by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 19, 2008
POET OF THE AIR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Despite Sen. John McCain's belief to the contrary, the situation in Iraq has become increasingly twisted and convoluted. It is almost like Milo Minderbinder, the wheeler-dealer from Joseph Heller's World War II novel "Catch-22," is in charge.
One man who knows which end is up in Iraq is former Ambassador Peter Galbraith.
On Oct. 11 in Brattleboro, Vt., Galbraith appeared before the Windham World Affairs Council to offer his assessments on Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He kept the focus not so much on putting the blame on and exposing the many mistakes and miscalculations of the Bush Administration, but rather on looking ahead to what the next president will have to face in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.
Galbraith spoke of McCain's insistence that the United States is on the verge of victory in Iraq. The victory is a rather strange one, though.
As Galbraith described in an essay in the Oct. 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, "Shiite religious parties that are Iran's closest allies in the Middle East control Iraq's central government and the country's oil-rich south. A Sunni militia, known as the Awakening, dominates Iraq's Sunni center. It is led by Baathists, the very people we invaded Iraq in 2003 to remove from power. While the U.S. sees the Awakening as key to defeating al-Qaida in Iraq, Iraq's Shiite government views it as a mortal enemy and has issued arrest warrants for many of its members. Meanwhile the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that brought stability to parts of Iraq is crumbling."
Yes, Galbraith said, there has been a striking decline in violence since additional U.S. forces were sent into Iraq in 2007. But that's been due to three things. First, the Sunni leaders got fed up with the Islamic fundamentalist fighters. They formed militias funded by the Americans and drove al-Qaida out of the Sunni controlled areas. Second, the main Shiite militia, led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, decided to take a break from fighting and wait out the Americans. Third, ethnic cleansing in Iraq has been so effective that there no longer enough people to kill. The Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have more or less consolidated power in their respective parts of Iraq.
All this, Galbraith said, leads to the next problem with declaring victory in Iraq. If McCain and the Bush Administration define success as Iraq's transformation into a stable, united and democratic ally of the United States, how is that possible given the deep divisions in Iraq right now?
The Shiites, who are the majority in Iraq, are allied with Iran and want a theocracy under Islamic law. The Kurds want to be left alone to form their own country. The Sunnis, most of whom were the people who worked for Saddam Hussein, want no part of an Iranian-backed theocracy.
This is not a recipe for unity. Galbraith said the problem is that the Americans see al-Qaida as the threat in Iraq. The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq sees the U.S.-backed Awakening as the threat. And the Sunnis, who are on the U.S. side as long as we keep paying them, see the Shiites as the threat.
"The desire of people to have their own state is very difficult to stop, without great force and great violence," said Galbraith. "Nationalism, separatism and ethnicity have fueled nearly every conflict of the past 30 years."
In other words, the various factions in Iraq are biding their time until U.S. forces eventually leave so that they can resume their civil war. The U.S. "surge" provided a lull in the violence, but not an end.
This leads to the strategic conundrum facing the next president. What should be done? Galbraith said that policy choices must be made based on the nature of the threats facing the United States and the extent of the resources available.
As Galbraith sees it, Pakistan, not Iraq, is the central front in the war on terror. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and has freely shared its knowledge and materials with nations such as Iran and North Korea. And Pakistan is harboring much of the top al-Qaida leadership. Its intelligence service and army are less than enthusiastic about going after them.
If you believe, as Galbraith does, that nuclear proliferation is a greater threat than terrorism and that Pakistan is the major nuclear threat in the world, then the next president should be paying more attention to Pakistan rather than to Iraq.
"It is in our interest to help (Pakistan) succeed as a democracy and help it fight terrorism," said Galbraith.
As for Iran, Galbraith believes diplomacy is the only solution, mainly because there aren't any other good alternatives. The "we don't negotiate with evil" policy of the Bush Administration has been a failure, he said, pointing out that sometimes you have to do that kind of negotiation. Galbraith has experience in this area. His years in the Balkans in the 1990s brought him face-to-face with Slobodan Milosevic and other evildoers, and Galbraith was proud of seeing almost all of the men responsible for genocide in the former Yugoslavia brought to justice.
"The reason to talk to Iran is not because we like them, but to achieve our strategic goals," said Galbraith. "Confrontations are only good if they accomplish something useful, and the Bush Administration has pursued many confrontational policies that have been unproductive."
As for Iraq, Galbraith's prescription is simple. "Our goal should be to minimize the violence on the way out." Also, we should drop any pretense of creating a united Iraq. "A divided Iraq? It's already happened," he said. "Why should we try to put it back together?"
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.