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AMERICA'S MUDDLED IRAQ DEBATE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
September 6, 2006

September 6, 2006 -- IRAQ may prove the key factor in deciding which party will control Congress after this fall's elections.

This is no surprise. After all, more than 2,600 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and thousands more injured. The Iraq project has also cost the United States an estimated $200 billion so far.

Yet the importance of Iraq as a defining issue of U.S. politics goes beyond its cost in blood and treasure. Today, Iraq is about America's place 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.

One is to see it as an unmitigated disaster produced by American ignorance and arrogance. In this view, a handful of neocon idealists managed to persuade an inexperienced president to use U.S. power for nation-building, something most Americans wish to avoid. Those who hold this view believe that the sooner the United States leaves the Iraqis to fight it out among themselves, the better.

The other is to see Iraq as an attempt at using U.S. 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 democratization of the Middle East will ultimately benefit the United States by removing a key source of Islamist terrorism.

In this view, the United States 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 don't want a democratic Middle East.

Both views deserve attention and respect. The idea of a "Fortress America," rooted in the old myth of splendid isolation, has always had its appeal. But the rival idea - the United States as a champion of freedom and democracy throughout the world - has also had a constituency of its own.

Yet the debate on Iraq isn't conducted in such clear terms. Deep down, most Democratic leaders share President Bush's belief that the United States 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 U.S. influence in the region, if not further afield. At the same time, however, these Democrats know that their militant base will accept nothing short of full disengagement from Iraq.

To get around that problem, some Democratic leaders have tried to fudge the whole issue or to 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: Focusing on the past may let them 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 perfectly understandable. A man facing an election can be as desperate as a man who's drowning.

What is not understandable, let alone pardonable, is to say and do things that could harm the prospect of peace and democratization 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 idea into the main plank for his 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 - providing a solution to a nonexistent problem. Iraq is not being attacked by terrorists because it is a single nation-state. If we carve up Iraq, we'd just have suicide bombings and terrorism in three or five mini-states instead of one.

The "carvers" don't understand that the terrorists and insurgents don't 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 key insurgent claim is that the United States came to Iraq precisely because it harbored 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, America will no longer be interested in what happens so many thousands of miles away.

This is precisely what the insurgents and terrorists hope. Indeed, 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 they were persuaded that America is committed to Iraq for the long haul, with or without Bush, they'd lose a good part of their incentive to keep fighting.

In other words, wrong signals from the United States, 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 can't win their war against the new Iraqi government. Their hope is to win a political victory by forcing the United States 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 U.S. 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 campaign season. But this is the only way to shorten the war in Iraq and minimize its cost in terms of blood and treasure.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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