Saturday, July 09, 2005

On Exit Strategies

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On Exit Strategies

Juan Cole
Informed Comment
July 7, 2005

An informed reader writes, regarding the issue of an exit strategy from Iraq:

First, most reasonable proposals run up against the immovable object of the Bush admin’s unwillingness to admit that it has been wrong about four things – its stated reasons for going to war, the evidence that it provided to support those stated reasons, the Rumsfeld military strategy, and the lack of any clear or consistent political strategy in Iraq. However, most writers seem to ignore the reason that the admin won’t admit that it was wrong about these things: to do so would undermine what it hopes to accomplish politically, which is to advance its domestic agenda while running out the clock on opponents who would like to change various things before Bush steps down after the 2008 election. The Democrats have almost no hope of taking control of either house of Congress in 2006 because of the numbers; the House is sufficiently gerrymandered that only a very large popular vote swing would allow the Dems to capture the 30-odd seats they need, while in the Senate there are 18 Dems up for re-election versus only 15 Reps – the inverse of the overall Senate ratio of 55% Republicans. That means that the Bush strategy is centered on not admitting to things regarding which the Republicans who are in control of both houses of Congress would have to launch investigations or force policy changes. The fact that some Republicans are now breaking with the White House anyway is probably mostly attributable to a mix of fear for their own jobs in 2006 or (in the case of Hagel, for instance) positioning for the 2008 primaries. But Rove probably figures that he can keep enough of the party in line with the current strategy (especially with issues like the Supreme Court dominating headlines for the next several weeks) and lose few enough seats in 2006 that the alternative is worse. These guys know the history of second terms very well, and are determined to hold back the deluge until “après moi”.

I tend to think that political strategies are followed as long as they are working and the costs of the alternatives are not seen as worse. So far, it seems to me that Bush/Rove do not have much reason to change strategy, though the cost of the current strategy is rising.

Second, the election in Iraq in many ways made things worse, as you have been one of the few to point out. In particular, it gave power to Shiites that really do want to run the entire country and that are willing to risk years of civil war to do so. Perhaps more importantly, it has meant that the U.S. cannot now do what it should have done earlier, which is to try to force a constitutional framework with high levels of regional autonomy. I have always thought that some version of the “three state option” made the most sense, though it would have to be done as three largely independent units within a weak sovereign nation. I also acknowledge the point that . . . that really there should be five states, with communally diverse Baghdad and Kirkuk being separate entities.

Proposals now for a bicameral legislature with an upper house elected by region are in many ways too late, because the election has emboldened SCIRI and Dawa to think that they can control the entire country. Sistani may be able to influence many Shiites in favor of compromise, but his power must be much less than before the election, now that there are elected leaders who can claim to represent the Shiites. In past examples of countries with determined communal insurgencies, the dominant group has usually needed at least several years of intractable conflict before it has been willing to admit its errors and begin to compromise; that is part of the reason that many insurgencies have lasted so long.

The third point is that the first two points militate strongly against any end to the current stalemate. The Bush admin has strong motivations for not wanting to change anything, the Shiite politicians have strong motivations for refusing to allow a constitution that prevents them from achieving and sustaining dominance, and the Sunni insurgents have no reason to stop fighting. As you point out, sometimes you are just screwed.

So, what is to be done? Well, I actually think that there is an approach that might work here. As you linked, both the Egyptians and the Europeans are concerned enough to consider getting involved with troops on the ground if the political conditions are right. So long as all initiatives start in Washington, the political conditions will not be right. But suppose that the EU, the Arab League, and the UN work together on a proposal that would be hard for either the Bush admin or the Shiites to refuse? Suppose that they offer to get involved so long as there is a constitution with certain
provisions (strong regional autonomy and bicameralism) by a certain date? Popular opinion in the U.S. has now reached a point at which it would be hard for the Bush admin to ignore any opportunity to offload casualties to others. At the same time, SCIRI and Dawa would find it hard to oppose a reasonable proposal that came from non-U.S. sources including other Arab countries, and that offered boots on the ground; my guess is that opposition to such a proposal would not be at all popular among most Shiites.

Of course, the chance of this happening is about 2%. Very few Europeans or Arabs really want their kids to die in Iraq, so even if their leaders want to head off disaster, the people probably won’t agree. But international initiatives and discussion may accelerate the U.S. domestic shift that is going on already, which would be progress.

I think that the most likely outcome, as you and Hagel have pointed out, is another 1975. This will be on a smaller scale than that catastrophe, but still a big disaster. (It won’t be, as Marx said about history repeating, farce.) The really scary thing is what happens when the well-trained jihadis leave Iraq, victorious, and head south to destroy the Saudi oil infrastructure and west, to Mexico and Canada, to slip into the U.S. and create many more 9/11s.

posted by Juan @ 7/07/2005 06:12:00 AM


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