The Election on Empire

The elections just might deliver the strong medicine needed to jolt malignant Iraq policy back on course.

"Redeploy" envisions a phased withdrawal on an unspecified timeline, with the goal of reducing U.S. casualties but preserving an ability to strike terrorists. "Stability" involves a more focused effort to pacify the key conflict zone of Baghdad, accompanied by diplomatic efforts perhaps even involving Syria and Iran (!) to reduce the insurgency and attacks.

It's hard not to view the "Stability" option as anything other than the course that has gotten us to this point, with the long-shot twist of convincing our until-recently vilified enemies Iran and Syria to save us and Iraq. If anyone can do it, James Baker probably can. But for the time being, Iran and Syria are both undoubtedly happy to see the United States continue to bleed in Iraq while they consolidate influence there. Still, enlisting their help would be more realistic than flouting both Iraqi and U.S. public opinion and sending in more troops that we don't have-as some of the neoconservatives who got us into this mess want to do.

All these proposals to use more force ignore the widespread consensus that the presence of U.S. and foreign forces is aggravating the situation. Even UK army head General Sir Richard Dannatt recently admitted that the continued U.S. and UK troop presence "exacerbates the security problems" in Iraq and the "difficulties" faced "around the world." Polls show most Iraqis want the United States to leave in short order-and significant majorities, including almost ninety percent of Sunnis, tragically support the attacks on our troops. With Iraqi deaths counted in the hundreds of thousands, one can understand how the Iraqi people might say "enough freedom already; go home."

The "Redeploy" alternative also has serious risks that no one concerned with human rights can ignore. President Bush argues that withdrawing U.S. forces would unleash a worsening civil war, create a new terror haven, humiliate America and dishonor service personnel. But current policy is already producing those results.

The Bush administration should therefore heed the U.S. public's electoral call to consider something truly new. Instead of continued obstinacy on Iraq, the administration should welcome the overdue debate on the viable options that do exist-in the "reality-based community."

Consider the impact on Iraq if withdrawal were (1) announced as taking place over the next year, (2) accompanied by a clear disavowal of any U.S. interest in permanent bases or occupation of Iraq, (3) tied to very substantial "carrots" and financial aid incentives for investment and economic development equal to a year's worth of spending on the war, upon achievement of specific milestones (e.g. pertaining to security, human rights protections and training, agreement on fair distribution of oil resources) and (4) involved the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Arab League (and yes, even Iran and Syria if possible) in security training and achieving the political accommodation that's an indispensable prerequisite for future progress.

The United States must by its words and actions clarify that it neither intends to keep Iraq as a colony nor stay in Iraq permanently, and that Iraq's oil resources are for all the Iraqi people. The new, nearly billion-dollar embassy "fortress" and the "enduring" military bases understandably remind Iraqis of the British bases used for bombings and poison gas attacks early last century, and should be repurposed. This would have a major positive impact on Iraqi and global Muslim public opinion.

Significant investment in economic development, security, and human rights is equally important. The sectarian strife is being driven by jockeying to control economic resources. Rather than pushing for a federal structure that will be seen by Iraqis and others as a classic colonial divide-and-conquer tactic, what's needed now is a strategy to constrain Iraq's many sectarian, centrifugal forces that could lead to violent partition. Such a strategy would involve a significant investment, but it pales in comparison to the estimated two trillion dollars in costs already incurred and the future costs of years of continued occupation.

A managed withdrawal along these lines would have the benefit of engendering that scarcest of commodities in contemporary Iraq: hope. It would give the American and Iraqi people what they want, on terms better than they expect. A measured withdrawal over time accompanied by these other actions, as opposed to the forced and precipitous Vietnam-like withdrawal later, could actually dampen violence. Remember that contrary to years of dire warnings, after withdrawal from Vietnam, the dominos didn't fall.

Withdrawal would remove the foreign occupation that generates so much violence and terrorism. After such a U.S. withdrawal, the resistance the United States faces could turn against the foreign Al-Qaeda elements. Staying would only repeat the Vietnam mistake of prolonging the cycle of violence, likely resulting in even greater U.S. and Iraqi deaths while continuing to stimulate terrorism.

Managed withdrawal in this manner would also begin the long process of restoring U.S. credibility (which will depend on other policy changes including more strenuous efforts at peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a less militaristic imperial posture, renewed respect for international law and greater multilateral engagement to address common global problems). Although it's a long shot, persuading the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League to play a constructive role would be potentially invaluable. Other than remote help (e.g. hosting an aid conference), the United Nations won't be of much help since it has already been attacked as a neo-colonialist tool.