Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dwindling Options in Iraq

In a most perverse way, I feel vindicated. In one of my earliest posts, I proposed that the best way to address a controversial issue was not for the President to make a single proposal, but instead to offer options for public debate. I was referring to a domestic issue, but now, according to analysis by the Los Angeles Times, there are roughly six options being discussed for Iraq, (1) stay the course, (2) increase troops, (3) gradual withdrawal, (4) partition or decentralization, (5) negotiate with Syria and Iran, or (6) install a new strongman. Some of these proposals are mutually exclusive, but there is not reason why we cannot combine various others. My own preference is for (5), negotiation with Syria and Iran, combined with whatever combination of other approaches promises the best result.

George Bush is famously opposed to negotiating with "evil," but he is by no means to only one in this case. Juan Cole has a good roundup of reactions. According to the Sunday Times (London), insurgent forces share the alarm. The Times reports that U.S. forces had been negotiating with insurgent groups for some time. Negotiations were troubled at best because the insurgents, Sunnis and Baathists, only wanted to negotiate return to power. Upon hearing that Americans would even consider negotiations with Iran, the insurgents cried betrayal and broke off negotiations. The Saudi leadership is so alarmed that they have threatened to give aid to the Sunni insurgents if the United States withdraw precipitously.

Obviously such the neighbors' fears an rational. Any negotiated settlement with Iran will almost certainly mean Iranian domination of at least the Shiite areas of Iraq, a prospect that alarms most neighboring countries. Yet Iran has the power to sabotage any future for Iraq not to its liking. To resist negotiations is to close one's eyes to the painful truth, which has long proved a failing policy. So, how does one negotiate the best feasible arrangement between parties who are so irreconcileably hostile to one another?

Start by negotiating with Iran. Let there be no illusions what we will be negotiating. We will negotiating the terms of handing dominant authority in southern (Shiite) Iraq over to Iran. What do we get in exchange? The last remaining hope for any degree of stability in the Shiite areas of Iraq. As Hilzoy admirably explains at Obsidian Wings, so long as Iran is facing a hostile army next door that might attack, it is in Iran's interest to stirr up trouble in Iraq. Once the hostile army withdraws and Iran faces a power vacuum next door, or an area it wishes to dominate, then stabilizing Iraq will be very much in Iran's interests. Will Iran be able stabilize Shiite Iraq? No one knows. If yes, then everyone, but especially the Iraqis will be better off. If no, then it becomes Iran's problem, not ours. Turning the mess we made over to someone else and saying you clean it up is not such a bad deal for us, and not such a good deal for Iran. Let's make the deal before the Iranians figure that out!

Negotiations should address only U.S. withdrawal from Shiite areas of Iraq, the only areas Iran can claim as a sphere of influence. We should move at least a modest force to Kurdish Iraq as a warning to the Iranians to keep their hands off the Kurds. The Kurds surely will welcome our protection. The Iranians and Turks will probably agree to our presence if we promise in exchange to restrain our Kurdish allies from stirring up any trouble among Iranian and Turkish Kurds.

What of Sunni Arabs in Iraq? One of the reasons so many Arabs fear Iranian domination of southern Iraq is that they fear for the safety of the Sunnis living there. Again, such fears are justified. But if the United States begins negotiations with Iran now, while leaving its troops in place, Sunnis will at least have warning and opportunity to flee to Sunni dominated areas. So, do I endorse option 4, a de facto partition? Many people have opposed this option, either as unwarranted interference, or as encouraging ethnic cleansing. But partition is well under way, whether we like it or not. Sometimes the best way for mutually hostile groups to stop fighting is for them to separate. If we shift our troops' mission to protecting Sunnis as they flee, we may hope at least to minimize the bloodshed. When Iran takes over southern Iraq, Sunni Arab Iraqis doubtless will want some sort of protection from Iran. Maybe they will even ask us to stay! More likely, they will want some multinational Arab force. Introducing some sort of peacekeeping force between Sunni and Shiite Iraq will doubtless be wise.

Finally, what about Iran's nuclear ambitions? This is, after all, one the the things the neighbors (rightly) fear most. Ideally, we could make them part of a package deal. Iran submits all aspects of its nuclear program to weapons inspectors in exchange for domination of southern Iraq. But if Iran will not agree to these terms, it is still in our best interest to get our troops out of harms way. By occupying southern Iraq we are, in effect, giving the Iranians 140,000 hostages. Hostile action against Iran would lead to all-out war against our forces in southern Iraq. Remove our troops, and our ability to menace actually grows. (I do not favor bombing Iran, but being able to credibly threaten has its advantages).

So, these are the suggestions a nobody like me would recommend. Do I see them as serious prospects? No. Hilzoy again explains it best. Just as pushing for reconciliation in Iraq is unrealistic because none of the parties want to be reconciled, pushing George Bush for diplomacy will fail because George Bush does not believe in diplomacy. In all probability he will choose option (1), stay the course. Things will continue to slowly deteriorate, leading who knows where.

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