Archive for June, 2005

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Falling poll numbers for the president and Congress and growing discontent with the Iraq war have breathed new life into what was recently a moribund anti-war movement. This will certainly bring joy to those who oppose all wars on moral grounds, but American pragmatists might better look more deeply into the potential outcomes of an early and precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq.

The arguments for and against the invasion of Iraq have been made. The invaders won, despite considerable evidence that argued, apparently correctly, against that invasion. But only history will ultimately show whether the decision to invade was folly or genius.

The fact is that we did invade and, right or wrong, we are now stuck with the reality of having dropped the plate at Pottery Barn. The only thing that is truly important for America right now is to sort out our future Iraq policy on the basis of today’s facts — and on the national interests of our country.

Iraq probably was never meant to be a country and has never been inherently stable. It is populated by people who share little in common. Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites have coexisted with minimal peace only because it was forced on them by a strong, ruthless and murderous central government.

Even more important, those disparate constituencies have supporters elsewhere in the region. The Saudis and other Sunni governments support the Sunnis; the Iranians support the Shiites; and millions of fellow Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Central Asia support the Kurds. None of the region’s undemocratic countries is likely to welcome a truly representative Iraqi democracy into their midst. Further, even democratic Turkey has major reservations about the creation of any kind of autonomous Kurdish Iraq, fearing its potential influence over a widely discontented Turkish Kurdish population. Iraqi Shiites have Iran as their main ally, and Iran is no friend of our Middle East policies. It is almost certainly not in the self-interest of those undemocratic regimes to support self-determination in Iraq.

Through our invasion, America has taken over the mantle of power from the Saddam Hussein regime. It is probable that age-old hostilities among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have not emerged more violently only because we are there in the position of enforcer. To test that probability by pulling out would be folly.

What do we want for Iraq, and what can we reasonably hope for? The only realistic answer is simple: We want stability because instability would most likely involve far too many other nations in the region. Iraq will probably not emerge as a recognizable democracy, but if we do it right, stability there will flow from self-determination.

We want to leave an Iraq that is stable on its own terms rather than ours ó not necessarily in deference to Iraqi sensibilities, but in recognition of our own self-interest. Perhaps this can be achieved through an Iraq government that is a federation. Such a government would grant autonomy to the three major groups, but would not be fragmented to the point where the central government was in danger of losing control over its territory, bringing civil war, regional unrest and even more terrorists than we are creating with our current policies. None of this may work, but we have to try.

For any new policy to work, the Bush administration needs to start out by acknowledging that things are not going well, by making the case that changes must be made and by explaining why Americans need to support that change. Once Americans understand and sign on, we will need to enlist the support of other nations and entities such as NATO in the training of Iraqi police and military personnel. Finally, we need to say clearly that we have no plans to establish U.S. bases, reserve oil rights or make any other sort of claim on Iraq.

Of course, the ultimate question is whether the Bush administration is up to the task, politically or psychologically. After all, it does not have a good record of admitting it was ever wrong about much of anything.

This is a time for patience. Our 2003 invasion is history. We need to develop a plan for establishing stability in Iraq and stick with it. A precipitous withdrawal would likely be a disaster, not only in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East, causing far more problems for us in the long run.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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