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A way out of the mess
Opportunities and pitfalls ahead in Iraq

April 15, 2004

I was in Doha, Qatar, as a visiting scholar, during the fall 2003 semester. I went there expecting a socially and culturally conservative society, but modern in economic and political terms. Given our soldiers are there in a strategically significant military base, I expected some degree of affinity with America and Americans among the masses. I was wrong in all my expectations. Even though it is still true that people, as individuals, aspire to go to the United States for obvious reasons, these aspirations are personal and do not encompass admiration of America's political behavior and alliances in the region.

In the eyes of people there, America is no longer the land of the freedom, the trusted sanctuary of the oppressed and persecuted, and land of equal opportunity. The words of Mahathir Muhammad, former Malaysian Prime Minister, are accepted, in effect, without any argument, implying that the United States foreign policy is run out of Israel and the war on terrorism is a war on Islam in disguise. People there do not anymore believe that we all have a stake in the war against scourge of terrorism in spite of the fact that they have experienced it in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt on much smaller scales.

Surprisingly, Qataris, within the circles that I have come to be in contact with, unanimously mention something to the effect that, in the immediate post 911 periods America was considered a victim of a barbarous attack by those who wished to destabilize the region. Today, however, people regard the United States as the aggressor. They blame US for the miserable and wretched environment in the region, even in those places that America has not had much to do with, at least directly.

It seems that all of the goodwill and sympathy that were created because of the horrific 911 attack is lost along with the liberal image of our country. The United States has become the catch-all single name that is used to connote all bad things in their social and political lives and as the main culprit for all their ills even though most of their ills are self-inflicted and could be traced to their own cultural, social, and political systems. Although the centerpiece of the malcontent has been and remains to be Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, American occupation of Iraq is a close second.

American Foreign Policy
As far back as one could remember the US foreign policy in this region has been based on two principles: free flow of oil at reasonable prices and unconditional security of Israel. Pursuit of these principles has had an un-welcomed byproduct; America's alignment with the authoritarian governments of the region who have been violating every human right of their peoples and have kept them in dark ages, something that people have not forgotten and will not forget easily, especially if there is a time for reckoning.

Unconditional security of Israel at any price has put us against the people of the region despite their governments' tendencies to be friendly and behave according to the needs of the West. In pursuit of both principles America is perceived as the enemy, lined up against the people of the region. They are oppressed by their governments in every possible ways that, to their citizens, means they are kept under the yoke of the United States so that cheap oil freely flows out of the region.

The Iron fist policies of Israel in fighting stone throwers and suicide bombers, and now the operation iron hammer in Iraq to disarm the gorillas are seen in the same perspectives as Mahathir Mohammad's. American operation iron hammer is seen as a page from Israeli's iron fist operations in Palestine, which reinforces the idea that America, under the current Administration, is not perusing its own national interest; rather, it is a proxy and is waging a war on behest of Israel. Neither US policy toward Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, nor occupation of Iraq helps America and American national interests in either the short or long run.

The Current State of Affairs

What makes the current situation more difficult to assess is the flight by night change of missions that the Administration is proposing ever since it took office. Initially, this Administration was supposed to stay out of others' affairs as was evident during the first 8 months of its current term. After the 911 tragedy, it has become an aggressive destabilizing force. It seems that the definitions terrorism, national security, national interests, what is acceptable, and what is desired move around like the sand in the desert.

Also, it seems that first we find an enemy and then define our interests, which is very disconcerting. It seems the destabilization of the regimes in the region, friends and foes alike, and redrawing the maps of the Middle East are becoming the centerpiece of American foreign policy. We only could guess what today's flavor is going to be and tomorrow's wind will bring it to us. This flight by night policy could be due to either a lack of vision or a hidden agenda.

It is a lack of vision that is troublesome; because any policy that depends on the direction of political wind and not on the long run national security and interests (any national interest-based agenda, open or secret agenda does not matter much) confuses those who are led as well as the allies who are supposed to be the co-leaders of world community.

It is not surprising that France, Germany, Russia, and many other countries do not understand what the US government is trying to do and have not gone along with the US Middle East policies. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it in a speech on October 8, 2003, the lopsided votes in the UN General Assembly on the subject of Middle East represent a very distressing and disconcerting loss of credibility and isolation for the US, hardly an enviable position for the only remaining superpower.

Iraq Is Not Another Vietnam, Yet

This time, it sounds like a duck, walks like a duck, but it is not a duck. Theoretically, there is at least one good and important reason to dislodge the "Vietnam" syndrome. Iraqis want the same thing that the US professes to want for them. Iraqis, by and large, want to be free, to have a free press, to have all equal rights under the law, for men and women alike. Iraqis and Americans, therefore, unlike the Vietnamese case, are moving in the same direction.

In Vietnam, Americans were helping a puppet regime in the south to subjugate its people and to fight a genuine national insurgency in the north, which is not the case now. However, this could easily become a Vietnam if America goes stray, i.e., if America lost sight of the current stated mission of helping Iraqis to learn the difficult concept of democracy, freedom, and more importantly, establish institutions necessary for the purpose.

Can US fail?
The answer to this question seems to be very simple and yet, difficult. In theory, US cannot and should not fail. But it is necessary to define success and failure. All of those who desire a better and more peaceful world, where people of all ethnic and religious beliefs could pursue their legitimate interests free of fear of foreign and domestic threats, would agree that a Saddam-free world is a better world. But replacing a domestic tyrant with a foreign colonizer, benevolent or otherwise, is not an acceptable tradeoff for the free men and women of Iraq and of the free world. This is exactly what should be on the minds of the policy wonks.

Military victory does not translate and should not be considered a victory even if the masses are completely subjugated. Peoples' submission to military might is similar to the fire under the ashes. It would take only a mild blow for the fire to show itself and burn whomever and whatever is there. The demise of the former Shah of Iran must be vividly remembered while we are playing king makers in Iraq and other places. Victory must mean winning the hearts and minds and the permanent goodwill of the people, not dissimilar to the Post II World War appreciation of America by Germans, French, Italians, and the rest of Europeans who were freed from their miseries under fascism.

Can Partition of Iraq Be On the Table?
There are voices of late that the better solution for Iraq is to partition it into three autonomous regions, either under an Iraqi or under a Hashemite "umbrella." This option has both good and bad potentials. It is a good idea if the intention is to divide and conquer and increase destabilization threats and pressures on the governments by hinting that other countries like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others with diverse ethnic and religious compositions could have, sooner or later, a similar fate. Understandably, however, this advantage would be very un-welcomed by any country regardless of their location.

Take Israel, for example, if we assume that Shi'as and Sunnis, two close branches of the same religion, could not coexist, why would anyone assume that Muslims and Jews could coexist in Israel, wherever the borders are eventually drawn? Would Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Azerbaijan, and Iran remain silent or would they want to join their brethren in the "new" Kurdistan? Would we have to separate eastern Saudi Arabia, where a large Shi'a population lives, from the rest?

On another level, the call for the partition of Iraq ignores the concept of Iraqi nationalism altogether. Despite the discrimination that Kurds and Shi'as experienced under the previous authoritarian regimes (monarchy, colonial, and the rest) over time, the Iraqi identity has been very strong among main stream Iraqis. Separatists, mostly in Kurdish areas, in most cases, have appealed to the sense of political and economic injustice that they experienced by the central governments.

On a more mundane level, a major obstacle in the partition scenario is the distribution of wealth among would be emerging nations. Plenty of oil and gas exist in the Kurdish and Shi'a areas and very little in the Sunni-dominated areas such as Karkuk. Would Sunnis agree to the partition even though they are going to be another pan-handling country on the same level as Jordan, Syria, or Egypt? Finally and arguably most importantly, the advocates of partition assume some level of incurable ignorance, intolerance, and fanaticism by Iraqis, which borders bigotry, if not outright contempt for the people of Iraq.

Arab Governments and Current US Foreign Policy
The Arab leaders will not approve of destabilization policy, which would make their lives much more difficult, even if they acquiesce to the free flow of oil, as they have been doing it for decades, and tacitly to the occupation of Iraq. At the very least, these regimes would lose confidence in the sincerity and friendship of the US, which would make American position in the region, if not in the world, more tenuous. No country, poor or rich, large or small, could rely on a government whose policy is based on destabilization of its allies. If this policy becomes the centerpiece of American foreign policy, the first thing that might happen is further isolation of the United States and gravitation of the rest of the world toward Europe or other centers and that does not bode well for the US in the short or long run.

A Way Out
It seems the rushed and seemingly arrogant policy of the United States to take it upon itself to do the "right thing" has cornered and isolated America in the world community. Goodwill and sympathy that have been accumulated over decades and especially after the 911 horrendous losses have been unnecessarily squandered.

Whether the policy undertakings were mistakes driven by neoconservative zealots, a result of an honest miscalculation by cool headed policy wonks, a result of misinformation received from the expatriate Iraqis, or driven by the Jewish-Christian fundamentalist coalition do not matter now, except they need to be acknowledged for the history and future decision makers. What we need now is to get ourselves out of this nightmarish situation.

We need to know that time, at least politically, may not be an ally. We might be able to crush Iraqis physically or even crush their will, something that is highly doubtful, but that will not win their hearts and minds and their loyalty in the future. It is not very wise to look for or wait until a "Hamid Karzai" is found. Given the fact that the central government in Afghanistan does not control much beyond Kabul, a government under Iraq's "Karzai" will not be any different. They will follow their own agenda rather than the national interests of Iraq. Iraq, under a "Karzai" will be a chaotic mess and its disintegration will be guaranteed.

The Iraqi rank and files, the United Nations and NATO are all itching to become significant players in the game. Therefore, it is better to start a multi-pronged policy of inclusion, transfer, and disengagement. Here are a few potentially fast and costless steps that would open the gates for the US to get out and would buy back much of the lost goodwill around the world. None of these steps requires giving up a controlling role for the US.

-- Let Iraqis in every city, town, and village start a constitutional debate around a basic democratic set of principles. This will get Iraqis involved and also gives them a view of the end of the tunnel and, may be, they will help contain the gorillas. This process could also lead to discovery of a "Karzai" type ruler.

-- The current Board does not have the support of the people. They are powerless and useless in the eyes of Iraqi rank and file and, therefore, it should be disbanded. They are to be replaced with tribal and moderate religious leaders who have people's confidence and support.

-- This would reassure Iraqis that they are going to be in charge of their own lives and would allay the fears of many in the world, especially those of Europeans and Muslims. This could also help replacing our troops with those of Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, India, and, particularly, the NATO.

-- Finally, the meritocracy should be given a chance. UN has proven record of nation building around the world. UN knows how to establish the institutions that are needed for a democratic society.

Hamid Zangeneh, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania and Editor of Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis.

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