Next moves in Iraq

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The United States needs to have an exit strategy, trim its ambitious goals of state- and nation-building and overcome the temptations of its ‘uni-polar’ moment. That may save American and Iraqi lives and restore some normality to the region Last week’s mid-term elections in the US have reconfirmed at least two political truths. First, in democracies people can force a change in the way leaders think about problems of national importance, and if the leaders fail to fall in line, replace them with those who reflect their sentiments and interests more closely. Second, foreign policy issues are no longer a preserve of the elite, bureaucracies, military and intelligence establishments; when it begins to hurt, particularly when billions of taxpayers’ dollars and lives of young men and women get wasted, people begin to perceive these issues in ways that may not jibe with the thinking of those who rule them. The results then are truly a ‘thumping’ for President George W. Bush, his Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, now on his way out, and the entire lobby of the neo-conservatives who pushed for the invasion of Iraq. Angered by the Iraq war, the voters have taken revenge on the Republican candidates and caused a decisive shift of power on the Hill. The question now is: How will the control of Congress by the Democrats going to influence the course of American foreign policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubles spots of the world; will there be a change with some continuity or a clean break with the past? A change is inevitable. Bush didn’t waste much time in sending a positive signal to the voters and the leaders of Democratic Party by asking his swaggering defence secretary to leave. Since the invasion four years back things have not been going the American way in Iraq. The dream of a unified, peaceful and democratic Iraq is nowhere close to realisation. Rather the opposite is true; Iraq is more fragmented along ethnic and sectarian lines than ever before in its history; insurgency has increased and become deadlier than in the previous years; and, the failure to resolve the issue of power-sharing among various ethnic groups has pushed the country to a disastrous civil war with a real danger of its disintegration. This is not a comfortable situation for the Iraqi population or their neighbours. For the US, the Iraq adventure has been a major strategic failure that will have a lasting effect on the Middle Eastern politics and security. It is the fear, uncertainty and calculation of dangers ahead that those associated with the neo-conservative strategists — represented by Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — have preferred to live with the false hope of ‘prevailing’ in Iraq than giving themselves an honest chance to retrospectively analyse what has gone wrong and why. In conflict situations, changing course when the going gets tougher requires rational thinking, political courage and some sense of realism. The hawkish security advisors of Bush lacked these qualities. Here are some tangible costs of continuing with the current policy: more than US$400 billion have been spent as part of the war effort, US$39 billion for Iraqi reconstruction; more than 2,700 American soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands wounded. The human and material costs for the Iraqis are staggering. More than 600,000 have been killed, millions are internally displaced, the damage to their economy and infrastructure is incalculable and the slaughter of innocent civilians is a daily affair. One really wonders what this war is about. It doesn’t look like it was, or can be, for the march of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘peace’, a vision that Bush attempted to sell to his public and the rest of the world at the time of invading that country. The defeat of Republicans provides Bush a fresh opportunity to give serious thought to his Iraq policy. He has already indicated this by saying that Robert Gates, a nominee for the secretary of defence, will be an ‘agent of change’ and has also been quick in making overtures towards the Democratic leadership about pursuing a bipartisan approach on Iraq and other foreign policy issues. Perhaps, he is stating the obvious and the inevitable because if the gap in the perceptions of Democratic Congress and the Republican White House on how to secure Americans at home or abroad persists, there would be gridlock for the next two years. And if Bush fails to build up a coalition with the conservative Democrats in the Congress, he will become a lame duck president. A president weakened by a severe political setback at home cannot hope to act strong abroad without bipartisan support. The question is: what kind of change can we expect in American foreign policy? It doesn’t appear that the Americans are going to commit to a front-loaded withdrawal in the near future, or even set a short and clear deadline. There is a bipartisan consensus that leaving Iraq in chaos wouldn’t serve American interests in the region; rather a hasty retreat would expose it to greater dangers and risks. Transferring more responsibility to the Iraqi government will be one of the options among the tough ones that the American foreign and security policy establishment will have to consider in the coming months. This option is also fraught with dangers due to the weak capacity of the government, the sectarian bent of its functionaries and their associate communal militias. The Iraqi government is neither neutral, nor is it representative of all social interests. The American disentanglement from Iraq is likely to be gradual and calibrated. Even if they leave much of the local business of governing and tactical decision-making to the Iraqi partners, American forces will stay on and will be on call to assist the Iraqis. Pouring more troops or acting with greater and determined force against the sectarian militias that have carved up territorial domains and have social support in their communities don’t sound as realistic options. Doing so will further estrange the ambivalent Iraqi leaders who may find themselves in the crossfire between the militant outfits and the American war machine. Hopefully, the bipartisan commission now considering various options for Iraq strategy will more away from ‘prevailing’ at all cost to a realistic, sober and pragmatic assessment, which the American military leaders on the ground have been demanding for quite some time. Among all the possible options, the United States needs to have an exit strategy, trim its ambitious goals of state- and nation-building and overcome the temptations of its ‘uni-polar’ moment. That may save American and Iraqi lives and restore some normality to the region. War is a dead option. The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences