U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has once again set herself an impossible goal. This time, she is not attempting to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace — a task at which she has been spectacularly unsuccessful — but rather to improve the security of Iraq.
At an international conference in Kuwait, 21-22 April, she is hoping to persuade Iraq’s neighbors to help the United States pacify the shattered and war-torn country — in other words to help repair some of the terrible damage the United States itself has done. It may be worth a try, but the prospects are highly unpromising.
Similar international conferences were held unsuccessfully at Sharm el-Sheikh in May 2007 and Istanbul last November. In each case, the main stumbling block was the deplorable state of U.S.-Iranian relations.
So long as the United States continues to threaten, demonize and sanction Iran — and seek to undermine its economy by boycotting its banks — it is wholly unrealistic for it to expect Iran to help ease America’s problems in Iraq.
Yet, President George W. Bush continues to mouth the offensive and dangerously simplistic assertions that have brought ruin to his presidency. “Iraq,” he declared at the White House last week, “is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this century: Al-Qaeda and Iran.”
“If we fail there,” he continued, “Al-Qaeda would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies. Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.”
Unconsciously — and in a couple of sentences — Bush has provided a striking example of the mistaken policies which have produced what the New York Times has called “one of the biggest strategic failures in American history.” But Bush apparently just does not see it. He remains in denial.
Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before America’s criminally misconceived war. It was America’s invasion and its continued occupation that gave Al-Qaeda the chance to implant itself in Iraq. Only when the United States finally withdraws from Iraq can Al-Qaeda be defeated there, because most Iraqis — and indeed most Arabs — have no time for Al-Qaeda. It is only in opposition to Western aggression that it gains popularity.
As for Iran dominating the region, it was the United States which overturned the balance of power in the Gulf by smashing Iraq, thus giving Iran the chance to emerge as the strongest local power. Before America’s intervention, Iraq had managed to keep Iran in check, as the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) amply demonstrated.
Another consequence of the U.S. invasion was to destroy Iraq’s internal balance between Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds — giving the Shi’a the chance to rule Baghdad for the first time in a thousand years.
These developments are probably irreversible, at least in the short run. But, once again, only an end to American intervention and the departure of American troops will allow regional and internal equilibria to be restored.
All of Iraq’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and the Gulf States — have an interest in a stable and unified Iraq. They must now overcome their differences and show real leadership. The time has surely come for the regional states to take their destiny into their own hands. They should convene a conference on Iraq — but politely ask Condoleezza Rice to stay away.
The following are the urgent tasks which they need to address.
• The United States needs to be helped to make an orderly withdrawal from the Iraqi quagmire, according to a strict timetable. This will require a constructive U.S. dialogue with countries such as Iran and Syria, which the United States has sought to punish and isolate, rather than co-opt. Washington needs to be persuaded that the defense of its legitimate interests does not require a vast military presence on the ground in Iraq and throughout the Gulf. On the contrary, the presence of U.S. troops in Arab countries creates enemies and puts American interests at risk.
• The rival Shi’a factions — notably Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and Prime Minister Maliki’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq need to end their violent clashes and negotiate a partnership. This will almost certainly require Iranian mediation.
• Even if the Shi’a continue to dominate the Iraq government, the Sunni community will need to be given a guaranteed and clearly defined place in the new political order. This will require the diplomatic intervention of Saudi Arabia with Iran and other neighbors.
• The Kurds need to be granted a measure of real autonomy — on a more secure basis than at present — and even perhaps a recognized predominance in Kirkuk, but only if they pay allegiance to a unitary Iraq and solemnly renounce all ambitions of full independence. This will almost certainly require a role for Turkey.
• Agreement on the exploitation of Iraq’s oil, and on a division of revenues between the different communities and regions, is an urgent priority. It may require the help of international institutions and agencies.
• Iraq’s reconstruction from the ravages of war, not to mention the repatriation of some two million refugees and the resettlement of another two million displaced persons, will be a mammoth task. The Gulf States should help finance this effort, if only to prevent instability in Iraq from over-spilling into their own prosperous region. Syria and Jordan also deserve compensation for having hosted the refugees at great cost to their own societies.
In a recent article (International Herald Tribune, April 8), Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State in the 1970s, called for an American debate about national security policy. Unfortunately, much like Bush himself, he rails against “radical Islam” whose ideology, he claims, “leaves little room for Western notions of negotiation.”
Instead, the struggle against the Islamic threat is “endemic,” he says, admitting of no compromise. “We do not have the opportunity of withdrawal from it. We can retreat from any one place like Iraq but only to be obliged to resist from new positions, probably more disadvantageously.”
This is neo-colonial bombast and mystification. If the United States wishes to tame the forces of “radical Islam” — forces which Bush and Kissinger find so alarming and which they vow to combat to the bitter end — it should stop killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, put an end to its “Global War on Terror,” and curb Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians. These are the real sources of the mayhem in the Middle East and of the threat to Western security.
A new approach will have to be found, a million miles away from the arrogant pre-emption, militarism, and unilateralism of the last seven years. Bush has shattered a major Arab country, killing tens of thousands, but he has also destroyed America’s reputation, overstretched its army, and plunged its public finances into deficit.
Everything considered, the next American President will need to carry out a radical revision of U.S. policy towards the Arab and Muslim world. A prerequisite for such a revision will be a candid investigation into the men and the interest groups that led America into war.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of “The Struggle for Syria;” also, “Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East”; and “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.” Copyright © 2008 Patrick Seale
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