Americans want a new approach. Withdrawal? A bad idea. Partitioning? Won’t work. The right approach is one that addresses U.S. interests in the entire region.
By Wesley Clark
The mission in Iraq is spiraling into failure. American voters have sent a clear message: Bring our troops home, but don’t lose. That’s a tall order both for resurgent Democrats, some of whom are calling for a quick withdrawal, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is presumably crafting new options.
Instead of cutting and running or staying the course, it is time for us to begin to redeploy. But how can we do this and improve our prospects for success?
First, we have to think past Iraq and above partisan politics, folding actions in Iraq into a strategy to protect broader U.S. interests throughout the region.
Neither the Bush administration’s latest pronouncements nor the current political dialogue has adequately engaged these vital interests. The calamity in Iraq has hogtied the Bush administration, inviting disarray, if not instability, in neighboring countries that also require our attention.
U.S. interests include dissuading Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons and its hegemonic aspirations, providing security assurances for the rapidly developing Arab Gulf states and working with our friends in the Middle East to ensure access to oil resources and regional stability.
Timetables a bad idea
What about a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals? Today, setting a rigid, Washington-driven timetable is an option, but a bad one. A precipitous troop reduction could have far-reaching effects: emboldening Iran, weakening U.S. security promises to friendly states, and even sparking military initiatives by other powers — Turkey or Iran — to deal with the resulting security vacuum. Our weakened position in Iraq also could undercut our leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
What about imposing a tripartite division of Iraq? That would merely feed ethnic cleansing and likely lead to a wider, more intense conflict.
The right approach is a coordinated diplomatic, legal, economic and security campaign drawing upon broader dialogue in the region and intensified political work inside Iraq.
Here is how to do this:
Establish an effective, sustained shuttle diplomacy within the region.
Form a high-level interagency diplomatic team, representing the White House and secretaries of State and Defense and led by an experienced, respected diplomat.
Begin talks within Iraq, and with all its neighbors, based on a clear set of principles outlined by the team. The goal would be to seek the commitments necessary to achieve our aims inside Iraq and also advance U.S. interests in the region.
These principles could include: Iraq would remain whole; oil revenue would go to the Iraqi people based on a formula they determine; the rights and security of individuals must be protected; the United States would have no permanent bases in Iraq; the covert flow of military arms and equipment into Iraq would be halted; and the security needs of all states would be respected.
Regional dialogue needed
A permanent Gulf regional security dialogue could emerge that includes Syria and Iran, and the United States could undertake a role as regional security guarantor. Preliminary discussions should lead to a more intensive dialogue with Iran in which security assurances and nuclear programs are discussed.
In terms of diplomacy, our team would engage each state and party, solicit its views and challenge it to participate in moving forward, just as U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke did in the Balkans a decade ago. Next steps might include confidence-building measures, hosted discussions between factions, and perhaps one or more larger meetings to conclude firm commitments, timetables or sequence of events.
Of course there are no guarantees, but from such a dialogue should emerge a prescription for U.S. troop levels and activities consistent with our larger interests. Carrots and sticks could be employed. For instance, the factions could vow certain actions in return for U.S. assistance or troop deployments, or redeployments, and possible assistance from neighboring states.
Reaching an understanding on Iraq need not be a lengthy process, but the dialogue must be broadened in scope and participation to be effective. The aim would be a consensual solution underwritten by outside guarantors, not an imposed solution. And finally, military power would have a subordinated and supporting role.
Simultaneously, the United States would set about transforming its applied military power in Iraq into the useful diplomatic influence essential to addressing broader security concerns.
Ultimately, security in the Gulf and winning against al-Qaeda will require that we work with regional powers, promote stability and gradual transformation, and regain “strategic consent” for long-term U.S. assistance in the region. We must use the situation in Iraq to propel us toward this larger goal, and in doing so, we will also find the right way to wind down our deployment there.
The outline of what needs to be done is clear. But does the administration have the courage and foresight to do it, or will it continue to march into profound failure?
Retired general Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of NATO, is a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.
USA Today 11/21/06