Democrats Must Offer A New Blueprint for Iraq

With the dramatic victory of the Democratic Party in the recent mid-term elections, winning as it did a majority in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, there appear to be heightened expectations in many corners of the United States that this new Congress will be able to somehow act on the expectations of the American people and help President Bush chart a new policy course in Iraq. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, together with the appointment of the former CIA Director Bob Gates, represents a transition from ideology to pragmatism in a Defense Department torn apart by the ongoing debacle in Iraq. Mr. Gates not only represents a break from the Rumsfeldian past, but also brings with him his recent participation in the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan committee tasked with exploring new policy directions for the United States in Iraq.

The political astuteness of the decision by President Bush to replace Rumsfeld with Gates has escaped notice by many Democrats, who seem inclined simply to gloat over the demise of their archenemy. However, removing Rumsfeld not only eliminated an all-too convenient lightening rod for democratic angst over Bush's Iraq policies, but also, by putting Gates up in his stead, bought the Bush administration much needed political breathing room, as Gate's cannot be held accountable for policy failures he had nothing to do with either formulating or implementing. Indeed, given the fact that the Democrats have as of yet failed to articulate anything that remotely resembles a sound policy option regarding Iraq, instead falling back on the age-old tradition of criticizing without offering a solution of their own, a Gates controlled Defense Department will be almost untouchable from an oversight perspective, especially if Gates chooses to act on any of the policy options the Baker-led Iraq Study Group may recommend to the President.

It is imperative that the Democratic Party stake out a position on Iraq before the Iraq Study Group publicly announces its findings and recommendations.

This would enable the Democrats to enter into their mandated tasks of policy oversight from a position of strength, and not the exceptionally weak position they currently occupy. The American people, in voting in the Democrats, let their frustration over the current policy direction in Iraq manifest itself in real change. Lacking any policy option of their own, the Democratic Party could very well find itself in a position where it will have to accept any policy formulation put forward by the Iraq Study Group simply because it has nothing in its stead to offer. Any opposition to a change in policy direction put forward by the Iraq Study Group, regardless of justification, without a sound alternative to be articulated, will look more like political grandstanding than constitutionally mandated oversight, and will be frowned upon by an American electorate with such high hopes and demands.

What could a Democratic Iraq Strategy look like? Perhaps we should start from a position of what it should not look like. There is much talk about the wisdom of recognizing the inevitable, and accept that post-Saddam Iraq, as had been the case with the former Yugoslavia, is incapable of surviving as a unified nation state, and should be broken down into three basic sub-states, one for the Shi'a Arab majority, one for the Sunni Arab minority, and one for the Kurds. While this simplistic vision has its attractions (indeed, there are a number of esteemed American statesmen, Peter Galbraith, the former US Ambassador to Croatia, among them, who embrace such a concept, especially for the Kurds), it is in fact a plan totally devoid of reality. If the goal of breaking Iraq into three separate components is to reduce the likelihood of civil conflict, the fact is that in doing so the end result will be an environment even more conducive to internal strife that manifests itself violently.

The fact of the matter is that in Iraq today there is no homogeneous Shi'a, Sunni or Kurd community to draw upon in forming these theoretical ethnic/religious sub-states. The only one of the three which comes close to having a singular unifying national vision are the Kurds, and they are fatally split between competing political entities, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Peoples Union of Kurdistan (PUK). As recently as 1997 these two parties were engaged in an all-out civil war of their own, and the truce they have been pressured to consummate in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam is tenuous at best. The growing presence of a third Kurdish entity, the Turkish Kurdish Worker's Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq, brings with it the reality that America's NATO ally, Turkey, will never permit an independent Kurdish state to be carved out of Iraq (something the Turkish military has made quite clear to all parties involved). The fractures between Iraq's Kurds are so great, and their hold on unified governance so fragile, that any pressure brought to bear on the tenuous union between the KDP and PUK would result in its immediate dissolution and return to internecine violence, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Sunni represent a growing quandary for the United States and the region. Once the bedrock foundation of secular stability in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni of Iraq today represent the single greatest threat to Iraqi peace and security, and regional stability, due in part to their near-total disenfranchisement since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. Where once the Ba'ath Party reigned supreme, the Sunni's of Iraq today find their minority status even further reinforced by the reality that their community has been fractured into numerous entities which increasingly are as much at odds with themselves as they are with the Kurds and Shi'a of Iraq. From this internal discord has grown a vigorous Al-Qaeda-based terror organization.

Initially fostered by secular Sunni seeking to exploit the instability in Iraq brought on by terrorism to undermine the American occupation of Iraq (a tactic which has worked extremely well), the instability fueled by terror also weakened the ability of the secular Sunni to contain the vehemently anti-western Al-Qaeda, who have benefited from their close proximity to Saudi Arabia and the birth place of both Wahabism and Osama Bin Laden. Universal opposition to the American occupation of Iraq, fueled by examples of torture, rape and murder that have emerged as a direct result of this occupation, have provided the Al-Qaeda organization inside Iraq with no shortage of recruits, both foreign and indigenous.

The cornerstone of any American policy in Iraq must be the defeat of this Iraqi Al-Qaeda terror organization. The key to achieving this result is to manufacture a split between any Iraqi Al-Qaeda and their Sunni hosts. As a Sunni-based religious fundamentalist movement, Iraqi Al-Qaeda will never be able to establish itself within the Shi'a majority. The Sunni host is the only chance such an organization has to survive. Therefore, it is essential that the Sunni community of Iraq be brought into any political solution in a manner that addresses their legitimate concerns as well as rewards them for their decision to be a responsible part of a unified post-Saddam Iraq. The Sunni, in exchange for helping bring down Al-Qaeda in Iraq and agreeing to peacefully coexist with their Shi'a and Kurdish neighbors, should be given assurances that they will have a viable place in any future government of Iraq, one inclusive of a share of Iraq's oil wealth.

There are two keys to making this happen. The first requires the United States to help orchestrate a coalition of Iraq's Sunni-dominated neighbors in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. These three nations would agree to work with any new Iraqi Government to strangle the financial and personnel support being received from abroad by the Iraqi Al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia would play a particularly vital role, since it provides host to the very Wahabist influences that serve as the religious and ideological motivators of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The role of Syria also cannot be understated. Syria has provided host to the very secular Iraqi Sunnis the United States needs to turn to if a viable solution to the question of peace and stability in Iraq is to be found. Many of these secular Iraqi Sunni's are today engaged in helping foment and support the anti-American insurgency. By seeking Syrian assistance in reaching an accommodation with these forces, the United States can initiate the process of separating Iraqi Al-Qaeda from their Sunni hosts. The secular Sunni can provide an effective bridge into the ranks of the Sunni tribes, where the reign of the local Sheik more than often outweighs the influence of the local Mullah.

Identifying, isolating and eliminating those Sunni religious elements which refuse to work within the framework of a unified Iraqi government operating in a post-US occupation Iraq, and instead choose to side with the forces of Al-Qaeda terror, is a job that only the Sunni themselves can accomplish. The goal of the United States should be to facilitate this as rapidly as possible. That this will require a new policy direction vis-à-vis Syria goes without saying, and needs to be recognized and embraced by those in the Democratic Party seeking an end to the current Iraqi quagmire.

The next key is for a political alliance to be struck between a Sunni alliance of tribal, religious and secular (i.e., former Ba'athist) officials and organizations and the most influential indigenous Shi'a group in Iraq today, the Mahdi Army of the Mokhtar al-Sadr. If the United States wants the future government of Iraq to reflect genuine internal dynamics of that country free from outside influence, then it must seek to empower those elements that are truly reflective of the will of the Iraqi people. Recognition (and active support) of a union that brings together the nationalistic Sunni insurgency (versus Al-Qaeda terrorism) and the nationalistic Mahdi Army is the best way to empower the internal voice of Iraq. A Sunni-Shi'a union of this nature would also enable a strong central government in Baghdad to realistically exist, and exert its influence and control over the Kurds in the north, the pro-Iranian militias of the south, and the anarchy that exists in the Sunni Anbar province of western Iraq.

It also means that the United States must turn its back on the government in helped create. The United States must, in the end, break with its failed policy of attempted imposed democracy, and declare the illegitimate by-product of the union of American neo-conservative militaristic adventure and post-Saddam Iraqi chaos, also known as the Government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, null and void. This government has no legitimacy, no power, and no chance of success. To continue to hold the future of Iraq hostage to its ineffective and corrupt governance only makes an eventual solution to the quagmire that engulfs Iraq that much more uncertain and difficult to achieve.

The elections of January 2005 which spawned the Maliki government were paid for with the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of American service members, not to mention thousands of Iraqis, and there will be those who will seek to hold on to this vestige of a failed dream if for no other reason than to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in attempting to bring the dream to fruition.

But to grasp at the memory of a noble mission, whether it was in Falluja, Najaf, Samara, Baghdad or anywhere else in Iraq, while the overarching policy position in Iraq has fragmented into a thousand disparate pieces, does nothing to sustain the sacrifice of the fallen. In fact, by maintaining a policy direction that fails to recognize the reality of Iraq for the sole purpose of respecting those who have fallen only ensures that their sacrifice will be stained with the blood of others who will die in support of a dream long since mutated into a nightmare.

The Iraqi experiment in American-imposed democracy has failed. The new mission is, simply put, stability operations.

The government of Nouri al-Maliki represents the antithesis of stability, and therefore must be dissolved so that a new government can rule in its place.

The removal of Nouri al-Maliki can be achieved with little or no problems, if handled properly. First and foremost there must be recognition on the part of Washington, DC that the United States will not have any veto or final say over what form the system of governance that emerges in the post-Maliki period takes. In order to have any legitimacy, the future government of Iraq must be a product of Iraqi politicians, representative of Iraqi goals and objectives. The United States has a critical role to play in facilitating the circumstances under which these interested parties can come together, and later in nurturing and sustaining whatever agreement on governance is reached, but the day of the US pro-Consul is over.

The Sunni-Shi'a alliance would not, and could not, be expected to govern in isolation. The two remaining key political players outside of such an alliance, the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, and the Kurds of northern Iraq, would have to be brought in as well. But any effort to incorporate these two elements into a future government of Iraqi unity must be made in concert with a substantive diplomatic effort on the part of the United States to rein in the outside influence of Iran in the affairs of Iraq on the one hand, and any notions of independence on the part of the Kurds on the other. Both of these objectives can be reached, but will require a major shift in policy direction on the part of the United States.

The most dramatic shift would involve a complete strategic rethinking of America's posture vis-à-vis Iran. As currently structured, the US policy toward Iran is one of increasing confrontation leading to the inevitability of conflict that will, from the standpoint of the United States, result in regime change in Iran. This policy stance is more reflective of an overarching ideologically motivated position that embraces the notion of regional transformation in the Middle East, as opposed to a genuine reaction to any legitimate national security concerns emanating from within Iran. If we are considering a radical restructuring of our failed Iraq policy, then we must recognize the failure of the ideologically motivated policy of regional transformation, inclusive of the notion of regime change, which produced this failure.

Iran is not the problem; America's policy is.

Iran represents the best hope the United States has of creating a viable unified Iraqi government that is capable of instilling peace and stability. And it is in Iran's own interest to promote such a government. The current Iranian support of SCIRI and other pro-Iranian elements inside Iraq is borne from a desire on the part of Iran to ensure that whatever government emerges in Iraq does not embrace policies which create conditions that would put Iraq on course for a repeat of the tensions which led to the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980's. Iran views the American occupation of Iraq as a horrific force of destabilization that threatens Iran and the region, and has reacted accordingly.

If the United States were willing to sit down with the Iranians and enter into negotiations about the future of Iraq, especially if this future was one which included a dramatically reduced presence of the United States in Iraq coupled with a reversal of the US policy of regional transformation in the Middle East inclusive of regime change in Tehran, there is good reason to believe that the Iranians would assist not only in the removal of the Maliki Government in Baghdad, but also in the creation of a new unified Iraqi government where the influence of the pro-Iranian SCIRI was moderated to reflect its actual representative influence inside Iraq.

Iran would also prove to be a very influential player in resolving the Kurdish problem in northern Iraq. There can be no doubt that any hope of a viable unified Iraqi government must incorporate some form of genuine Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, one that recognizes the unique Kurdish language and culture, but which does not promote the concept of Kurdish independence. Iran, with a large and troublesome Kurdish minority of its own, would be a logical ally in support of any such policy. Any shift in policy by the United States which facilitates the inclusion of Iran as a partner in creating a post-occupation Iraqi government would also enable Iran to work more closely with Turkey in creating a unified front in the face of any notions of Kurdish independence on the part of Iraq's Kurds. Autonomy, not independence, should become the buzz phrase with which all parties address the Kurdish problem in the Middle East.

Both Iran and Turkey should be pressed by the United States not only to support an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, but also to permit greater autonomy of their own respective Kurdish populations. This is an important element of any US diplomatic effort in support of a post-occupation Iraq, because there can be no talk of a viable unified Iraq so long as northern Iraq serves as a base of operations for the Turkish PKK Kurdish rebels. A unified Iraq must work with the Turks and the Iranians to eradicate the PKK in northern Iraq. But any effort to liquidate the PKK which is not inclusive of a plan to address the root problems in Turkey (and in Iran) which serve to give legitimacy to movements like the PKK will only serve to prolong the violence in the region, and with it the suffering of the Kurdish people. This is one area in which a full-court diplomatic press by the United States, inclusive of a new policy direction regarding Iran, could pay long-term benefits for all.

Once serious negotiations have been entered into with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as well as the various Iraqi factions of concerns (with an emphasis on creating a viable alliance between Sunni insurgents and the Shi'a Mahdi Army), the United States needs to get down to the brass tacks of leaving Iraq. The first order of business is to establish goal-based decision points that are tied to the withdrawal of forces.

The first of these should be the establishment of a cease-fire agreement between the American occupiers and the Sunni and Shi'a insurgents. Once this cease-fire has been agreed to, the United States would fall back to clearly defined bases within Iraq. These would include a major base in Anbar province (possibly the massive H-2 airbase complex), the Balad Base north of Baghdad, and Baghdad Airport. Lesser presence would be maintained in the so-called "Green Zone" in Baghdad, and in the Kurdish north. American forces would be withdrawn from Mosul, Tikrit, Al-Qaim, and other operating areas, as well as the streets of Baghdad. Operations would be limited to force protection.

The immediate impact of such a posture change would be to dramatically cut the number of troops required to serve in Iraq. The first order of business should be to take advantage of these force reductions by removing from Iraq most if not all of the reserve and National Guard units, eliminating some of the greatest sources of strain on the American public. The return of American reserve and National Guard forces from their deployments in Iraq would result in immediate political dividends for the Democrats, shutting down the highly unpopular 'back door draft' instituted by the Rumsfeld-led Defense Department.

As the new Iraqi government takes shape (through protracted negotiations monitored, but not dominated or directed, by the United States), the United States could then trade US military presence for Iraqi security presence. For instance, as the new government assumes responsibility for security in Baghdad, the United States could start phasing out its presence at Baghdad Airport. As central authority is expanded, American draw down would be increased.

It is important to note that this equation does not include the notion of perfect security as a precondition for American response. The assumption of security responsibility by the Iraqi government is all that is required. It is assumed that there will be residual violence that will possibly increase upon the departure of American forces. This must be viewed as a natural and expected result that will diminish over time. In order for any withdrawal strategy to work, the United States cannot allow its actions to be dictated by those who are strengthened by the friction and instability brought on by the continued presence of American troops in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda. These elements will seek to bog the American forces down in Iraq by increasing the level of violence.

In the end, the only solution to violence in Iraq that is viable is a solution borne from internal Iraqi forces. Removing American forces from Iraq represents the best means of empowering these internal forces while at the same time weakening the forces of terror, especially Al-Qaeda.

In place of the large American force concentrations inside Iraq, Special Forces forward operating bases would be established in the border areas of Iraq to assume the residual military mission of the United States, namely anti-terrorist operations against Al-Qaeda and security training operations inside Iraq as requested by the new Iraqi government. Each of these new bases would comprise approximately one reinforced Brigade's worth of troops, who would be responsible for force protection (securing the base itself), rapid reaction responsibilities (protecting deployed forces if they get in trouble), air support (fixed-wing and helicopter) and anti-terrorist and training support forces (to hunt down Al-Qaeda operatives inside Iraq, as well as help train indigenous Iraqi forces in border security operations) that would need to be established in Jordan and Kuwait (and in Saudi Arabia, if possible, taking advantage of America's long history of operating out of the Saudi provincial town of Ar' Ar'). A similar force could be temporarily established in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish zone, to help suppress the PKK, with the goal of withdrawing this force once unified control of all Iraqi territory by central authorities has been achieved). Special Forces liaison activities could be established with the Syrians and Iranians to coordinate border security along these nations respective borders with Iraq.

Once these Special Forces bases are established and operating, the United States would begin the rapid drawdown of forces inside Iraq, turning all installations over to Iraqi forces as US attention turned away from internal security operations in Iraq to border security operations in cooperation with Iraqi forces and those of Iraq's neighbors. Border security operations would be focused on isolating anti-government and Al-Qaeda elements remaining inside Iraq, so that they could either be compelled to submit to central authority, or else be destroyed. Active US military operations in Iraq would be limited to anti-terrorist efforts and security training missions, as requested by the Iraqi government. Military presence in Baghdad would be limited to force protection requirements for the "Green Zone," requirements which should be reduced dramatically as stability in Baghdad increases in light of the reduction of friction brought on by increased Shi'a-Sunni cooperation and the reduction of American presence. Eventually, as the situation in Iraq is brought back to a degree of normalcy and the Al-Qaeda presence is eliminated, the American military presence in Jordan and Kuwait could in turn be drawn down, bringing to closure the military phase of America's involvement in a post-occupation Iraq. Diplomatic and economic involvement would continue as dictated by the requirements of US foreign and national security policy.

A policy such as the one outlined here is neither "cut and run," nor is it "stay the course." It is reflective of the legitimate national security concerns of the United States, as well as the reality of the situation we face in the post-Saddam Iraq (and Middle East) of today. Two final thoughts on any plan which seeks to address the current predicament in Iraq. First, the matter of Saddam Hussein. To allow the former dictator of Iraq to be executed by the Maliki Government would be the worst move imaginable if the United States seeks a return to peace and stability in this war-torn nation. Justice has not been served with the trial of Saddam. His execution would only increase the stature of the pro-Iranian Dawa faction that Nouri al-Maliki represents. As the Maliki Government is stood down, so should the period of Kangaroo Courts in Iraq.

The United States, in determining the illegitimacy of the Maliki Government, should take custody of Saddam and turn him over to an international tribunal at the Hague. In doing so, the United States should be willing to accept whatever verdict the Hague lays down, even if it is not one we would desire. Whatever short term discomfort such a move might bring inside Iraq would be off-set by its long-term benefits, especially if, in preparing the new forces in Iraq who will be called upon to govern following the dismissal of the Maliki government are made aware, and can be compelled to concur, with such an action.

For all those who wish to see Saddam hang, I can say only this: explain your blood lust to the parents of the scores of American service members who will die as a direct result of the violence engendered by such an action. Far too many Americans have died because of our decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. There is no need to heap additional tragedy on top of this policy failure. The United States, in all fairness, must recuse itself from the process of judging Saddam. Let the international courts determine Saddam's fate.

Lastly, we must recognize the role Israel, and America's support of Israel, plays in any policy decision involving the Middle East. As outlined here, the key to any successful American withdrawal from Iraq rests in America's willingness to initiate a new policy direction regarding Iran and Syria. Such a policy move would be strongly opposed by the current Israeli government, and those forces inside the United States supportive of this Israeli government. America must engage in an internal debate and discussion about the proper policy position we as a nation should take regarding the state of Israel. That Israel is a close friend and ally there can be no doubt. That America should be available to protect the legitimate national security interests of Israel, as compatible with international law, again goes without question. But to allow a situation to exist, as it currently does, where Israel can influence, or in some cases, using lobbyist proxies, dictate a given course of policy direction when such policies are not in the national interest of the United States, is unacceptable.

There is a need today for an American policy shift regarding Iraq that seeks not only to bring peace and stability to Iraq, but also normalize America's relations with the entire Middle East. This policy direction should not, and cannot, involve the abandonment of Israel. However, it must be recognized that such a bold new policy regarding Iraq will not be to the liking of those who currently govern in Israel, and their American friends and allies. There is room for debate and discussion on this issue. Indeed, sound policy cannot be achieved without such a debate taking place. But this debate must be held free of the rancor of past debates of this sort, where irresponsible charges of anti-Semitism were thrown about by those unwilling to permit the discussion of any policy position deemed unacceptable to the political right in Israel, or their American allies in the pro-Israeli lobby.

We must accept as a basic premise to any discussion about American-Israeli relations the notion that there are circumstances involving the Middle East in which American interests and Israeli interests diverge, and that America is right in pursuing policies which are best for the national security of the United States, even if Israel disagrees. Any new course of policy direction in Iraq that embraces a rapprochement with Iran and Syria represents a situation in which the possibility of a break with Israel exists. America must have the moral and intellectual courage to accept such a break, because at the end of the day it is what is in the best interests of this country that matters most. Peace in Iraq, and stability in the Middle East is a cause worth embracing, and fighting for, regardless of who might oppose it.

This is a tall order for a new Congress to consider. But anything less than total commitment to all facets of a new Iraq policy, inclusive of those elements that might be uncomfortable for Israel, will represent a betrayal of the hopes of the American people when they voted for a Democratic Congress. The new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, together with the new Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, as well as the rest of the Democratic Party leadership and establishment, should proceed with extreme caution in failing to heed these hopes. The "Big Election," the race for national leadership in November 2008, is just around the corner, and if the November 2006 elections prove anything, a slighted electorate has no patience for those politicians who had slighted them.

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