THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
Published: August 4, 2006
It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.
When our top commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, tells a Senate Committee, as he did yesterday, that “the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it,” it means that three years of efforts to democratize Iraq are not working. That means “staying the course” is pointless, and it’s time to start thinking about Plan B — how we might disengage with the least damage possible.
It seemed to me over the last three years that, even with all the Bush team’s missteps, we had to give our Iraqi partners a chance to produce a transitional government, then write a constitution, then hold an election and then, finally, put together their first elected cabinet. But now they have done all of that — and the situation has only worsened.
The Sunni jihadists and Baathists are as dedicated as ever to making this U.S.-Iraqi democracy initiative fail. That, and the runaway sectarian violence resulting from having too few U.S. troops and allowing a militia culture to become embedded, have made Iraq a lawless mess.
Yes, I believe it was and remains hugely important to try to partner with Iraqis to create one good example in the heart of the Arab world of a decent, progressive state, where the politics of fear and tribalism do not reign — the politics that has produced all the pathologies of unemployment, religious intolerance and repression that make the Middle East so dangerous to itself and others.
But the administration now has to admit what anyone — including myself — who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.
Since the Bush team never gave us a Plan A for Iraq, it at least owes us a Plan B. It’s not easy. Here are my first thoughts about a Plan B and some of the implications.
I think we need to try a last-ditch Bosnia-like peace conference that would bring together all of Iraq’s factions and neighbors. Just as Bosnia could be solved only by an international peace force and the Dayton conference — involving Russia, Europe and the U.S., the powers most affected by Bosnia’s implosion — the civil war in Iraq can be quelled only by a coalition of those most affected by Iraq’s implosion: the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan, India, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Jordan. As in Bosnia, any solution will have to be some form of federalism, a division of oil wealth and policing by an international force, where needed.
For such a conference to come about, though, the U.S. would probably need to declare its intention to leave. Iraqis, other Arabs, Europeans and Chinese will get serious about helping to salvage Iraq only if they believe we are leaving and it will damage their interests.
What would be the consequences of leaving without such a last-ditch peace effort, or if it just fails? Iraq could erupt into a much wider civil war, drawing in its neighbors. Or, Iraqis might stare into this abyss and actually come to terms with each other on their own. Our presence may be part of the problem. It’s hard to know.
If Iraq opts for all-out civil war, its two million barrels a day will be off the market and oil could go above $100 a barrel. (That would, however, spur more investment in alternative fuels that could one day make us independent of this volatile region.)
Some fear that Iran will be the winner. But will it? Once we are out of Iraq, Iran will have to manage the boiling pot next door. That will be a huge problem for Iran. The historical enmity toward Iran by Iraqi Arabs — enmity temporarily focused on us — will re-emerge. And Iran will also have to compete with its ally Syria for influence in Iraq.
Yes, the best way to contain Iran would have been to produce a real Shiite-led democracy in Iraq, exposing the phony one in Tehran. But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option — the one Iran loves — is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes.
Finally, the war in Iraq has so divided us at home and abroad that leaving, while bringing other problems, might also make it easier to build coalitions to deal with post-U.S. Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. All these problems are connected. We need to deal with Iran and Syria, but from a position of strength — and that requires a broad coalition.
The longer we maintain a unilateral failing strategy in Iraq, the harder it will be to build such a coalition, and the stronger the enemies of freedom will become.