Published: November 30 2006
As the US begins to acknowledge the magnitude of its defeat in Iraq, the conflict looks more than ever like a speeded-up, scaled-down re-enactment of Vietnam. A tragedy that took a dozen years to unfold in south-east Asia has played out in less than four in Mesopotamia. Once again an intervention that sprang largely from idealistic, anti-totalitarian motives has gone awry because of an administration’s deceptions, incomprehension and incompetence. Once again the domino theory at the heart of the case has been disproved – and once again America finds itself looking for a way out that will not compound the catastrophe.
As in the final stages of the Vietnam war, the US faces the question: if it has lost, why is it still there? One answer is that President George W. Bush is a stubborn man. Even this week, Mr Bush was insisting it would not withdraw “until the mission is complete” – an apparent synonym for “when hell freezes over”. A better answer is that the US is now in Iraq to prevent genocide. Without a military force separating Sunni and Shia, the present savagery could turn Cambodian, with remaining secular democrats as the first victims. A power vacuum could provide a new operational base for al-Qaeda and severe sectarian violence could spiral into all-out civil war and regional conflict. As awful as it is now, Iraq could get much worse.
But if the mission in Iraq has devolved into preventing a bigger bloodbath, the US is the worst imaginable occupier. The presence of specifically American troops is itself instigating a great deal of the current violence. US forces, unlike most European ones, are not trained, skilled or experienced at peacekeeping. Iraq does need a foreign army. It just does not need an American army. This mismatch suggests a final disaster mitigation strategy: replace departing US troops with a more effective referee.
The obvious objection to this proposal is: who on earth wants to send troops to Iraq now? The remnants of Mr Bush’s coalition of the willing – Brits, Aussies, Fijians – are as eager to get home as Americans are. The United Nations ended its Iraqi operations following the horrific bombing of its Baghdad headquarters in 2003 and is not waiting for a return invitation. Asking for additional help in Iraq now is likely to provoke not just rejection, but hoots of scorn and derision.
Mr Bush deserves all that and more; but not having completely sapped the power of the US yet, he retains a few cards. Other countries should care about preventing the slaughter of innocents in Iraq, just as they should have in Rwanda and should yet in Darfur. Even if most nations will not make such a sacrifice on humanitarian grounds, they have a variety of self-interested reasons to help prevent total collapse in Iraq, including terrorism, refugees and oil. Because relations with the US are still important to nearly every country, America retains some actual leverage.
Where might more troops come from? The most willing providers would probably be “new” Europeans such as the Poles, who remain eager to demonstrate their co-operative capabilities and earn cash. Muslim troops might come from neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, which have obvious stakes in preventing the refugee crisis that would attend violent partition. Western European nations would be reluctant, but possibly willing to contribute when faced with the consequences of inaction. For France and Germany, the bargain would involve Mr Bush admitting, at least implicitly, that his previous unilateralism was bad and wrong. We could call this a coalition of the grudging.
Given the obstacles to action by the Security Council and the limitations on blue-helmeted peacekeepers, putting such a collation together under UN auspices is a non-starter – though the UN could eventually play an expanding role as the conflict settled down. For the more intensely military phase, the only real choice is Nato. A Nato-led deployment in Iraq could follow its model in Afghanistan, where a 32,000 person Nato-plus-11 force is controlling an insurgency, sustaining a weak but viable government and preventing multi-party civil war.
There are, of course, enormous obstacles to raising such a force. But a mission to save Iraq from doom would fit Nato’s growing scope and evolving post-cold war doctrine, a subject under discussion this week in Riga. This new mandate includes peacekeeping projects, counter-terrorism and dealing with instability spawned by failing states. With the US now essentially incapacitated by its mistakes, an effective military consortium of the world’s democracies – which is what Nato is evolving toward – is more necessary than ever.
Where is the indefatigable Richard Holbrooke when you need him? Mustering such a force and negotiating its rules of engagement would be a heroic diplomatic undertaking, as it was in Bosnia. A Nato agreement to step in would have to piggyback on a Dayton-like grand compromise in which the leading Iraqi parties agreed to stop beheading each other in exchange for international aid and security guarantees. It is a long shot, to be sure, but even the original foreign policy realist Brent Scowcroft has argued for a plan of this sort. Having failed to internationalise the Iraq problem on our way in, it may not be too late to internationalise it on our way out.
The writer is editor of Slate.com