In March 2003, Americans thrilled to televised scenes of U.S. forces moving into Iraq. Well-spoken soldiers, modern equipment, and embedded reporters suggested a sense of purpose, competence, and courage that resonated across the country. But today, 14 months later, the mission is in shambles, scarred by rising Iraqi popular discontent, continued attacks against U.S. forces, infiltration of foreign fighters, mounting civil strife, and no credible sense of direction.
Despite President George W. Bush's calls for staying the course, American public opinion has clearly turned against the mission. Some have already pronounced it a failure. Others, giving up on the idea of a unified Iraq, are seeking to salvage some measure of success by suggesting we break up the country, a proposal that would implicitly reward the Kurds--and invite more trouble later. Still others suggest that we reduce our ultimate objective from Iraqi democracy to Iraqi stability. All the critics warn that, if we don't change direction, we are headed for failure.
They're right: Absent significant changes, we are headed for failure. But the problem is not just that our goal of an American-style democracy is too ambitious; it's also that we've lacked the resources to meet it. Constructing a stable, representative government in Iraq is possible, provided we alter our strategy and tactics. To date, we have relied too heavily on our military to conduct tasks for which it is neither culturally prepared nor well-trained. While our troops should help secure the borders and handle internal threats that are too large for the still-nascent Iraqi forces, they should, as soon as possible, stop policing the country for one simple reason: They're not very good at it. Instead, we need to involve Middle Eastern countries and the larger international community in building a unified Iraq with a representative government that doesn't threaten its neighbors or serve as a magnet for Al Qaeda recruiting and that exerts enough control to ensure domestic stability and promote economic development.
First, the United States must correct the "dynamic of conflict" that it has injected into the region. In essence, the Bush administration has scared Iran and Syria into believing that, if the United States is successful in its occupation of Iraq, they will be the next targets. To the Iranians and Syrians, the implication is that their survival depends on dragging the U.S. mission in Iraq into failure. Furthermore, America's perceived pro-Israel bias, and its failure to engage seriously in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has fed the poisonous atmosphere fueling Arab anger toward the United States and its efforts in Iraq.
To clear the air, the United States must first involve regional governments in Iraq's reconstruction, giving them a seat at the table in that country's development so they understand that they are not the next targets of regime change. The United States must also actively push the Middle East road map, with its goal of a two-state solution. The Bush administration cannot simply articulate a plan and expect the Israelis and Palestinians to follow--that clearly has not worked. Instead, it must hold serious and sustained dialogue between the two sides and among the so-called front-line states to hammer out details of a peace process. The road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem, not, as the neoconservatives unquestioningly believe, the other way around.
Thus far, the Bush administration has been unable to win much backing from European and Middle Eastern states, but addressing fears of U.S. hegemony and spurring the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will help dispel Arab anger and enhance U.S. credibility in the region and abroad, allowing Washington to build an international advisory and support structure that will sustain the mission in Iraq after the Iraqis regain sovereignty on June 30. This structure should be a tailor-made international organization, such as the one created to implement the Dayton Accords in Bosnia in 1995. Call it the Iraqi Development Committee. Endorsed by the United Nations, such a committee would give a decision-making role to every nation that is contributing to Iraq's political, economic, or security development. The committee would appoint a high representative to lead advisory and assistance efforts on the ground in Iraq-- not an American but, rather, someone from the region or perhaps Europe--thereby establishing an alternative power center to soon-to-be Ambassador John Negroponte to which the Iraqis can appeal. Sharing decision-making power and appointing a non-American to such a significant position will make it possible to attract substantial support--troops, economic assistance, et cetera--from our major allies.
The Committee should have an executive board comprising all the states bordering Iraq, including a representative from the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, one from the United States. It is this body, which would direct the aid its members provide, that would reassure Arab states of America's intentions. Such a committee would also provide the opportunity for face-to- face dialogue among Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United States, with the intention of promoting regional stability so Iraqi democracy can more easily flourish. Of course, the United States will likely differ sharply with the positions some of these states take, but it is better to hash out such issues at the negotiating table than in vitriolic exchanges via the media.
With the cooperation of the international community--and the increased resources that come with it--we will be better able to help create a representative Iraqi government. Some have argued that, with its religious and ethnic divisions, the breakup of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish states is inevitable. But it's not, and we should do our best to keep the country together. Deliberately breaking up states has proved messy and violent in the past and is likely to provoke, rather than resolve, internal conflict. In Iraq, ethnic cleansing would be inevitable as Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia sought redress for past grievances (such as the seizure of Kurdish lands by Saddam Hussein's government) or acted violently out of fear that they must strike first before they become targets themselves. The regional consequences of such strife are unpredictable but could well be highly dangerous. Turkey and Iran could intervene in Iraq to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state that could incite their own Kurdish populations to demand independence. Similarly, Syria's Kurds could well challenge President Bashar Al Assad's government, potentially sparking a civil war. All this instability would leave ample room for international terrorists to gather and wreak havoc.
To keep Iraq intact, the international community must dissuade it from founding a government chosen by proportional representation, in which Iraqis vote for an ethnically or religiously based party--an approach that has caused so much friction in the Balkans. Instead, we must encourage the Iraqis to adopt a representative system that brings people together, strengthening their common interests rather than highlighting their differences. A bicameral national structure to which voters elect individual politicians to represent their constituencies might force parties to move toward the political center rather than the extremes. Those constituencies could simply succeed Iraq's 18 governorates, whose borders are not drawn along sectarian lines.
While we can encourage Iraqis to avoid a state based on ethnic identity, denying them a theocratic state will be more difficult; Iraqis themselves must determine the relationship between Islam and human rights, particularly the rights of women. An Iraqi democracy will not look the same as an American democracy--and we cannot expect or force it to. Of course, we will encourage Iraq to adhere to international human rights standards, but, in the end, the Iraqis will have to choose for themselves laws and norms that reflect their morals and culture. Values cannot be imposed from the top down.
For Iraq to establish a representative government that can make such decisions, however, the international community will need to assist by deploying hundreds of skilled administrators, lawyers, jurists, and political scientists. Resources should also be provided for Iraqi delegations to visit other countries as a way of examining alternative legal and political arrangements. Indeed, the international community can make its greatest contribution in Iraq by helping to establish the rule of law. The near-term threat in Iraq is that the country could lapse into civil war or decay into seething instability, as Lebanon did in the 1970s. Either way, Iraq would likely become a haven for every form of illegal activity as well as a major recruiting and training ground for international terrorists. Maintaining internal stability consistent with representative government is a matter not only of effective policing, but also of a criminal justice system complete with laws, courts, judges, and civil and criminal punishments. The international community should help draft laws and procedures, train judges as well as police, and equip investigators, patrol officers, police headquarters, courts, and jails--a process that will take two or three years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Our experience in the Balkans will prove valuable here, but it will take U.S. leadership to extract and implement the lessons of that conflict.
The Iraqi government will also need help building a military strong enough to secure the country's borders, defeat any local, unauthorized militia, and enforce the rule of law--a process that could also take several years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars (though the Iraqis should be able to bear some of the costs themselves). In the interim, a substantial number of American troops will need to remain in the country, with U.N. and Iraqi authorization and a clear definition of their specific mission and responsibilities. To further encourage international contributions to Iraq, we should have our commanders report through nato, while of course retaining authority to act in our own self-defense.
We must not, however, allow the violence in Iraq to serve as an excuse for inaction by the international community or to prevent us from delivering the development assistance we have promised. To do so would simply shift the entire burden of rebuilding Iraq to the U.S. military, which cannot solve the country's problems on its own. Indeed, helping Iraqis to rebuild their country will significantly enhance their ability to control and restrain the violence that has become increasingly prevalent.
The United States has taken some steps to promote Iraqi self-sufficiency, but they've been wobbly ones. We've tried to train police, but, in rushing the process, we've done a poor job. The last thing we want to do in Iraq is stay the course. We must make a substantial course correction--immediately. What is ultimately at risk in Iraq is not just the future of the Iraqi people, but regional stability in the Middle East and U.S. influence and security itself. Intervening in Iraq a year ago was optional--and, in my view, unnecessary. But we now have no choice about whether to succeed: We must.
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This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.