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Archive for June, 2007

Finding common ground with Iran is key

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Looking back on our experience with Iraq, it’s clear that the Bush administration decided that the Cold War policies of containment and alliances that kept the USSR and the USA from blowing each other to smithereens were no longer valid. Instead, they decided without public discussion that preemptive unilateralism would be the cornerstone of their foreign policy.

The combination of a Republican administration allied with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, with the pathetic, belly-up acquiescence of the Democrats, gave birth to preemptive unilateralism. Only 9/11 was needed to give us Iraq.

Right now, powerful forces — the neocons, some conservative Republicans and conservative Israelis and their supporters in America — are pushing hard for an attack on Iran in another show of preemptive unilateralism, the same policy that got us into the Iraq mess.

Iran, formerly Persia, has a glorious history going back more than 3,000 years. Iranians are proud of that history and see in it, along with their oil-based economic strength, their right to a far greater Iranian role in the Middle East. Despite the difficulties imposed by their theocratic Muslim mullahs, the Iranians are a proud people who will almost certainly rally behind whatever leaders they have, if attacked by an external enemy. On the other hand, the level of popular support for those mullahs and their policies is very low right now.

Iran is located in an extremely dangerous part of the world. It is surrounded by U.S. troops stationed abroad in the “war on terror.” There are nuclear weapons in Russia, Pakistan, India and Israel. Other than Israel and Turkey, it is the only non-Arab country in the Middle East. In addition, many in the far larger Sunni community revile Iran’s Shia form of Islam and are anxious about Iran’s push for hegemony in the Gulf. It is easy to understand why the Iranians would seek first class self-defense, and it is easy to understand why they are unlikely to attack anyone.

It is probably safe to say that another round of American preemptive unilateralism in Iran would be a replay of Iraq, compounded by a factor of “x.” Not only would the military aspects of an Iran attack be infinitely more difficult and expensive, the political ramifications would most certainly be counterproductive to our aims for that country. In the event of a foreign attack, we would certainly see those anti-theocratic Iranians who represent the best chance for political change in Iran, signing on with the mullahs. In short, an American attack would be likely to unify a currently discontented and politically fragmented country, making our task far more difficult.

The real issue here is whether or not containment and alliances could successfully help America avoid a much more difficult, complicated and bloody war in Iran. Our attitudes around the Iraq adventure have alienated many of our former allies, but we could do much to repair those relationships by eschewing preemptive unilateralism, making our former alliances strong and whole again, and sorting out how to contain a nuclear Iran. That is clearly the way the rest of the world wants to do it.

What do we have to fear from that approach? It worked for the 45 years of the Cold War. Quite apart from the absence of armed conflict, the moderating influences of our allies during the Cold War exerted a positive influence on U.S. policy, as the attitudes of Soviet allies moderated Soviet policies. We certainly could use some moderation in our foreign policy today.

The U.S. overthrow of the only legitimately elected government in Iran’s history, that of Mohammad Mossadeq came in 1954. The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 resulted directly from the events of 1954. What that means is that leadership on both sides is angry and intolerant — a poor basis for rational discourse.

But what most Americans don’t realize is that we have much in common. Neither America nor Iran wants to see Iraq turn into a regional conflict. Neither wants to see a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Neither wants to see an Iraq dominated by Sunnis. Iran is seriously in need of capital investment, which is something we can provide. All of this could serve as a basis for discussions and for the betterment of the relationship, which might conceivably lead to a peaceful resolution of the problems between us.

For that to happen, both sides will have to identify and recognize their common interests, tone down their bellicose rhetoric and acknowledge the legitimate needs of one another.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Iran and Lebanon and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in The Valley News.]

Americans are not united behind any one policy on when or how to get out of Iraq.  Why? Largely because “Iraq” is an internal political issue that stems from the Bush White House’s campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American people after 9/11.  During that campaign, a number of things that simply were not true got woven almost permanently into the Iraq tapestry.

This sales campaign stated that Iraq was somehow involved in 9/11; that there was an ongoing relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and Al Qaida; that there were WMD that would materialize in the form of mushroom clouds in the United States; that we could bring democracy to Iraq and that the Iraqis somehow could learn to live together.  All of these things when put together provided a persuasive argument that we needed to Invade Iraq.  That argument’s success is best measured by broad, bipartisan, congressional support.

Despite the inaccuracies and untruths of the sales campaign, much of it continues to be believed by significant portions of the American public.

Now, almost five years later, we are told that Iraq is the “front line of the war on terrorism”.   This is true, however the Iraqi front line was created solely by the U.S. invasion.  Al Qaida is active in Iraq only because there are American targets there.  There was absolutely no pre-invasion existence of Al Qaida in Iraq.  For that reason, Iraq is better viewed without being clouded by the “fighting terrorism in Iraq rather than here” mantra which is constantly mouthed by Republican politicians.

If you look at Iraq without the Al Qaida/terrorism filter, you will see a “country” made up of three major, competing groups.  That “country” has virtually no more hope of solving its internal differences than it has of embracing democracy.  Instead, it is sliding into full-blown civil war driven by age-old jealousies and rivalries.

There is, however, a major problem with Iraq.  The miserable military performance of the Israelis against Hizballah in Lebanon last summer has shown many Arabs that Israel is not invincible.   Like it or not, a precipitous, un-negotiated withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will fuel those fires by positing that, like Israel, America is weak and vulnerable.

“Arabia Decepta” was the title of an essay in Time Magazine just after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  It spoke to the premise that Arabs have a predilection to self-deception on matters that are of great importance to them.  For example, the headline on the English language Beirut Daily Star on the third day of the 1967 war was “Israeli Lines Crumble”.  Many Arabs will persuade themselves that Israel, American and the West are weak.  That will greatly complicate our struggle with radical Muslim terrorism.  The only way to soften the effects of US withdrawal from Iraq is to undertake negotiations with all the neighbors, none of whom wants chaos in his neighborhood.   Muslims will not view negotiated withdrawal as a US defeat.

This distinction is important because Al Qaida is strong and growing in its ambitions and numbers.   Despite U.S. decimation of Al Qaida leadership, our ill-advised incursion into Iraq has been a recruiting and fundraising gold mine for them.   Al Qaida is not going away and, like it or not, they will be emboldened and empowered by any precipitous withdrawal.

America is not ready to unilaterally confront a resurgent Al Qaida; one that has already hit us at home and that appears to have a rapidly growing membership.  In the past five years of Bush administration Iraq policy, we have alienated most of our friends around the world.  Without friends, a worldwide struggle (not war) with Al Qaida will be difficult to win.  Enough “War on Terrorism”,” Axis of Evil”, “Dead or Alive,” Smoke ’em out” or “Bring ‘em on”.  This is not the Wild West.  Such cocky, intemperate pronouncements, which accurately characterize the Bush Administration’s attitude toward terrorism, only energize our enemies.

We need a new policy.  Rather than trying to arm ourselves to the teeth and unilaterally confront our radical Muslim enemies all around the world, we need to re-evaluate our policy and consider the alternatives.  Radical Muslim terrorism is supported by a tiny fraction of Muslims.  To be successful, radicals must get support from moderates.   The nature of terrorism demands that we examine the roots of terrorist movements and try to mitigate the factors that cause their anger and provide their support.

If we do not want to take on the entire Muslim world in armed struggle, we absolutely must look at existing, alternative policies that will weaken Al Qaida in the Muslim world and strengthen our hand against them.  We need friends for this struggle, the friends who have deserted us over our Iraq policy.

Unilateral bellicosity is no substitute for sober alliances.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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