The Way Back from Iraq

The Washington Post

The war in Iraq is approaching a kind of self-imposed climax. Public disenchantment is palpable. The expressions of concern by the widely admired Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) are a case in point. On the other hand, a democratic public eventually holds its leaders responsible for bringing about disasters, even if the decisions that caused the disaster reflected the public's preferences of the moment. And precipitate withdrawal would produce such a disaster. It would not end the war but shift it to other areas, such as Lebanon, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. The war between Iraqi factions would intensify. The demonstration of American impotence would embolden radical Islamism and further radicalize its disciples from Indonesia and India to the suburbs of European capitals. Whatever our domestic timetables, the collapse of the American effort in Iraq would be a geopolitical calamity.

We face a number of paradoxes. Military victory, in the sense of establishing a government capable of enforcing its writ throughout Iraq, is not possible in a time frame tolerated by the American political process. Yet no political solution is conceivable in isolation from the situation on the ground. What America and the world need is not unilateral withdrawal but a vision by the Bush administration of a sustainable political end to the conflict.

Traditionally, diplomacy strives to discover common goals and distill them into a workable compromise. What distinguishes the diplomacy on Iraq is that, in the end, it needs to distill a common approach from common fears. Each of the parties – the United States, the internal parties, Iraq's neighbors, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – face the reality that if they pursue their preferred objectives, the cauldron of Iraq may overflow and engulf the region. The United States and most of Iraq's neighbors have powerful national interests in preventing the emergence of terrorist training areas in Iraq. None of Iraq's neighbors, not even Iran, is in a position to dominate the situation against the opposition of all other interested parties. Is it possible to build a sustainable outcome on such considerations?

The answer must be sought on three levels: internal, regional and international.

The internal parties – the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – have been subjected to insistent American appeals to achieve national reconciliation. But groups that have been conducting blood feuds with each other for centuries are, not surprisingly, struggling in their efforts to resolve their differences by constitutional means. They need the buttress of a diplomatic process that could provide international support for carrying out any internal agreements reached or to contain conflict if the internal parties cannot agree and Iraq breaks up.

Though much media attention focuses on which countries should be involved in the diplomacy, the real debate should start with the substance of what the diplomacy is meant to achieve.

The American goal should be an international agreement regarding the status of Iraq. It would test whether Iraq's neighbors as well as some more distant countries are prepared to translate general concepts into converging policies. It would provide a legal and political framework to resist violations. These are the meaningful benchmarks against which to test American withdrawals.

Such a diplomacy might prove feasible because the continuation of Iraq's current crisis presents all of Iraq's neighbors with mounting problems. The longer the war rages, the more likely the breakup of the country into sectarian units. Turkey has repeatedly emphasized that it would resist such a breakup by force because of the radicalizing impact a Kurdish state could have on Turkey's large Kurdish population. But this would bring Turkey into unwanted conflict with the United States and open a Pandora's box of other interventions.

Saudi Arabia and Jordan dread Shiite domination of Iraq, especially if the Baghdad regime threatens to become a satellite of Iran. The various Gulf sheikdoms, the largest of which is Kuwait, find themselves in an even more threatened position. Their interest is to help calm the Iraq turmoil and avert Iranian domination of the region.

Syria's attitudes are likely to be more ambivalent. Its ties to Iran represent both a claim to status and a looming vulnerability. It goes along with Iranian-dominated Hezbollah in Lebanon to reduce Western influence, but it fears confrontation with the United States and even more with Israel, should the region run out of control.

Given a wise and determined American diplomacy, even Iran might be brought to conclude that the risks of continued turmoil outweigh the temptations before it. To be sure, Iranian leaders may believe that the moment is uniquely favorable to realize millennial visions of a reincarnated Persian empire or a reversal of the Shiite-Sunni split under Shiite domination. On the other hand, if prudent leaders exist – which remains to be determined – they may conclude that they had better treat these advantages as a bargaining chip in a negotiation rather than risk them in a contest over domination of the region. However divided America may appear and however irresolute Europe, geopolitical realities are bound to assert themselves. The industrial countries cannot permit their access to the principal region of energy supply to be controlled by a country with Iran's revolutionary and taunting foreign policy. No American president will, in the end, acquiesce once the full consequences of Iranian domination of the region become apparent. Russia will have its own reasons, principally fear of the radicalization of its Islamic minority, to begin resisting Iranian and radical Islamist domination of the Gulf.

Combined with the international controversy over its nuclear weapons program, Iran's challenge could come to be perceived by its leaders as posing excessive risks. This is probably why Iran (and Syria) seem to be edging toward dialogue with the United States and why a genuine mutual interest may arise in such a dialogue.

Whether or whenever Iran reaches these conclusions, two conditions will have to be met: First, no serious diplomacy can be based on the premise that the United States is the supplicant. America and its allies must demonstrate a determination to vindicate their vital interests that Iran will find credible. Second, the United States will need to put forward a diplomatic position that acknowledges the legitimate security interests of an Iran that accepts the existing order in the Gulf rather than strives to overthrow it.

Such a negotiation must be initiated within a multilateral forum. A dramatic bilateral Iranian-U.S. negotiation would magnify all of the region's insecurities. If Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which have entrusted their security primarily to the United States – become convinced that an Iranian-U.S. condominium is looming, a race for Tehran's favor may bring about the disintegration of all resolve. America needs to resist the siren song of a U.S.-Iranian condominium. Within a multilateral framework, the United States will be able to conduct individual conversations with the key participants.

Its purpose should be to define the international status of the emerging Iraqi political structure into a series of reciprocal obligations. In such a scheme, the U.S.-led multinational force would be gradually transformed into an agent of that arrangement, along the lines of the Bosnian settlement in the Balkans or the Afghan structure. International forces would be established along Iraq's frontiers to block infiltration. Until this point is reached, U.S. forces should be deployed to have the greatest impact on the issues of greatest concern to America – the creation of terrorist bases or the emergence of a terrorist regime – and in numbers appropriate to their mission.

A forum for diplomacy already exists in the foreign ministers' conference that met recently at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and that has agreed to reassemble in Istanbul at a date yet to be determined. It is in the United States' interest to turn the conference into a working enterprise under strong, if discreet, American leadership.

Such a diplomacy is the context for a reliable exit strategy. It would also provide a framework for the eventual participation of friendly countries with a big stake in the outcome. No nation is more seriously threatened by radicalized Islamism than India. Its large Muslim population might be tempted from the democratic path by the success of radical Islamists in the Middle East. Other countries with interests in a moderate outcome are Indonesia and Malaysia. They could be involved in a peacekeeping role once a regional agreement exists.

All this suggests a three-tiered international effort: an intensified negotiation among the Iraqi parties; a regional forum like the Sharm el-Sheikh conference to elaborate an international transition status for Iraq; and a broader conference to establish the peacekeeping and verification dimensions.

Neither the international system nor American public opinion will accept as a permanent arrangement an American enclave maintained exclusively by American military power in so volatile a region. The concept outlined here seeks to establish a new international framework for Iraq. It is an outcome emerging from the political and military situation there and not from artificial deadlines.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services Inc.