Can Obama or Clinton Avoid A Bush Moment Leaving Iraq?
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette 4/24/08
The fifth anniversary of President George Bush’s “Should you survive to a hundred you will never live it down ‘Mission Accomplished’” debacle has passed. So it is time to worry about the Mission Accomplished misfortune awaiting the next administration of our (Please God!) Democratic president.
For the only worse thing America could do other than invade Iraq, is to leave it.
Indeed the same hubris which afflicted Bush and Co. in thinking the invasion would be a “cake walk”, might be necessary to insure an American withdrawal. The same reckless disregard for the price Iraqis paid for the invasion might be needed to effect a removal of our troops.
This is because the only way to successfully withdraw from Iraq – that is to leave it without an ensuing bloodbath – is to reinvent American foreign policy in general.
The situation in Iraq has gone through several stages from the general chaos the destruction of the Iraqi state unleashed in 2003; through the anti-American insurgency of 2004-2005; to the Shiite/Sunni civil war of 2006-2007.
Now however, and with many qualifications, the main difficulty facing that poor nation is that it is a failed state: that is, there is no central government but rather a collection of militias which control their own turf: Kurds to the north; Shiites in the oil rich south and a collection of former anti-American insurgents known as “Awakening Councils” in the central Sunni heartland; and of course the government in Baghdad.
And failed states always succumb to the Faustian Catch 22 that no militia will give up arms until there is a negotiated central government, and no negotiated central government can emerge until the militias disarm and disband. So the militias fight it out until the last man is standing.
Einstein once famously said that God does not play dice. But the Creator must have a powerful sense of irony as America in Iraq now finds itself in the precise position that its old nemesis the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan. After years of being bloodied and squandering its resources in Afghanistan, the Soviets simply packed up and went home. Leaving the then failed state of Afghanistan to descend into a civil war so hellish the Afghan people welcomed the youthful Taliban as heroes when they brought the fighting to an end.
But by then the Soviet Union no longer existed.
And while many anti-war Americans selfishly call Iraq “Bush’s War”, the truth is it is America’s War and any terror unleashed by our withdrawal will fall upon our heads and souls. As will possibly years of instability in a region accurately known as a powder keg of possible instability.
And that is why the sentiment “Troops Out Now!” must be amended to Troops Out Now Without A Bloodbath Later!
And that will be well nigh impossible without a make over in American foreign policy. And while America seems ready to vote for Obamaesque Hope, it has got to be ready for a sea change in policy too.
Without a new “Coalition of the Necessary” to lay the groundwork for a stable Iraq years after an American withdrawal, then the “Afghanistanization” of Iraq is a foregone outcome. Because if America does not form that Coalition, then it will be in the interest of a number of neighboring states to foment instability so as to achieve their goals through proxy militias.
And that Coalition must include first and foremost an Iran with which we have respectful relations whether or not it wants to build a nuke or insult Israel. Because the United States made Iran a regional superpower when it invaded Iraq. (And because unlike the Soviet Union Iran will be around forever.)
Then there is the single largest obstacle to any change in the entire region: Palestine. The next president will have to risk a break with our old ally, Israel, to compel a two-state solution within the first year of his administration. A homeland for the Palestinians (which insures security for Israel) is the sine qua non of an American withdrawal from Iraq – for as the concentric ripples of instability spread through the region from our violent hubris; so too will ripples of cooperation spread from our peacemaking humility.
Such a peace settlement will also require the cooperation of – and therefore normalized ties with – Syria, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, and most importantly the Palestinian Hamas movement. And Hamas will not undertake such an endeavor without new elections which will probably propel it to power once again as the last free election did in 2006.
Which is to say that a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, as opposed to an abandonment of that nation to its bloody fate, will require a repudiation of seven years of the “War on Terror” rhetoric which Bush has sown in the American psyche. Can Americans find their way in the world without the touchstone of terrorism to ground them? What language, what narrative, can a new president create to bring about the great psychological shift in American thinking -- and the thinking of Americans -- so necessary for a successful withdrawal from Iraq?
For make no mistake, without such an elemental change in psychology and policy, there are only two possible outcomes in Iraq. First: We will withdraw precipitously and it will become a fratricidal failed state whose oil-wealth-fueled aftermath will send seismic shock waves around the world. Or second: Getting American troops out of Iraq will remain the hot button issue -- in 2012.