Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Iraq's Future and Ours 

Many hard questions come to mind today, especially after yesterday’s devastating attack on US soldiers in Mosul.

It’s impossible among the longstanding political opposition to President Bush’s policies in Iraq not to shake one’s head and lament that our soldiers are in the position they are. It is, however, less clear what America can do now to extricate itself without seeing Iraq devolve into the kind of chaos that gave rise to a failed state in Afghanistan. That prospect has long term consequences for America that are possibly worse than the present mess.

Given that the Administration is now committed to the policy of pushing an Iraqi election scheduled for the end of January, several factors now seem to loom as obstacles to developing a workable policy. The coming election under the provisional constitution has adopted few safeguards for the Sunni minority and the looming prospect of civil strife between ethnic groups following a likely victory by parties representing the Shiite majority is a dark likelihood to contemplate.

In addition to the constitutional disincentive given the Sunnis to take part, the various factions fighting against the provisional government and the US all are focusing on limiting Sunni electoral participation through violence like the attacks now occurring in the “triangle of death.” It seems likely that many Sunnis will stay home, whether out of support for the resistance or because they fear the foreign terror groups and the internal resistance that are now racking the country with violence.

The option which would have seemed best in the short term, a massive infusion of multinational troops before the election, accompanied by a plan to de-Americanize the occupation after the election, would require a supply of international goodwill and diplomatic understanding that appears impossible at present. In addition to the futility of asking already reluctant nations to send forces without relinquishing some control, it seems clear that the Bush Administration finds it undesirable to go hat in hand to allies who it has spurned to ask for their help anyway.

Nations bordering the Iraq conflict will make their own moves to position themselves well with the ruling elements in the future there. It would probably behoove the US to deal effectively with Iran behind the scenes, as there will clearly be some areas of mutual interest between our two countries relative to Iraq’s Shiites. But even this area of diplomacy is limited at present, since we are locked in a diplomatic tug of war over Iran’s developing nuclear capability. A Shiite theocracy, Iranian style, seems a possible tendency in Iraq. Will supporting democracy still seem in our interests if radical theocrats take electoral power and rule with draconian laws?

It’s hard to say what the best of the bad options are now in Iraq, but getting to the elections relatively safely, or delaying them if that isn’t possible, but staying the course with the UN’s administrative lead in either case seems the only short term option. If the UN will continue to plan for and staff election oversight, then the US must protect international election workers, whatever it takes. Unless the elections are seen to be broadly accessible, fairly administrated, and attract broad participation by Iraqis—including the Sunnis—the next few months afterwards will be bloodier than ever, it seems.

This said, I have no expectation that the Administration will make any policy or tactical changes between now and the election, if it occurs. God help us all. I pray for our soldiers’ safety.

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