Thursday, July 15, 2004

Catch The 22's

It has been noted in the punditry, and by fringe candidates like Ralph Nader, that the proposed plans for handling the situation in Iraq that have been publicly endorsed by both John Kerry and George Bush are very difficult to differentiate in substantive ways. In many regards, this is true, although it wasn't always this way.

The Bush administration has, in recent months, eschewed its deeply entrenched hostility to the U.N. and to "old Europe" in an effort to gain international support and a perception of legitimacy among the furtive Iraqi populace by putting the occupation under the imprimatur of the U.N. and/or NATO. The neo-conservative faction, which has long claimed that the U.N.'s goals are disparate to those of the United States and that the U.S. should minimize the importance of the U.N. in American foreign policy, has lost the battle for policy making in Iraq going forward. At least to the degree that Bush has openly courted the help of U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi in choosing the interim government (which Brahimi has done), and has made repeated requests for increased aid from NATO and the U.N. in general (it is unclear the extent to which these calls have been successful).

While this is a recent shift for the "with us or against us," coalition of the willing Bush administration, Kerry has been claiming all along that broad international support and U.N. involvement was, and is, crucial for a successful operation in Iraq. Kerry, and many others of all political persuasion, recognized that the invasion of a Muslim country, the overthrow of its regime and the wholesale re-building of its nation would require the nation building expertise of the U.N. and the legitimacy in the world's eyes, especially the Muslim world's, by putting the military operations under the banner of the world community (or at least a broad alliance such as NATO). This is not to say that the U.N. is impervious to error in the arena of nation building, but compared to a small coalition of countries, they have more resources, manpower and policy makers that can be brought in under their umbrella, and when things go awry, as they inevitably will, the U.N. will incur the wrath of the locals, not the U.S. alone.

So now Kerry and Bush are on the same page in terms of engaging the international community and soliciting its involvement in Iraq's future. Unfortunately, Bush's conversion might have come too late, and upon Iraqi democracy's deathbed. It is unlikely now that the leaders that Bush so publicly snubbed, and the organizations that he so vocally ridiculed and belittled, will be eager to come to his assistance. Especially when the conditions in Iraq are so violent and unstable, and when the safety of troops, aid workers and other policymakers would be in jeopardy throughout large swaths of the country. It goes without saying that Iraq will be the big loser from Bush's diplomatic miscalculation, and the international community's desire to see him pay for it.

All that being said, it does not necessarily help in determining what to do now that the damage is done. How should a Bush administration or a Kerry administration proceed given the fact that America, and its handful of determined allies, will likely have to play the cards we have been dealt. Although it is at least somewhat more likely that a President Kerry would be able to mend diplomatic fences and get some erstwhile allies to contribute to the rebuilding efforts, the problems we are facing today are more a result of the earlier errors and will not be cured so easily by international involvement, at least at this stage, and that's assuming U.N. involvement ever would have insured a higher degree in success.

Either candidate, if they become president, will have to deal with the fact that now that we have let the jinni out of the bottle, there is no easy way to get it back in. Iraq presents a series of Catch 22's, so confounding so as to sping the head of any policy wonk, foreign policy expert or think tank denizen. Here is a brief description of the lesser of two evil choices that will have to be decided:

1. If we pull our troops out now, or even in January, there will likely be lawlessness, conflict and unrest. The fact is that Iraqi civil defense forces are in no condition to adequately police the country or instill calm amidst the turmoil and the warring factions. Our early withdrawal would portend an uncertain future of civil conflict, armed unrest and even the possible return of the Baathists or other authoritarian leadership. If we maintain a substantial troop presence in Iraq long term, however, we galvanize, radicalize and mobilize the insurgency and further corroborate their characterization of the US, and its allies, as imperial crusaders. Not to mention the fact that our soldiers will continue to bear the brunt of the mounting casualties. In addition, a long term commitment of substantial troop presence will further strain the military's abilities to respond to other exigencies, hurt troop retention and recruitment, and erode troop morale for many that have been issued stop loss orders or those mobilized from the IRR.

2. If we keep current troop levels static, we may not be able to adequately police the country and handle uprisings, terrorism and crime, the failure of which only serves to inflame the population because of the lack of security and failure to provide safety for infrastructure like the oil pipelines. The successful operation of the oil pipelines is crucial for the health of the economy and the operation of other necessary components of the infrastructure like electricity production (even more important now that we are in the midst of the brutal Iraqi summer).

Yet increasing troop presence now (as opposed to higher levels initially), could further provoke insurgents by making American presence more visible, and may also require a resumption of the draft in the U.S., which is domestic political perspective might prove very difficult to institute (not to mention the problems related to retention and morale noted above).

3. If we do not let the Shiite majority exert control over the country via the new Constitution and popular elections, we risk alienating the majority of Iraqis and the extremely powerful factions controlled by Sistani and Al-Sadr, and in so doing we would lose Iraq. Yet if we allow the Shiite's to exercise majority control, without Constitutional concessions to the minority groups such as a veto power for the Kurds (which Sistani has thus far rejected) we risk alienating the Kurdish and Sunni minorities, which could begin a long and bloody civil war that would de-stabilize the entire region.

The Sunnis will be loathe to accept a powerless role having spent decades as the ethnicity in power under the Baathist regime. In the case of the Kurdish minority, secession is a real danger since the Kurds have enjoyed a high level of autonomy over the past ten plus years as a result of the U.S. policing of the northern no-fly zone. Yet if we let Kurdistan secede, Turkey will likely invade, as they have repeatedly asserted they will do, in order to prevent an uprising of the substantial Kurdish minority in their own country. This could spark a regional war involving Turkey, Iran and Syria (which also have large Kurdish minorities), Kurdistan and Israel (a huge military and financial supporter of Kurdistan - largely as a means of gaining a counterbalance in Iraq to the pro-Iranian Shiite majority in the South).

4. Fallujah has become the main stronghold for the insurgency and a command center for bomb making and logistical planning for insurgent attacks. As reported in the Washington Post, "The Fallujah Brigade, a security force under the command of former Iraqi army officers, was supposed to take control of Fallujah in early May in collaboration with the U.S. Marines. Instead, it has ceded authority to a sort of commune that has sprung up in recent weeks, guided by the Mujaheddin Advisory Council under the leadership of the town's senior Sunni cleric, Sheik Abdullah Janabi, and his main lieutenant, Sheik Dhafer Obeidi.

L. Paul Bremer, who was the U.S. administrator in Iraq until the transfer of political authority on June 28, arranged as one of his final acts to have warrants issued for the arrest of Janabi and Obeidi, according to Mutlak and Baghdad news reports. If U.S. troops tried to take the two Sunni clerics into custody, Mutlak predicted, Fallujah would erupt into even greater violence."

In addition, U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that any attempt to meaningfully quash the hotbed of insurgency there will likely result in thousands of civilian casualties which in turn could lead to widespread Iraqi unrest, and condemnation from the greater Middle East.

Still, if we leave Fallujah alone, then the insurgency will continue to have a central planning base from which to launch disruptive attacks that will prevent peaceful elections and a healthy transition. This is one area that could foment a possible civil war promulagted by its die hard Sunni inhabitants.

I know that I have done little in the way of advising which course of action is the wise one, and instead have only described the difficult choices facing the leader who emerges from the polls in November. But the lack of answers is a direct result of the complicated and nuanced nature of the problems we now face. They are certainly beyond my level of expertise, but they are also the source of much consternation to career policy makers and scholars. Looking at these tangled knots of chain reactions and unintended consequences, I can't help but think what a fine fine mess we've made of it.

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