THE BLOG
12/06/2006 01:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Endgame In Iraq (Part 1) -- Politics And Diplomacy

Obviously, it's Baker-Hamilton report day. But while everyone else is deconstructing the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report, I'd like to address a different subject: the Iraqi endgame.

In addition to the ISG report, a virtual blizzard of leaks, memos, blue-commission reports, military reviews, political reviews, media reports, guesses, rumors and sheer speculation about Iraq currently consumes Washington. Almost without exception, the focus is on "what should we do about Iraq?" But in this frenzy of opinionating, the aftermath is being largely overlooked. This needs to change.

In all the debates about when and how to pull out our troops, very few words are spoken about the likely consequences for Iraq and the region (an exception is James Fallows' recent Huffington Post article which confronts the question admirably). Of course, there is a very good reason for this reluctance, since there are few good answers to the question: "What happens after we leave?"

This series of three articles aims to answer that question fully, or at least to make a serious attempt at comprehensively addressing it. While I have no professional experience predicting military outcomes or in world politics, the last article I wrote on the subject back in August ("What Do We Do When The Iraq Civil War Starts?") was favorably quoted in a Lionel Beehner article on the Council on Foreign Relations' web site. The words I wrote four months ago are just as applicable today:

"There are a number of ways such a wide-open civil war could start. The central government could collapse. The minority Kurds and Sunnis could just walk out and boycott any further central government. Or the government could stick together, but become an irrelevant debating society locked within the fortress of the Green Zone. The central government could lose control of the military and police to factional leaders. Muqtada al-Sadr could throw off all restraint and mobilize his Mahdi Army for the Shi'ite cause."

Please do not misconstrue the purpose of this series, however. I am not advocating one policy over another. There is a wide spectrum of opinion on when and how US troops should leave Iraq, from "yesterday" at one end of the scale, to "stay the course forever" at the other. I am not staking out a position of my own on that scale. I am merely attempting to convince everyone talking about the issue to be intellectually honest and include a discussion about the likely consequences of their position. Arguing for or against the various policy ideas (cutting off funding, timetables, phased withdrawals, pullbacks to permanent bases in Iraq, pullbacks to the border, pullbacks to "over the horizon," Rumsfeld's words of wisdom on the subject, etc.) without addressing the consequences of such policies is unrealistic and irresponsible. Make your arguments for one policy over another, in other words, but in doing so please consider the endgame as well.

The subject is complex, so I have divided it up into four sections. This article will address the first, "Politics And Diplomacy." Tomorrow's article will talk about "The Aftermath Within Iraq." On Friday I will examine the "US Military Endgame," and conclude with "The Long View."

Politics And Diplomacy

Almost everyone agrees that, one way or another, the Bush administration is going to have to change their view of diplomacy in the region. The current White House stance of "we'll only talk to Iran and Syria when they do everything we want them to do" is just as petulant as it sounds, and scrapping this is the first positive policy change likely to follow the Baker-Hamilton report.

This concept hasn't always worked before, though, because the White House may decide to just give the idea lip service. Remember, in the months immediately preceding the Iraq invasion, Colin Powell forced the White House to go through the diplomatic motions of defusing the crisis, but without wholehearted support. The same thing may happen this time, too. President Bush may be reluctantly forced into diplomatic talks, but with no real intention of taking them seriously. He may decide to make a grand show of diplomacy for political "window-dressing" reasons, in other words, without caring whether or not they succeed.

But Bush needs to realize that he has a small political window of opportunity here, which will close with next year's State of the Union address. To remain relevant in Washington after the Democratic sweep of Congress, Bush desperately needs some sort of progress in Iraq to brag about during his annual speech. What form this progress will take is anyone's guess, but diplomatic overtures in the region are almost sure to be a part of it.

One possibility for progress (which would be seen favorably domestically, as well as in the Middle East and the larger world community) would be to ask Congress for more reconstruction money for Iraq. It's kind of mystifying why the Democrats haven't tossed this back in the face of the Republicans whenever the term "cut and run" gets thrown around. If Nancy Pelosi (or any other Democratic leader) would say, "We have already 'cut and run' on the moral imperative to rebuild Iraq," the next time some pundit asks them about a "cut and run" military plan, it could change the language of the debate. Point out that congressional Republicans (with White House approval) cut all funding for rebuilding Iraq during last year's budget process. This left multimillion-dollar projects in Iraq unfinished (like building a children's hospital, for instance), when American contractors pulled out (because the money's gone). Restoring this money, and paying it to the UN or directly to the Iraqis (rather than to Bechtel and Halliburton) would go a long way towards convincing people that we're serious about trying to put Iraq back together again.

To begin a diplomatic offensive, though, we need to start putting some ideas on the table. One of the better ideas being floated is some version of the Biden-Gelb plan which would divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous units. This could avert a more intensive civil war within Iraq after we leave -- if it works. This would save many lives, by taking a shortcut to the likely outcome of the current civil war, before the slaughter gets any worse. The flaw in this idea (although the Biden-Gelb plan as written is understandably optimistic on this point) is that US troops may wind up policing the ethnic and sectarian cleansing of Iraq. If Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'ite regions are created, the groups living within those regions may just go ahead and "purify" their enclaves of all others (ethnicities or sects). If we're caught in the middle of this, instructing our troops how to deal with it is going to be very hard to do. The image of US troops standing by as Sunnis are forced from their homes in the Shi'ite region, or helplessly watching the Kurds expel all others (or whatever form it takes) is not going to win us any hearts and minds when shown on world-wide television news. Again, this is one of the better ideas for a way forward, but even it has obvious problems when translated into actual implementation.

Getting beyond specific policy proposals, the strategy and mechanics of regional diplomatic talks could take various different forms. We could talk directly to Iran (who is backing the Iraqi Shi'ites) and Saudi Arabia (who is backing the Iraqi Sunnis). We could include Syria, Jordan, and others in the region individually. Or we could convene a regional summit with all countries who are affected by the Iraq problem.

Whatever form such talks take, they may be limited in what they can realistically achieve. Of course, it depends on what our military goals are and the current situation in Iraq (both of which seem to change almost daily) so it's impossible to definitively lay out what our goals would be in such talks. But it's not impossible to see some of the problems we will encounter.

Border control is likely to be a big issue for us, especially with Syria and Iran. But if Syria and Iran are actually supporting and arming the Shi'ite factions in Iraq, they're not going to be very enthusiastic border guards (as it would be against their perceived self-interest to do so). This may leave us only one option -- securing Iraq's borders ourselves. Which may prove to be as hard to do as securing Baghdad. But if successful, it could have a definite positive influence on Iraq. Stopping the flow of both fighters and arms into Iraq could create a chokehold on the supply lines of some of the militia groups. It certainly is a reasonable goal to try to achieve.

But we have to realistically look at who we're talking to. Iran is now almost openly supporting and arming the Shi'ites, across their common border. The question that must be faced is: "What can we do to stop this?" It's not an easy question to answer. Iran has a vested interest in keeping Iraq weak, so continued chaos there (as long as it doesn't jump the border into Iran) is actually advantageous to them. Plus, if the Shi'ites actually win and take over the Iraqi government completely (after the Kurds withdraw into their enclave in the north, assumably), then Iran gains another client state in the region. This also means it is advantageous for Iran to keep arming Iraqi Shi'ites.

Unfortunately, America has very little in the way of leverage over Iran. The stalemate with their nuclear program has painted us into a corner. The United States could threaten to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, or (more ominously) we could threaten to unleash Israel to carry out such bombing. Israel is chomping at the bit to do so (which would also help them regain some military prestige, after the disastrous year they've had). So our main bargaining point with Iran is: "We won't bomb you, if you do what we want in Iraq." In stark terms, this means allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. If military strikes are taken off the table, Iran will have a green light to speed up their nuclear weapons program -- and we should all get used to the idea of an "Islamic bomb."

Syria is going to be even harder to convince (although, if we convince Iran, they may well convince Syria for us). The only thing the Syrians want from us is for America to look the other way as they take over Lebanon (again). The consequences of doing so must be faced: we would be sacrificing a freely-elected and pro-American democratic government to Syrian control, which is another way of saying Iranian control-by-proxy. If we also let southern Iraq become dominated by Iranian-backed Shi'ite groups, then we will have created a new crescent of Shi'ite control reaching from Tehran to Lebanon's Mediterranean shores.

This would be a hard result to accept after the lofty goals and idealism the neo-cons have been feeding Bush: we will have abandoned two democracies (Iraq and Lebanon) to Iranian control. We will have "liberated" Iraqi women, only to ultimately force them into wearing a hijab or burqa, and force them to submit to Islamic Sharia law.

On the other side of the coin is Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Nominally our best friend in the region, the Saudis are already so nervous about the situation in Iraq that they recently summoned Dick Cheney for a little talk (oh, to have been a fly on the wall during that tense conversation!). One can only imagine that the Saudis are none too pleased with the situation in Iraq, and when the US leaks that we have stopped even trying to talk to Sunni groups in Iraq (effectively publicly announcing our backing for the Shi'ite factions), the Saudis presumably had some words to say to Cheney about it.

The best answer for now to the tactical diplomatic question would appear to be taking the regional summit route. As farfetched as it sounds, we could sit down with all the countries that border Iraq and hammer out some workable answers to the problems we confront. But even assuming we could get Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq all to the table, getting real results out of such talks would be difficult at best, considering the different priorities of each country. The one thing that could motivate this group to come to some sort of consensus is the growing problem of Iraqi refugees throughout the region, which affects all of them (although not equally).

But even a best-case outcome of such talks has a problem. Say we were able to convince these countries to each put up their own soldiers to patrol Iraq's borders and help out militarily within Iraq. That's a tall order, but assume we could put together such a coalition to take the place of US soldiers in Iraq (so we could get out). If this coalition of convenience starts to work, and becomes an effective regional military organization (creating the NATO of the Middle East, in other words), what would the consequences be for Israel? If all of the Muslim countries join together in a coalition, the first thing they may do after Iraq is pacified is start thinking, "If we can work together so well militarily, why not just all gang up together against Israel as a combined force?"

Granted, this is a long shot. Even getting these countries to work together in such a fashion is a relative impossibility. But other, smaller, positive steps might be agreed upon by a regional summit of Iraq's neighbors (like agreeing to stop interfering within Iraq), which could go a long way towards improving the situation on the ground.

The big question that will be answered in the months to come (as with any policy change outlined here) is whether the Bush White House would (1) fully commit to such an idea (as opposed to just going through the motions for political cover), and (2) achieve measurable success by doing so. Look for announcements from the administration very soon on new diplomatic efforts, but also keep an eye on their follow-through to see whether they're truly serious about such efforts.

 

[This is the first in a series of three articles. Part 2 will run tomorrow and deal with the aftermath inside of Iraq. Part 3 will be posted on Friday, which will discuss the military endgame and the long term outlook.]