Turning A Corner On Iraq
Avoiding defeat in Iraq is an unavoidably critical national interest -- for the United States as for Britain. If potentially lethal enemies are strengthened and re-motivated, the consequences will haunt us long after the headlines about withdrawal have faded.
Yet the United States and Britain have never attempted a truly comprehensive policy on Iraq. Unless the United States and its principal allies construct an approach that brings all available resources to bear to establish stability, there will be no point in staying in the country when all objective observers see a continuing downward spiral. If we are left with only the current policy, then we might as well cut our losses and withdraw.
We have to help Iraq's politicians put the country's unity above their sectarian priorities. The Iraqi government has to talk to the ugly but essential players who think differently but have a stake in the outcome. Only those with absolutist agendas that cannot encompass the nationhood of Iraq -- the al-Qaeda franchise and other non-Iraqi insurgents, for instance -- should be left out of the process.
The problems of the federal constitution, the distribution of Iraq's resources and the role of the unofficial militias have to be resolved in the direction of preserving the unity of the nation. Political and sectarian leaders need to insist that the state has a monopoly on the use of armed force. If they refuse, and the coalition leaves, they must be made aware that they are themselves unlikely to survive the coming chaos.
The Iraqi army must be asked to take on an increasing amount of the burden, with the coalition taking the calculated chance of equipping it more adequately. The army is the security institution with the highest status in the eyes of the population as a whole and the only one that is not largely corrupted and penetrated. Testing the Iraqi army next year, with the coalition stepping back off the streets and perhaps reducing its numbers, is a gamble that has to be taken. If it fails, and the coalition leaves, a national army will be unlikely to survive.
Rich in hydrocarbons as Iraq is, economic support from outside remains vital. The priority has to be jobs and the energy infrastructure. Oil is the glue that can hold the Iraqi state together. The effective generation of power can convince the people that better days are possible. Creating a national oil company that explicitly works for the interests of the people, and not for an elite or a region or a sect, could be a powerful and positive symbol. Enough people must have a stake in protecting the production platforms, the pipelines, the refineries and the power stations to make sabotage and disruption far more difficult. International investment in this outcome should be linked with internal political progress, but it must now include a far broader range of contributors than has so far been the case.
How do we link all these things? None will work unless they all do. The controlled collapse of Iraq into three separate and autonomous regions is not a realistic alternative, however much it seems to appeal as an escape route. Local political parties and rival militias are already competing in single provinces, and neither the central government nor the regional authorities can control them. Complete insecurity eventually generates complete breakdown. Iraq's neighbors will pick off some of the pieces to protect their own interests.
There has to be a new initiative. The United States, wounded though it is on this issue, has to shake off denial and pessimism and achieve what only a superpower can. The internal and regional dimensions of the Iraq tragedy must be brought together in a conference that reaches beyond the narrow objectives of financial burden-sharing. The binding substance is Gulf security.
All the neighbors of Iraq must be invited in; even Iran understands that a shattered Iraq is more likely to return eventually to a military autocracy. So must other potential contributors and stakeholders: Egypt, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the United Nations as a convening authority.
The United States is the country that must take the initiative. While it has the hardest corner to turn, it also has the strength to succeed in this effort. But if Washington tries to dominate the agenda for such a conference, it will not work. Even at such a vital point, the United States needs to take a step back.
The structure of the conference should be both international and bottom up. Countries in the region must be allowed to present their own agendas, even if they do not convince others for long. Senior U.N. practitioners must be invited to make their own experienced judgments. A new dynamic could be created and a new hope offered, with no participant able to say truthfully that the collapse of Iraq is in its particular interest.
Without this regional element, there can be no catalytic change. The constructive alternative is hard, but it will prove the American capacity for powerful diplomatic leadership.
The writer was Britain's special envoy for Iraq in 2003-04. He is now director of the Ditchley Foundation.