Results, Not Timetables, Matter in Iraq

The Washington Post

The debate on Iraq is taking a new turn. The Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30, only recently viewed as a culmination, are described as inaugurating a civil war. The timing and the voting arrangements have become controversial. All this is a way of foreshadowing a demand for an exit strategy, by which many critics mean some sort of explicit time limit on the U.S. effort.

We reject this counsel. The implications of the term “exit strategy” must be clearly understood; there can be no fudging of consequences. The essential prerequisite for an acceptable exit strategy is a sustainable outcome, not an arbitrary time limit. For the outcome in Iraq will shape the next decade of American foreign policy. A debacle would usher in a series of convulsions in the region as radicals and fundamentalists moved for dominance, with the wind seemingly at their backs. Wherever there are significant Muslim populations, radical elements would be emboldened. As the rest of the world related to this reality, its sense of direction would be impaired by the demonstration of American confusion in Iraq. A precipitate American withdrawal would be almost certain to cause a civil war that would dwarf Yugoslavia's, and it would be compounded as neighbors escalated their current involvement into full-scale intervention.

We owe it to ourselves to become clear about what post-election outcome is compatible with our values and global security. And we owe it to the Iraqis to strive for an outcome that can further their capacity to shape their future.

The mechanical part of success is relatively easy to define: establishment of a government considered sufficiently legitimate by the Iraqi people to permit recruitment of an army able and willing to defend its institutions. That goal cannot be expedited by an arbitrary deadline that would be, above all, likely to confuse both ally and adversary. The political and military efforts cannot be separated. Training an army in a political vacuum has proved insufficient. If we cannot carry out both the political and military tasks, we will not be able to accomplish either.

But what is such a government? Optimists and idealists posit that a full panoply of Western democratic institutions can be created in a time frame the American political process will sustain. Reality is likely to disappoint these expectations. Iraq is a society riven by centuries of religious and ethnic conflicts; it has little or no experience with representative institutions. The challenge is to define political objectives that, even when falling short of the maximum goal, nevertheless represent significant progress and enlist support across the various ethnic groups. The elections of Jan. 30 should therefore be interpreted as the indispensable first phase of a political evolution from military occupation to political legitimacy.

Optimists also argue that, since the Shiites make up about 60 percent of the population and the Kurds 15 to 20 percent, and since neither wants Sunni domination, a democratic majority exists almost automatically. In that view, the Iraqi Shiite leaders have come to appreciate the benefits of democratization and the secular state by witnessing the consequences of their absence under the Shiite theocracy in neighboring Iran.

A pluralistic, Shiite-led society would indeed be a happy outcome. But we must take care not to base policy on the wish becoming father to the thought. If a democratic process is to unify Iraq peacefully, a great deal depends on how the Shiite majority defines majority rule.

So far the subtle Shiite leaders, hardened by having survived decades of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, have been ambiguous about their goals. They have insisted on early elections – indeed, the date of Jan. 30 was established on the basis of a near-ultimatum by the most eminent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The Shiites have also urged voting procedures based on national candidate lists, which work against federal and regional political institutions. Recent Shiite pronouncements have affirmed the goal of a secular state but have left open the interpretation of majority rule. An absolutist application of majority rule would make it difficult to achieve political legitimacy. The Kurdish minority and the Sunni portion of the country would be in permanent opposition.

Western democracy developed in homogeneous societies; minorities found majority rule acceptable because they had a prospect of becoming majorities, and majorities were restrained in the exercise of their power by their temporary status and by judicially enforced minority guarantees. Such an equation does not operate where minority status is permanently established by religious affiliation and compounded by ethnic differences and decades of brutal dictatorship. Majority rule in such circumstances is perceived as an alternative version of the oppression of the weak by the powerful. In multiethnic societies, minority rights must be protected by structural and constitutional safeguards. Federalism mitigates the scope for potential arbitrariness of the numerical majority and defines autonomy on a specific range of issues.

The reaction to intransigent Sunni brutality and the relative Shiite quiet must not tempt us into identifying Iraqi legitimacy with unchecked Shiite rule. The American experience with Shiite theocracy in Iran since 1979 does not inspire confidence in our ability to forecast Shiite evolution or the prospects of a Shiite-dominated bloc extending to the Mediterranean. A thoughtful American policy will not mortgage itself to one side in a religious conflict fervently conducted for 1,000 years.

The Constituent Assembly emerging from the elections will be sovereign to some extent. But the United States' continuing leverage should be focused on four key objectives: (1) to prevent any group from using the political process to establish the kind of dominance previously enjoyed by the Sunnis; (2) to prevent any areas from slipping into Taliban conditions as havens and recruitment centers for terrorists; (3) to keep Shiite government from turning into a theocracy, Iranian or indigenous; (4) to leave scope for regional autonomy within the Iraqi democratic process.

The United States has every interest in conducting a dialogue with all parties to encourage the emergence of a secular leadership of nationalists and regional representatives. The outcome of constitution-building should be a federation, with an emphasis on regional autonomy. Any group pushing its claims beyond these limits should be brought to understand the consequences of a breakup of the Iraqi state into its constituent elements, including an Iranian-dominated south, an Islamist-Hussein Sunni center and invasion of the Kurdish region by its neighbors.

A calibrated American policy would seek to split that part of the Sunni community eager to conduct a normal life from the part that is fighting to reestablish Sunni control. The United States needs to continue building an Iraqi army, which, under conditions of Sunni insurrection, will be increasingly composed of Shiite recruits – producing an unwinnable situation for the Sunni rejectionists. But it should not cross the line into replacing Sunni dictatorship with Shiite theocracy. It is a fine line, but the success of Iraq policy may depend on the ability to walk it.

The legitimacy of the political institutions emerging in Iraq depends significantly on international acceptance of the new government. An international contact group should be formed to advise on the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq. Such a step would be a gesture of confident leadership, especially as America's security and financial contributions will remain pivotal. Our European allies must not shame themselves and the traditional alliance by continuing to stand aloof from even a political process that, whatever their view of recent history, will affect their future even more than ours. Nor should we treat countries such as India and Russia, with their large Muslim populations, as spectators to outcomes on which their domestic stability may well depend.

Desirable political objectives will remain theoretical until adequate security is established in Iraq. In an atmosphere of political assassination, wholesale murder and brigandage, when the road from Baghdad to its international airport is the scene of daily terrorist or criminal incidents, no government will long be able to sustain public confidence. Training, equipping and motivating effective Iraqi armed forces is a precondition to all the other efforts. Yet no matter how well trained and equipped, that army will not fight except for a government in which it has confidence. This vicious circle needs to be broken.

It is axiomatic that guerrillas win if they do not lose. And in Iraq the guerrillas are not losing, at least not in the Sunni region, at least not visibly. A successful strategy needs to answer these questions: Are we waging “one war” in which military and political efforts are mutually reinforcing? Are the institutions guiding and monitoring these tasks sufficiently coordinated? Is our strategic goal to achieve complete security in at least some key towns and major communication routes (defined as reducing violence to historical criminal levels)? This would be in accordance with the maxim that complete security in 70 percent of the country is better than 70 percent security in 100 percent of the country – because fully secure areas can be models and magnets for those who are suffering in insecure places. Do we have a policy for eliminating the sanctuaries in Syria and Iran from which the enemy can be instructed, supplied, and given refuge and time to regroup? Are we designing a policy that can produce results for the people and prevent civil strife for control of the state and its oil revenue? Are we maintaining American public support so that staged surges of extreme violence do not break domestic public confidence at a time when the enemy may, in fact, be on the verge of failure? And are we gaining international understanding and willingness to play a constructive role in what is a global threat to peace and security?

An exit strategy based on performance, not artificial time limits, will judge progress by the ability to produce positive answers to these questions. In the immediate future, a significant portion of the anti-insurrection effort will have to be carried out by the United States. A premature shift from combat operations to training missions might create a gap that permits the insurrection to rally its potential. But as Iraqi forces increase in number and capability, and as the political construction proceeds after the election, a realistic exit strategy will emerge.

There is no magic formula for a quick, non-catastrophic exit. But there is an obligation to do our utmost to bring about an outcome that will mark a major step forward in the war against terrorism, in the transformation of the Middle East and toward a more peaceful and democratic world order.

Henry A. Kissinger, chairman of Kissinger Associates, was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. George P. Shultz, Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company