Having recently participated in two public debates on the issue of whether the United States should withdraw now from Iraq or stay the course, I understand only too well that western audiences are not listening to the arguments. It is not cool rationality that sways the audience, but the play upon their anxieties that gives the outcome. Yes, they are worried about what is happening--otherwise it is hardly likely that 750 persons would turn out on a cold London night to listen--but they are there mainly to have their anxieties allayed.
In this conflict of feelings, the warm embrace of that presumption of western "good intentions" always will trump the argument that leaving as soon as possible actually might improve the prospects for a political solution. They hear; but they want assurances--assurances you can touch--that a better outcome can be guaranteed by leaving early.
The truth is that both courses of action carry risk, and both, almost certainly, would be accompanied by a level of violence. The question is, what level of violence? Western audiences wriggle at this point, and sink into the embrace of the mantra that "surely the US and the UK presence must be beneficial?" The intentions are good; but they cannot accept that intentions are not enough; that even such a well-intentioned western presence might in itself inhibit or prevent any prospect of an early solution.
In some ways, as is also claimed for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we can all see the shape of the likely long-term arrangement. The key internal parties--meaning those who have real influence on the ground, the Sunni resistance leaders and the Shi'ite leadership--will need to sit with the others who hold influence in Iraq, the Kurds, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to find a power-sharing outcome. This outcome is likely to provide a form of governance that gives more weight to Sunni interests than is available under the present dispensation. Many in Iraq now believe that any political solution, however, must be preceded by some trial of strength between the parties. The hope is that this will not escalate into civil war, but who can offer such assurances?
The US presence prevents such a solution: all in the region are aware that the US, slowly or less slowly, is on its way out. We can all observe too that the election outcome has shifted the locus of influence over the internal political process from Washington to Tehran. The problem is that that such a solution cannot begin to emerge until the occupiers go. The longer they continue with their military suppression of mainly Sunni central Iraq, the more it aggravates sectarian tensions and the greater the prospect for civil war.
The US occupation, in its focus on militarily suppressing central Iraq, itself gives rise to large numbers of Iraqi civilian and innocent casualties. This creates the atmosphere of Sunni victimhood that the small minority "Zarqawi" and Takfiri groups exploit in order to try to create the civil tensions that might lead to a true revolutionary process. The overwhelming majority of Sunni insurgents are fighting for a seat at the table of power--they are not fighting to create a new revolution.
The US domestic imperative to have an exit strategy in time for the mid-term congressional elections means that, politically, the US is in a jam in Iraq: the elections have given the Shi'ite parties a dominant position, and these parties are warning the US that the elections are over, that they won, and that the US must stop trying to appease the Sunnis or risk the Shi'ites turning on the US. For the Sunnis, the elections yielded zero in terms of real political clout. They are angry and alienated. The Americans now risk both communities turning on them: their ultimate dread. At the same time, they can neither address the political impasse nor correct the sectarian flaws in the make-up of the security forces without returning them both to the drawing board. And that would terminate their exit strategy just in the run up to congressional elections.
In the face of diminishing US room for maneuver, what can staying achieve? No one in the US seriously advocates getting in the middle of sectarian conflict; and if the object is to strengthen the militia-based security forces, then we are largely engaged in preparing the Peshmerga and the Shi'ite militia for the confrontation with the Sunnis. Is that what we want? As matters stand, without US fire and airpower the Shi'ites would probably have little option but to negotiate with the Sunnis. But if we stay to build up further the strength of the Kurdish and Shi'ite militias within the so-called "national" security forces, we will only prolong and intensify the ensuing struggle.
These options may make western audiences who yearn for a "democratic" solution queasy; but this is the reality. The US should go, the sooner the better, and allow a real political process--one that will involve those to whom the US will not speak--to sort out an accommodation.- Published 26/1/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org