Published: Juy 1, 2005
Like a novelist who wishes to inject verisimilitude into his fiction, George W. Bush, US president, began his speech on Iraq with a reference to a historical fact all too tragically well known to his audience. The evocation of the monstrous crime of September 11 2001 served as his introduction to the spin that followed: that Iraq was complicit in 9/11 and thus, in effect, attacked the US; that the US had no choice but to defend itself against Iraq’s aggression; and, finally, that if America does not fight terrorists in Iraq, they will swarm across the ocean to attack America.
Since fiction is not ruled by the same standards as history, Mr Bush was under no obligation to refer to his own earlier certitude about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” (or, rather, to their embarrassing absence), or to the inept sequel of the initially successful US military campaign; or to the fact that the occupation of Iraq is turning it into a huge recruitment centre for terrorists. Similarly, there was no need to deal with the perplexing fact that the Iraqi insurgency does not appear to be in “its last throes”, or with the complex choices that the US now confronts.
But a more disturbing aspect of the speech was the absence of any serious discussion of the wider regional security problems and their relationship to the Iraqi conundrum. That connection poses the danger that America risks becoming irrelevant to the Middle East – largely through Mr Bush’s own doing. Much depends on how long the US pursues unrealistic goals in Iraq. And on whether the US becomes seriously engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, on how the US relationship with Iran is managed and on how the advocacy of democracy in the Middle East is pursued.
The reality in Iraq is that 135,000 American soldiers cannot create a stable “democracy” in a society rent by intensifying ethnic and religious conflicts. US military commanders, contradicting Mr Bush, have publicly stated that the insurgency is not weakening. It is useful to recall in this regard Henry Kissinger’s wise observation (made in regard to the war in Vietnam but pertinent here) that guerrillas are winning if they are not losing. The longer US troops are involved in Iraq, the more victory will remain “on the horizon” – that is, a goal that recedes as one moves towards it.
Only the Iraqis can establish a modicum of stability in Iraq, and that can be achieved only by Shia-Kurdish co-operation. These two communities have the power to entice or to crush the less numerous Sunnis. Hence the immediate goal of US policy should be to develop a dialogue with self-sufficient Shia and Kurdish leaders about the circumstances in which they could issue a public demand for American disengagement.
All this would be far less risky if accompanied by serious progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That progress has to go beyond the Gaza disengagement or a renewal of reciprocal violence is to be expected. Progress requires US involvement and a willingness to press both parties with real resolve and towards clear goals. Equivocation, partiality toward one side and the temptation to evade this issue are prescriptions for continued conflict.
Similarly, US withdrawal from Iraq could be made more difficult and costly by any escalation in US-Iranian hostility. Iran has not taken full advantage of the opportunities for mischief but the temptation to do so would increase if American policy towards it again conflated the issue of nuclear power with the pursuit of “regime change”. There is little indication that the White House is sensitive to this reality.
Democracy in the Middle East is a worthy goal but one that the people of the region can pursue only on their own terms. Public hectoring by US officials is likely to promote the emergence of radical populist regimes motivated by strong anti-American (and anti-Israeli) passions.
The fictionalised account of America’s war against terror in Iraq failed to take into account the reality that the conflict there mobilises hostility towards the US, that the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stimulates regional anger against America, that continued US threats of “regime change” in Iran harden Iranian enmity towards the country and that heavy handed advocacy of democracy poses the risk of legitimising populist hostility toward the it. In explaining the causes of imperial failure, Arnold Toynbee ultimately ascribed it to “suicidal statecraft”. Of course, he was dealing with history and not fiction.