Sunday, January 28, 2007

Making Lemonade 

"If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides . . . . A contagion of violence could spill out across the country -- and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.

"For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle."
--President George W. Bush,
State of the Union Address, 1/23/06

So: What is to be done? Reporter Carolyn Lochhead of the S.F. Chronicle posed that question to several prominent policy analysts and discovered a surprising willingness to embrace the inevitable. Compared to the prospect of another few years in the quagmire, the President's "nightmare scenario" of immediate American withdrawal is . . . well . . . not really all that nightmarish:
"If we get run off, there's no reason to say it would be a positive thing, OK?" said retired Gen. William Nash, U.S. commander in Bosnia from 1995 to 1997. "But just think of the dire predictions that were made in 1975 when the helicopters were leaving the embassy grounds of Saigon and everybody thinking that the dominoes would begin to fall. Lo and behold, the dominoes not only didn't fall, but a number of the regional actors started taking some responsibilities for some things."

Terrible things cannot be ruled out, said Michael Mandelbaum, head of the foreign policy program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. "But the relevant question for American foreign policy is, would they be terrible for us? Would we be worse off than we are now? And I don't think that goes without saying."

Many of the dark scenarios sketched as future prospects already exist, even critics of a withdrawal readily acknowledge.

Refugee flows are large and growing -- nearly 4 million Iraqis have either been internally displaced or have fled abroad. Ethnic cleansing is altering the makeup of Baghdad. A civil war is underway. Populations have become radicalized. Al Qaeda terrorists have established a base in Anbar province. Iran is intervening, aiding Shiite militias. Syria is allowing militants over its border. American standing is damaged.

But there is no reason to automatically assume, many experts said, that the situation will improve if U.S. troops stay -- or get worse if they leave . . . .

Regional war is the scariest of the scenarios, with the assumption that it would be accompanied by an oil shock.

That assumes all the neighboring countries would look into the abyss, and jump in. Yet it is not clear why they would do so.

"When you sit down and scrub that carefully, it's not a certainty by any means," said Bruce Riedel, a former Bush national security official now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Take Iran. "Iran has very close ties to every single Shia and Kurdish politician, militia and political group in Iraq," Riedel said. "They're already in there. They have a huge intelligence presence inside of Iraq. It's hard for me to see why, after we left, they would need to put in ground troops. They've already got their influence there, and their side of the civil war, the Shia, is likely to prevail in the long run."

What about the Sunni Arab states, especially U.S. ally Saudi Arabia? Saudi officials have warned loudly that they would come to the aid of Iraq's minority Sunnis if they were threatened with annihilation.

"The reality is that none of them have the military capability to do anything serious," Riedel said. "Saudi Arabia doesn't have an army that can advance into Anbar province. It just doesn't have that military capability, nor does Jordan, nor does Kuwait. These are countries that can barely defend themselves, let alone project military power" . . . .

"If the United States is insistent, I think Turkey would stand back," said Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. "I don't think the Turks are interested in breaking their links to the U.S. or to Europeans just to get themselves into the middle of a civil war" . . . .

In fact, it is not all that easy to see exactly how an Iraqi civil war would spread past its borders, [former national security official Rand] Beers said.

"How do you get the violence outside of the country?" he asked. "Iraqis are not going to invade another country. Scenarios are that Iran might march in to protect the Shias, that Turkey might march in because the Kurds are destabilizing Turkey. The Saudis might at least be prepared to arm the Sunnis. Those are all adding fuel to the fire in Iraq -- not expanding conflict outside of Iraq."

Apocalyptic scenarios of regional war also were floated by Clinton administration officials during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts in the 1990s, said John Mueller, chairman of national security studies at Ohio State University. The term used by then-CIA director James Woolsey was that the civil war would "metastasize" across Europe.

In Iraq, Mueller said, "The most likely scenario, and it's still a fairly bad one, is that the other countries would contain Iraq and there would be a civil war that would gradually work its way out. The idea of it spreading throughout the Middle East and all over the world strikes me as a considerable stretch. Not that it's impossible. But the best analogy would be the long civil war in Lebanon. Other countries meddled in various ways, but they also kept it there, as much as possible."

A regional war would be terrible for the region, Mandelbaum said. "But as cynical, as cold-blooded as it may sound, we have to ask what interests of ours would be jeopardized. ... It seems to me it's worth taking a look at our options and not assuming that all options are worse than this one."
Elsewhere, our learned colleague David Kurtz of TPM links to the Congressional testimony of Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.), who insists that Iraq cannot be "fixed" by new tactics -- only by new strategy:
Several critics of the administration show an appreciation of the requirement to regain our allies and others' support, but they do not recognize that withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is the sine qua non for achieving their cooperation. It will be forthcoming once that withdrawal begins and looks irreversible. They will then realize that they can no longer sit on the sidelines. The aftermath will be worse for them than for the United States, and they know that without US participation and leadership, they alone cannot restore regional stability. Until we understand this critical point, we cannot design a strategy that can achieve what we can legitimately call a victory.

Any new strategy that does realistically promise to achieve regional stability at a cost we can prudently bear, and does not regain the confidence and support of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date, I have seen no awareness that any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.

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