Ullman noted in response to Dimitri Simes' point that "victory is the absence of catastrophe." He outlined four fault lines--the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces to keep order (and whether they will go back to old methods of terror and violence to do so), lack of governance in the Iraqi ministries, the "mutiny" in the Senate as a clear majority whether out of fury or embarrassment begin to take up their oversight responsibilities over the conduct of the executive branch, and the "breaking point" of the U.S. military as overstretch takes its toll. Morale may be high now, as it was in Viet Nam in 1965, but a collapse in moral in 1966-67 was a turning point.

The administration will begin to accelerate the one option open to it--its ability to control the speed of the U.S. withdrawal. He predicted that by December 2006 U.S. forces will be under 100,000.

A longer term problem is the lack of a Gulf security architecture which determines the roles of Iraq, Iran and the Gulf states (while Geoff Kemp raised the questio as to how long the U.S. taxpayer will continue to support the U.S. playing the dominant role to secure China's and India's energy supply--see our discussion on this last week on December 15).

Larry Johnson, using the Superman analogy, noted that putting on the cape doesn't mean you can fly. The U.S. cannot allow its policies in the region to be guided by myths. Two in particular that should be causes of concern: the myth of an "authentic Islam" (to view Islam as a single monolith), and the second, to tout the efficacy of the military in fighting terrorism.


An excellent discussion, and debates as well--I encourage you to view the entire program.

I found the discussion to be quite provocative and stimulating. If there had been more time, I would have been interested to have David Rivkin expound more on what a realpolitik/Jacksonian strategy for democracy promotion would be like, and what elements would be different from the Wilsonian/neo-con version. It sounded like one aspect was to view democracy as a strategic tool rather than as an end in and of itself.

I'm still a bit confused about what constitutes standards for a "realistic victory." Would departing in summer 2003 have fulfilled those conditions? And what about the temporal factor--that is to say, we could have a "victory" now but in five or ten years face a greater threat. I think that this is some of the uncertainty that grips members of the Bush team.
I think this follows on to "conservative realist's" point--how to separate the local insurgents from the "international terrorists." Seems that the Russians have had some problems doing the same in Chechnya, if people morph from one into the other.

And at what point does the U.S. decide to simply let the Shi'ites "take over" and give up on the hopes of trying to hold the country together? Wonder if we'll be seeing an Iraqi version of the Dayton Accords, but hopefully without the civil war preceding it.
I think a further discussion of the fault lines and how long the U.S. can sustain the mission is warranted. The end of the program--the debate between David and Harlan over whether the U.S. can keep 50,000-60,000 troops in Iraq for an indefinite period of time (and I think David's rhetorical question about whether a superpower with our amount of defense spending can end up being crippled by overstretch in Iraq), and then Geoff's point about the willingness of taxpayers to keep funding the mission, and Nick's comment that the paradox of democracy promotion abroad is when it is not supported by a majority of citizens at home--all points to a major disconnect in discussions of U.S. foreign policy--the difference between power on paper (various measurements) and the willingness of a state to utilize that power. It seems that there is a growing chasm between the stated amount of American power and what the U.S. is actually prepared to exert.
A very interesting panel. It would be a good development if for future discussions you could have a feature so C-SPAN viewers could e-mail questions in like it is done with Washington Journal.

If I could have asked a question, I would ask Mr. Saunders to define his criteria for success more specifically. I would ask Mr. Rivkin whether as part of his strategy of democracy promotion he accepts the possibility of failure, in other words, is the realism in trying to get democracy working or in actually succeeding.
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