Opinion and Editorial

Saving Iraq

Henry Kissinger
Filed on September 16, 2007

TWO realities define the range of a meaningful debate on Iraq policy: The war cannot be ended by military means alone. But neither is it possible to “end'' the war by ceding the battlefield. American decisions in the next few months will not be able to end the crises in Iraq and the Middle East before the change of American administrations. Even while the political cycle tempts a debate geared to focus groups, a bipartisan foreign policy is imperative.

The experience of Vietnam is often cited as the example for the potential debacle that awaits us in Iraq. But we will never learn from history if we keep telling ourselves myths about it. The passengers on American helicopters fleeing Saigon were not American troops but Vietnamese civilians. American forces had left two years earlier. What collapsed Vietnam was the congressional decision to reduce aid to Vietnam by two-thirds and to cut if off altogether for Cambodia in the face of a massive North Vietnamese invasion that violated every provision of the Paris Peace Accords.

Should America repeat a self-inflicted wound? An abrupt withdrawal from Iraq will not end the war; it will only redirect it. Within Iraq, the sectarian conflict could assume genocidal proportions; terrorist base areas could re-emerge.

Under the impact of American abdication, Lebanon may slip into domination by Iran's ally, Hezbollah; a Syria-Israel war or an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities may become more likely as Israel attempts to break the radical encirclement; Turkey and Iran will probably squeeze Kurdish autonomy; and the Taleban in Afghanistan will gain new impetus. Countries where the radical threat is as yet incipient, as India, will face a mounting domestic challenge. Pakistan, in the process of a delicate political transformation, will encounter more radical pressures and may even turn into a radical challenge itself.

That is what is meant by “precipitate'' withdrawal —a withdrawal in which the US loses the ability to shape events, either within Iraq, on the anti-jihadist battlefield or in the world at large.

The proper troop level in Iraq will not be discovered by political compromise at home. To be sure, no forces should be retained in Iraq that are dispensable. The definition of “dispensable'' must be based on strategic and political criteria, however. If reducing troop levels turns into the litmus test of American politics, each withdrawal will generate demands for additional ones until the political, military and psychological framework collapses. An appropriate strategy for Iraq requires political direction. But the political dimension must be the ally of military strategy, not a resignation from it.

Symbolic withdrawals, urged by such wise elder statesmen as Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., might indeed assuage the immediate public concerns. They should be understood, however, as palliatives; their utility depends on a balance between their capacity to reassure the US public and their propensity to encourage America's adversaries to believe that they are the forerunners of complete retreat.

The argument that the mission of US forces should be confined to defeating terrorism, protecting the frontiers, preventing the emergence of Taleban-like structures and staying out of the civil-war aspects is also tempting. In practice, it will be very difficult to distinguish among the various aspects of the conflict with any precision.

Some answer that the best political result is most likely to be achieved by total withdrawal. The option of basing policies on the most favourable assumptions about the future is, of course, always available. Yet, in the end, political leaders will be held responsible —often by their publics, surely by history —not only for the best imaginable outcome but for the most probable one, not only for what they hoped but for what they should have feared.

Nothing in Middle East history suggests that abdication confers influence. Those who urge this course of action need to put forward what they recommend if the dire consequences of an abrupt withdrawal foreseen by the majority of experts and diplomats occur.

The missing ingredient has not been a withdrawal schedule but a political and diplomatic design connected to a military strategy. Much time has been lost in attempting to repeat the experience of the occupations of Germany and Japan. Those examples, in my view, are not applicable. The issue is not whether Arab or Muslim societies can ever become democratic; it is whether they can become so under American military guidance in a timeframe for which the US political process will stand.

Western democracy and that of Japan developed in largely homogeneous societies. Iraq is multiethnic and multisectarian. The Sunni sect has dominated the majority Shia and subjugated the Kurdish minority for all of Iraq's history of less than a hundred years.

American exhortations for national reconciliation are based on constitutional principles drawn from the Western experience. But it is impossible to achieve this in a six-month period defined by the American troop surge in an artificially created state wracked by the legacy of a thousand years of ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Experience should teach us that trying to manipulate a fragile political structure —particularly one resulting from American-sponsored elections —is likely to play into radical hands. Nor are the present frustrations with Baghdad's performance a sufficient excuse to impose a strategic disaster on ourselves. However much Americans may disagree about the decision to intervene or about the policy afterward, the US is now in Iraq in large part to serve the American commitment to global order and not as a favour to the Baghdad government.

It is possible that the present structure in Baghdad is incapable of national reconciliation because its elected constituents were elected on a sectarian basis. A wiser course would be to concentrate on the three principal regions and promote technocratic, efficient and humane administration in each. The provision of services and personal security coupled with emphasis on economic, scientific and intellectual development may represent the best hope for fostering a sense of community. More efficient regional government leading to substantial decrease in the level of violence, to progress towards the rule of law and to functioning markets could then, over a period of time, give the Iraqi people an opportunity for national reconciliation —especially if no region is strong enough to impose its will on the others by force. Failing that, the country may well drift into de facto partition under the label of autonomy, such as already exists in the Kurdish region. That very prospect might encourage the Baghdad political forces to move towards reconciliation. Much depends on whether it is possible to create a genuine national army rather than an agglomeration of competing militias.

The second and ultimately decisive route to overcoming the Iraqi crisis is through international diplomacy. Today the United States is bearing the major burden for regional security militarily, politically and economically while countries that will also suffer the consequences remain passive. Yet many other nations know that their internal security and, in some cases, their survival will be affected by the outcome in Iraq and are bound to be concerned that they may all face unpredictable risks if the situation gets out of control. That passivity cannot last. The best way for other countries to give effect to their concerns is to participate in the construction of a civil society. The best way for us to foster it is to turn reconstruction step-by-step into a cooperative international effort under multilateral management.

Such a strategy is the best road to reduce America's military presence in the long run; an abrupt reduction of American forces will impede diplomacy and set the stage for more intense military crises further down the road.

Pursuing diplomacy inevitably raises the question of how to deal with Iran. Cooperation is possible and should be encouraged with an Iran that pursues stability and cooperation. Such an Iran has legitimate aspirations that need to be respected. But an Iran that practices subversion and seeks hegemony in the region —which appears to be the current trend —must be faced with red lines it will not be permitted to cross. The industrial nations cannot accept radical forces dominating a region on which their economies depend, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is incompatible with international security. These truisms need to be translated into effective policies, preferably common policies with allies and friends.

None of these objectives can be realised, however, unless two conditions are met: The United States needs to maintain a presence in the region on which its supporters can count and which its adversaries have to take seriously. Above all, the country must recognise that bipartisanship has become a necessity, not a tactic.

Henry A Kissinger, a former US secretary of state, is considered the architect of US foreign policy during the Cold War

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