Outlook for US Aims in Iraq
LE MONDE | 18.02.05 | 14h23
Any analysis of the Middle East starts with an analysis of the situation in Iraq in the aftermath of the 30 January elections--there is going to be no radical transformation in the short term due to the sparse turnout among the Sunni population.
More ambitious than the British, who in 1920 relied on the Sunni minority to control events, the Americans believed they could import a Western-style régime into Iraq. Driven by messianic vision, Washington dreamt of installing a democracy in Baghdad which would transform the whole region. In launching the Greater Middle East Initiative it had hoped to transcend the difficulties with which it met on the ground.
The policy of the British was to impose a dictatorship. From then on, they enjoyed a great deal of latitude in manipulating a succession of régimes in Baghdad. But will the American adventure in Iraq produce a stable, pro-American régime? This is certainly the goal of the United States. But so far they have not found a way to avoid Shi’ite domination. And clearly the objective of the supporters of Ayatollah al-Sistani is to send the Americans packing as soon as possible.
As things stand, Washington is now committed to a long-term presence to prevent the outbreak of civil war. Originally estimated to number only a few thousand partisans, the insurgency is now counted in the tens of thousands. US troops are frightened--their behavior is becoming more and more distrustful, even displaying outright hostility towards the population. Despite what is said, those who want to import “international terrorism” are few. The insurrection comes from within the country and it is heterogeneous.
In theory, two solutions are available. One is a massive build-up in the US military presence to approximately 500,000 troops. But the Pentagon is already struggling to maintain the current 150,000. The other, which corresponds to the current strategy, is to reduce troop presence by accelerating the training of Iraqi security forces using US advisors. But time is running out and the insurgents are concentrating precisely on demoralizing these forces in the embryo.
Some voices inside the United State are arguing for a military pullout pure and simple. But sooner or later a request will come from the Iraqi government itself insisting on a US pullout. The unanswered question is what the fundamental attitude of this government will be towards the United States.
America’s difficulties in Iraq haven’t softened the rhetoric directed against the régime of mullahs in Iran. Nothing indicates that Washington has given up on toppling this régime, which in fact is ailing and unpopular. But if the United States or Israel give into the temptation to attack Iran, then it is very likely that the immediate consequence will be a nation unified against America.
By refusing dialog with Teheran, Washington diminishes the capacity of Iran to influence events inside Iraq. Due to the multiplicity and the nuance of its ancient ties to Iraq, Iran has the potential of making things very much worse inside Iraq. Whatever the case, any recent visitor to Teheran or Qom cannot help but notice that the results of the 30 January election are considered to be an immense success for Iran.
It is undeniable that in the medium term the Islamic republic must carry out wide-ranging economic and political reforms. But it is in no danger of imminent collapse. Neither is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is being sorely tested. Incidentally, there has been a warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite their deep rivalry, driven by a mutual instinct for survival.
The best chance for progressive institutional change in the Middle East is to take up the dossiers of the most challenging yet neglected issues, beginning with Israel-Palestine. The first steps taken by Mahmoud Abbas have been bold; getting Hamas to participate in the peace talks seems increasingly likely. The ceasefire to which Israel and Palestine agreed on 8 February in Sharm al Sheikh holds new hope. Forthcoming events – especially the Palestinian parliamentary elections in July coinciding with the Gaza pullout – will be crucial. The path to a final settlement remains long although the terms, even concerning the thorniest of issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the Israeli settlements or the Palestinina refugees, are already known. The right of return, as we know, is no longer an insurmountable obstacle.
In diplomacy, it is rare that the contents of formulas are more malleable than the formulas themselves. When a problem appears intractable, said the father of a united Europe, Jean Monnet (1888-1979), change the problem. Therein lies the art of negotiation. And the moment is ripe to begin.
The best way to get Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in compliance with UN Resolution 1559 of 2 September 2004 is to begin negotiations with Israel on a withdraw from the Golan Heights. But Washington has imposed sanctions on Damascus and allows doubt to swirl around its intentions concerning the régime of Bashir al-Assad. Surely it knows that if al-Assad is toppled, chaos will ensue.
Within the framework of a return to diplomacy, as President Bush has advocated, a time and place must be found for the opening up of a dialog with Iran. If the successor to President Khatami (elections will be held in June) is a powerful and experienced man, like Hojjat ol-Islam Hashemi Rafsanjani, it is conceivable that the Islamic Republic will recognized Israel and agree to observe the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, two Western demands, in exchange for acceptance of its legitimate role in regional security and economic concessions.
The positive aspect of the more or less aborted Greater Middle East Initiative is that certain régimes have become more aware of the necessity of reform. Saudi Arabia has taken a few steps in that direction. We all know Tocqueville’s Law: The moment in which a country initiates reforms is the moment in which a moldering régime risks collapse. It’s not always good for the population and the environment when a régime, even moldering, collapses. If Western countries can create a minimum amount of confidence in which to work, then they can assist their Middle Eastern partners in dialog in making incremental reforms which will gradually open up a space for enduring cooperation.
Such ideas may appear utopian but I believe that they are not. To implement grand designs, you need generous vision in the planning coupled with realism in the execution. And by their very nature, grand designs seem improbable at the outset.
Thierry de Montbrial