It’s no longer simply the case that U.S. goals in Iraq cannot be achieved; right now U.S. goals in Iraq cannot even be clearly defined. Strip away President Bush’s bumper-sticker bromides about “staying the course” and fighting “Islamo-fascism,” and what remains is a gaping vacuum in real-world strategy. The Bush administration tore up the traditional U.S. strategic approach towards the Middle East, in the belief that a military hammer-blow at the heart of the Arab world would precipitate a dramatic reordering of the region’s realities on terms more favorable than ever to U.S. global interests — a politico-military fantasy that had less in common with John Foster Dulles than it did with Che Guevara (and whose assumptions were as tragically naive). The failure of the promised regional transformation to materialize has left U.S. policy makers confronting an old reality in which the position of U.S. has deteriorated precipitously as a result of its failed social engineering in Iraq.
Bush sells his electorate the notion that Iraq is simply a theater of a global battle for domination ptting the U.S. and its allies against Zarqawi and Bin Laden, but U.S. commanders on the ground have long indicated otherwise: Foreign jihadists are a minor component of the insurgency – no more than 5 percent – their presence amplified by the barbarity of their actions and their acute understanding of how to capture the attention of the Western media. Zarqawi’s savagery – and Bin Laden’s fantasies about a caliphate ruling from Spain to Indonesia – have very little to do with the main plotline in Iraq. The driving force of the conflict there is a struggle among Iraqis, and their neighbors, over the post-Saddam distribution of power in Iraq and in the wider region.
The U.S. has shattered the unhappy but nonetheless relatively stable strategic equilibrium that had prevailed before it invaded Iraq, but it has failed to replace it with a new equilibrium more favorable to U.S. interests or even simply conducive to stability. Having eschewed “stability” as a strategic goal, the Bush administration has seen its “revolutionary” politics founder in the hard sands of Middle Eastern reality, but it has done enough damage to leave the region facing a protracted period of chaos with no good options available to Washington.
That’s why the administration has been so downbeat about this week’s referendum in Iraq, Expect violence to increase, Bush warns. And don’t expect the new constitution to solve anything, the military adds.
Iraqis are invited to vote on a new constitution drawn up by a democratically-elected parliament of Shiites and Kurds. The U.S. military now openly admits that far from creating a national consensus that might diminish support for the insurgency, the constitution actually exacerbates the communal conflict that drives the insurgency. The Sunnis may or may not participate in the referendum, but either way, their message is the same: No to the new constitution. It’s not hard to see that when the constitution passes, as it almost certainly will, the Sunnis will not accept the new order – if anything, a successful referendum is more likely to bolster Sunni support for the insurgency.
And not just inside Iraq, either.
A little explored aspect of the current standoff is the fact that the pro-U.S. regimes of the Sunni Arab world have watched in horror as Washington has presided over what they view as a Shiite — and by extension, Iranian — takeover in Baghdad, peacefully via the ballot box accomplishing what eight years of bloody warfare in the 1980s couldn’t. That has further destabilized the already-shaky pro-U.S. regimes in the region, not only in the form of jihadists who’ll turn their guns on the Hashemites and al-Sauds when they return home but even more importantly, by unleashing long-dormant (or at least -manageable) Shiite-Sunni tensions in states across the region.
The post-election power arrangement in Baghdad has not only put the Shiites in the driving seat, it has produced a constitution that codifies the breakup of Iraq by allowing the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south to create de facto independent mini-states that control their own armed forces, economic policy, water supply and – crucially important – oil reserves.
Whether through a Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad, or through a mini-state in the south over Iraq’s largest oil fields, from a geostrategic point of view Iran is the big winner in a democratic Iraq.
It’s a safe bet, then, that the governments of the Sunni Arab world, whatever they profess in public, will have a vested interest in, at least tacitly, backing the insurgency as a proxy force for curbing, and rolling back Iranian and Shiite influence (and, perhaps, even allowing them, as they did in the 80s with the Afghan jihad, to “export” their domestic Islamist challenge). After all, they held their noses and backed Saddam in his war with Iran in the 1980s precisely to restrict the expansion of Iranian influence. So did the Reagan administration.
The complexities of the geostrategic equation have, of course, been conspicuously absent in the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, precisely because they claimed that the projection of U.S. military power would transform the distasteful realities with which traditional State Department realism had reconciled U.S. policy. That was why the Bush team conspicuously ignored the warnings of grand strategists like Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush’s father, and Anthony Zinni, the former U.S. commander for the Gulf, both of whom publicly predicted the strategic debacle created by the invasion. That may be why it has become conventional wisdom in U.S. strategic studies circles that the invasion of Iraq was probably the single greatest U.S. strategic blunder in contemporary history.
But as the ideological mist begins to clear in Washington, those responsible for evolving a new grand strategy to defend and extend U.S. interests in the region – as opposed to the likes of Cheney and Rice serving up Kool Aid for the electorate – confront the reality that U.S. power and influence in the region, and beyond, have actually been considerably diminished over the past three years.
Iran’s regime is still there, more confident than ever as it observes the U.S. struggling in the Iraqi quagmire — the confidence with which it has handled the nuclear showdown is hardly unrelated to difficulties faced by the U.S. in Iraq (and Iran’s own successes in shaping the postwar outcome there). Al Qaeda is still out there, having used the opportunity presented by Iraq to remodel itself and spawn a new generation of operatives even less dependent than their forebears on centralized command or third-country sanctuary — and having had the traction of their worldview on the Arab street amplified by events. And the notion that projecting force despite the objections of the international community would intimidate both enemies and reluctant allies into heeding Washington’s writ has backfired disastrously. (Spare me the gag line about Libya – the flakey colonel has been trying for more than a decade to come in from the cold.) The recent agreement announced in the North Korea nuclear talks is an indicator of the wasting of U.S. diplomatic muscle: As Newsweek showed, that deal was authored by Beijing, and Washington had no choice but to accept it. Indeed, China’s soft-power muscle over a number of fronts is soon going to confound a wide range of U.S. efforts, first and foremost on Iran. Indeed, if the U.S. had wanted Chinese support on Iran, which is set to become its premier foreign oil supplier, it might have thought twice before blocking the Chinese company CNOOC’s acquisition of Chevron. If China is forced to find oil supplies in places where the U.S. writ does not run, it’s a relatively safe bet that the domain of U.S. power will shrink in the years ahead.
But back to the options facing the U.S. in Iraq: Curiously enough, there’s an unacknowledged — and tragically ironic — common interest between the U.S. and the Baathist core leadership of the insurgency: They share the goal of resisting and rolling back Iranian influence in Baghdad; and also in preventing the breakup of Iraq into ethnic enclaves. Although they’re on opposite sides of the equation in the short term, in the long term they may even have a common interest in eliminating Zarqawi and the foreign jihadists. (The Baathists know that their alliance with the jihadists is a temporary and tactical one; in the long run the strategic logic of each will require that they seek to destroy the other. And given their track record and the capabilities they’ve demonstrated under occupation, I’d bet on the Baathists.)
But it’s more complex: Although the generals realize that the constitution exacerbates the trend towards civil war, they also recognize that the toothpaste is out of the tube. The Shiites will not accept any thing less than democracy — remember, democratically electing the constitution-making body and approving it by referendum were not part of the administration’s plan; Jerry Bremer had planned for the U.S. to directly rule Iraq for at least three years, during which time his administration would oversee the adoption of a new constitution and the privatization of the economy on U.S. friendly terms. It was Grand Ayatollah Sistani that stepped in and forced Washington’s hand, making clear that if they didn’t accept democratic majority rule and Iraqi sovereignty over the constitutional process, the U.S. would be facing not only a Sunni insurgency, but also a mass Shiite insurrection.
So the U.S. has been reduced to advocating on behalf of the Sunnis, largely in vain. The Shiites will prevail next week whatever it takes, although their victory will also accelerate a new crisis for the U.S. to manage, as both sides square up over the fate of Kirkuk, which the Kurds want as the jewel in the crown of their proto-state. The possibility of Turkish intervention remains strong, particularly if the Turkish military establishment sees the writing on the wall for their country’s prospects of actually joining the European Union. And both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite government may be reluctant to let go of Kirkuk.
And the outbursts by the Saudi foreign minister in Washington recently indicate that the Arab regimes are increasingly agitated at the drift in U.S. strategy. Iran, hardly surprisingly, has wholeheartedly endorsed the new constitution, and is urging its adoption. And equally unsurprising is the growing tension between the Saudis and Iran.
The U.S. has charged into Iraq without a strategic map; only a naïve set of slogans and lofty proclamations that have little grounding in reality – for example, democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan may be a noble idea, but it would almost certainly take each of those countries entirely out of the U.S. orbit. They would not remain, to use Bush’s latest formulation, “allies in the war on terror.”
Now, despite the rhetoric, the administration will be forced more than ever to rely on those neighboring regimes it has been pressing to transform: Not only the Arab autocracies, but also the mullahs in Tehran, with whom establishing a new modus vivendi will be critical to the prospects for the U.S. to extricate itself from the current, untenable form of its engagement in Iraq. Whether they admit it or not, stability will once again become the primary realistic objective of U.S. policy in the region — only, as a result of events in Iraq, such stability may be more elusive than ever.