As the midterm Congressional election campaign gets under way in the United States, Iraq is certain to emerge as one of the hot issues.
In fact, if the primaries held in the summer are a yardstick, Iraq may prove the key factor in deciding who will control the next legislature in Washington.
That Iraq should be such a preoccupation for many Americans is no surprise. More than 2,600 US soldiers have died in Iraq and thousands more injured. The Iraq Project has also cost the US an estimated $200 billion so far. However, the importance of Iraq as a defining issue of American politics goes beyond its cost in blood and treasure. Today, Iraq is about the place of the US in the global system and its leadership role in the post-Cold War balance of power.
Broadly speaking there are two ways of looking at Iraq from an American angle.
The first is to see it as an unmitigated disaster produced by American ignorance and arrogance. According to that view, a handful of neocon idealists managed to persuade an inexperienced president to use American power for nation building, something most Americans wish to avoid. Those who hold this view believe that the sooner the US leaves the Iraqis to fight it out among themselves the better.
The second way of looking at Iraq is to see it as an attempt at using US power to create a new balance of power in the Middle East, one in which Arab nations are given a chance to shed their despotic regimes and start building democratic systems. The argument is that since democracies do not go to war against one another and do not export terrorism, the democratisation of the Middle East will ultimately benefit the US by removing one of the key sources of Islamist terrorism. According to this view, the US has already achieved its key objectives in Iraq and all it has to do is to protect and consolidate that gain in the face of attacks by those who do not wish to see a democratic Middle East.
Both above mentioned views deserve attention and respect. The idea of a "Fortress America", rooted in the old myth of splendid isolation, has always had its appeal. At the same time, the rival idea of the US as a champion of freedom and democracy throughout the world, has also had a constituency of its own.
The problem with the current state of the debate about Iraq is that it is not conducted in such clear terms.
Deep down, most Democrat leaders share President George W. Bush's belief that the US will not be safe from Islamist terrorism unless the Middle East is reformed and brought into the global system. They are also convinced that a cut-and-run policy on Iraq could spell the end of US influence in the region, if not further afield. At the same time, however, these Democrat leaders know that their militant base would accept nothing short of full disengagement from Iraq.
To get round that problem some Democrat leaders have tried to either fudge the whole issue or introduce diversions that will make any serious debate impossible.
One way to fudge the issue is to keep harping on the old theme of the reasons for going to war. By focusing on the past, they hope to escape taking a position on the present. Another way is to blame the Bush administration for incompetence but refuse to come up with any alternative policies.
All that is perfectly understandable. A man facing an election could be as desperate as a man who is drowning.
What is not understandable, let alone pardonable, is to say and do things that could harm the prospect of peace and democratisation in Iraq.
Let us cite just two examples.
The first is the suggestion by some senators, congressmen and pundits that Iraq should be divided into three or more mini-states. One senator has even turned this curious idea into the main plank for his possible presidential bid in two years' time. The assumption is that advancing such outlandish ideas would add to your gravitas as a leader with a vision and a plan.
The truth is that those who propose a division of Iraq, let us call them "carvers", are engaged in nothing but a deconstructionist exercise a la francaise, that is to say providing a solution to a non-existent problem.
Iraq is not being attacked by terrorists because it is a single nation-state. Even if we carve up Iraq, we would have suicide bombings and terrorism in three or five mini-states instead of one.
The "carvers" do not understand that the terrorists and insurgents do not like democratic government in any form or shape and are ready to kill and die in pursuit of their own political dreams. None of the two dozen or so insurgent and terrorist groups active in Iraq has ever called for carving up the country. On the contrary, one of the key claims of the insurgents is that the US came to Iraq precisely because it harboured dark plans to carve up the country.
The second unpardonable position on Iraq is to pretend that the whole issue concerns only the Bush administration and that, once there is a change of president, the US will no longer be interested in what happens so many thousands of miles away.
This is precisely what the insurgents and terrorists hope. As a result they operate on the assumption that all they have to do is to keep fighting for another 30 months or so until Bush leaves the White House. If the insurgents and terrorists were persuaded that, with or without Bush, the United States is committed to Iraq for the long haul, they would lose a good part of their incentive to keep fighting.
In other words wrong signals from the US, including suggestions to carve up Iraq and the idea that this is nothing but "Bush's war", are, in part responsible for continued bloodshed in Iraq.
The insurgents and their terrorist allies know that, in military terms, they cannot win their war against the new Iraqi government. Their hope is to win a political victory by forcing the US and its allies to leave before the new Iraqi regime is strong enough to not only fight the insurgents and the terrorists but also cope with the threat from Syria, Turkey and Iran.
To shorten the war in Iraq the US leadership elite must set aside its bitter partisan considerations and come up with a strong message of support for the new Iraqi regime. That may be a tough idea to sell to American politicians in a season of elections. But this is the only way to shorten the war in Iraq and minimise its cost in terms of blood and treasure.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.