Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
The Iraq war has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and the death of close to 4,000 American troops, plus many more seriously wounded. This is not to mention the death of perhaps 100,000 or more Iraqis (estimates vary wildly). Thus, it is hard to imagine any future circumstance that will make the cost of invading Iraq seem worthwhile—and I say this as a supporter of the war years back. Moreover, I am leery of assuming that we may win this war merely because of the demonstrable improvement in conditions on the ground throughout the course of 2007. That is because we will not know how sustainable that improvement really is until we start withdrawing troops in significant numbers. Still, improvements on the ground certainly raise the possibilities of a better rather than a worse outcome.
My definition of a “better” outcome would be a continued, gradual decline in American and Iraqi deaths coupled with a gradual return to normal living conditions. No one could credibly declare victory, and Iraq would continue to drop out of the news. Iraq has already gone from a page-one to a page-two story in the course of the last year; if it drops to page three or four, say, by the end of 2008, that would qualify as a better outcome, if not a “win.”
What might be the repercussions of such a better outcome? Inside Iraq, it would result in a residual number of American troops, say about 80,000, with semi-permanent bases in the country. In other words, in historical and strategic terms, a key result of the war will have been to replace U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia with new ones in Iraq. No Iraqi government will ever admit to this, but that will be the practical result of the continued need for American troops into the future.
These American bases would exist alongside an Iranian sphere of influence in Shi‘a-dominated southern Iraq, a Sunni tribal chieftaincy in the center, and an autonomous Kurdistan in the north. The country would remain formally united, but in the loosest of ways. It would be a weak state where the Iranians, through their high-handed meddling, might wear out their welcome mat faster than we would by our troop presence. Meanwhile, suspicion and corruption would reign as a legacy of the Ba‘athi regime, something that will take decades to assuage. A balance of fear would limit violence to largely criminal elements.
This is, of course, a best-case scenario. The better Iraq does, the better I believe will be our relationship with the Iranians. There is a saying about Iranians: They don’t give in to pressure, only to a lot of pressure. The stabilization of conditions on the ground in Iraq, coupled with the emerging reality of a continued American troop presence, would constitute the centerpiece of that pressure. If the United States and Iran are destined one day to negotiate at high diplomatic levels, that centerpiece will underwrite the U.S. position in those negotiations.
Because everything is interlocked in the Middle East, a better outcome in Iraq will affect many other issues positively, as well. With more leverage on account of Iraq, the United States will be in a stronger position to, in effect, dictate—yes, dictate—terms to Palestinians and Israelis, once they inevitably encounter one impasse after another in their negotiations. More leverage both in Iraq and in the peace talks will, in turn, lead to more leverage for the United States throughout the Sunni Arab world, especially with respect to Saudi Arabia. Expect, therefore, the Saudis to become progressively more helpful in intelligence sharing and many other related matters concerning the war on terror.
The better we do in Iraq, the more helpful the Syrians may prove to be in Lebanon and in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Had we still been bleeding in Iraq late in 2007, as we were before the surge, the Annapolis peace conference might not have convened, and certainly the Syrians would not have participated. In other words, Annapolis presaged the results of a better outcome, and indeed, there is already a well-established pattern of how events in Iraq affect our regional prospects. Consider the years 2003 through the beginning of 2005, in the wake of our invasion and up through the first Iraqi election, which went off so smoothly: Think of what happened in the region during that period of relatively positive news from Iraq. The Libyans gave up their nuclear program, the Iranians, we now (think we) know, suspended their attempts at nuclear weaponization, and in Lebanon came the Cedar Revolution. Now imagine for a moment what could transpire if we recover that positive momentum in Mesopotamia. To wit, expect to see nascent democracy movements pick up steam throughout the Arab world, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.
How should we take advantage of the opportunity afforded by a better outcome in Iraq? We should play the role of the benign power. That is, we should finally act humbly; not cocky, the way we did after the success of the initial invasion. Such an approach will do more to raise our status in the Islamic world than any new and brainy policy initiative. As Iraq drifts onto page three, we should reach out to Muslim political leaders at the highest level, putting all issues on the table. Actually, we should do that now. We should, ironically enough, follow the anti-“surge” Iraqi Study Group playbook, at least in the sense of putting the pressure on the Palestinians and the Israelis, while reaching out to everyone else, including Iran. No more adventures. A better outcome in Iraq will allow for a more conciliatory American foreign policy in the Greater Middle East without any perceived loss of American power.
As regards the Russians, while we cannot desert our democratic friends in Georgia, the Ukraine, Kosovo and elsewhere, we should attempt to achieve a truce with Moscow vis-à-vis the Russian near abroad. That is not appeasement. Remember, a more stable Iraq and direct American-Iranian talks will enhance our leverage with Vladimir Putin. That will help us in the Caucasus and the Balkans.
These improvements will all take time. That is why it is the next administration that will reap the benefits created by the decision of the Bush Administration to initiate the surge. Who will compose the next administration? If a better outcome continues to evolve in Iraq, expect the fall election campaign to be dominated by domestic issues, particularly the quasi-domestic issue of immigration. The tabloid news shows hosted by Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly are straws in the wind: As Iraq falls off their radar, immigration has risen front and center. That’s the political future, if we “win” in Iraq.