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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

January 2005

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In this appreciation of a problem currently plaguing the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and one perturbing peace-loving peoples around the globe, a retired senior U. S. diplomat gives briefly his estimate of the situation. An expert in Middle East affairs, he draws conclusions, set in historical perspective, on what the end game in Iraq may turn out to be.—Ed.

Iraq: Musings on Accomplishing the Mission

Back in the 1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson realized the United States was losing the war in Vietnam. If he had been a statesman, he would have sued for peace, but he was a politician. Johnson was obsessed with the thought that he might be the first U. S. president to lose a war. So, in 1968, he dropped out of a race for reelection, handing the predicament over the Republicans Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Those two also were politicians. Under cover of a slogan (“End the War and Win the Peace”), they looked for the best way to give up without appearing to do so. They chose the path of “Vietnamization”—something of a holding action involving the bombing of North Vietnamese supply lines heavily enough to provide a face-saving prelude to American withdrawal and abandonment of the Saigon government. In the eyes of the American public, the stratagem worked. Most of the the U. S. troops came out in 1971. A peace treaty was signed in 1973. The North finally overran Saigon in 1975.

Iraq does not offer the same room for maneuver. Only if the elections scheduled to be held shortly take place and are more widespread and effective than now expected, Washington will have no operative, recognized government in Baghdad to take responsibility. The Iraqi opposition is not 800 miles away, as in Vietnam: it is around the corner. Thus, President Bush lacks the option of ducking out in the manner that President Nixon did; it’s his war and U. S. elections will not be coming around for another four years. Further, the President’s credibility is already damaged by the administration’s misrepresentation of the threat of WMD’s. None have been found and no evidence of ties between the Saddam regime and the radical Islamists have been discerned.

One notable feature of the conflict is the engagement of three varieties of religious fundamentalists: Shiite radicals who want to reduce the Kurds and Arab Sunnis to disempowered minorities; fundamentalist Sunnis, many of whom are slipping in from neighboring Arab states, who do not consider Shiites good Muslims; and certain conservative Americans who endorsed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a service to Israel, whose predominance they support as a Biblical prerequisite to the End of Days.

The President may not realize it, especially in light of his Inaugural Address, but the very idea of democratizing Iraq is another misrepresentation. It would be the ultimate incongruity to try to impose democracy in that country (or anywhere else, for that matter) by force. Democracy is the end result of generations of social and political evolution in which the West is well along, while the Middle East has hardly started the process.

Even if the United States could implant democracy there, American policy-makers likely would not like the result. Washington’s preference for pliable autocracies in the underdeveloped world is well known. U. S. officials have opposed the rise of theocracies, which majority opinion in Iraq could well produce. If an Arab democracy were to emerge there or elsewhere, that might be even more awkward in another sense, that is, by highlighting the fact that Israel, the cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy, is not itself truly a democratic state.

Could Washington, lacking the threat in reality of WMD’s, justify a claim that it invaded Iraq to rebuild it? Hardly. In the first place, that is the job of Iraqis, perhaps aided by the international community, not that of the United States. The sticker shock of the billions of dollars in costs involved already is pronounced. And it would probably take a total of another $50 billion to put Iraq back where it was in 1991, before its defeat following its invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent economic sanctions, and a second, more recent and total, defeat.

Oil is a strategic concern, although one not openly cited as a basis for overthrowing the regime. Nonetheless, oil has been central to America’s Middle East policy since President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Ibn Sa’ud at the Suez Canal in early 1945.

Thus the administration is left with an explicit justification based on the spread of freedom and democracy and the defeat of tyranny worldwide as a strikingly new, startlingly ambitious U. S. policy, a policy articulated at length by President Bush only on January 20, 2005, in his Inaugural Address.

The disorder and apparent confusion in Washington’s Middle East outlook arises from a lack of historical perspective. The lead policy-makers evidently do not fully understand that ever since the collapse of the Ottoman and then the British empires generations ago, the region has been the scene of vicious power struggles to fill the vacuum, troubles that are still not resolved. Successor regimes have thus far generally failed in their attempts to take over, resulting in a tragic abundance of regional wars—at least sixteen since 1945.

In this troubled area, Iraq is the roughest neighborhood of them all. When the British “invented” the country in 1921, they brought in an Arabian prince to rule the Iraqi people. He was shocked to learn, however, that there is no single Iraqi people. The country is an ethnic crazy quilt of tribes, sects, and language groups. No one trusted (or trusts yet today) a central government. Even though Britain began to operate there in what was still the Age of European Imperialism and there was simply no competing power structure in the country, the British did not hold out much beyond the mid-twentieth century.

In 2003, the United States stumbled into the middle of a power struggle between the majority Shiites and the ascendant minority Sunnis, the latter a part of the group that dominates the Arab world in general. It was, as America has seen, in many respects an unfortunate intrusion into a deadly political jungle. Now, two years later, Mesopotamia’s inhabitants are trying to guess which way to jump. They do not know who will come out on top, but Iraqis, through long experience, have to judge the Americans to be short-timers in the country. By now, few if any Iraqis other than the Kurds in the north and interim government officials want them to stay: The Kurds want U. S. protection from the Arabs and the Turks, and figures such as Interim Prime Minister Allawi is protected by American soldiers.

The elections scheduled to held very soon (as this is written) and in December 2005 are intended to produce a government that can take over the country and run it. There are few grounds for optimism, however. Put bluntly, civil war looms, whatever the “success” of the election procedure. The outlook is gloomy —and different from that in Afghanistan because the U.S. presence there is smaller and centered on one city (Kabul) and the Afghan peoples have a lucrative source of income in raising poppy seeds for opium.

Where does that leave the Washington leadership? They assuredly have fewer viable options than the Nixon administration had thirty-five years ago. Nonetheless, if Iraq flares into civil war, or even a wider conflict, U. S. policy makers may still contrive to put some kind of a spin on the situation. (When a tsunami strikes, head for the hills.) Aside from the Vietnam pullout, the United States quite simply evacuated Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1984, as well as Somalia just ten years ago.

It may even be that a better interpretation can some day be put on the American intervention in and departure, whenever it comes, from Iraq. From an historical perspective, the Middle East has been on dead center for fifty years at least, and it will take a shock treatment to nudge it toward social and political reform. Perhaps Americans will look back one day and be able to say they administered that shock.


Curt Jones, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, had a thirty-year career as a diplomat, most of it stationed in the Middle East or concerned with Middle Eastern affairs in Washington. He writes frequently for American Diplomacy.

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