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Expect The Worst In Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Somehow, after four years, the debate on Iraq is still animated by wishful thinking. The White House talks as if a surge of 20,000 troops is going to stop a civil war. Democrats argue that when America withdraws its troops, Iraqis will finally take responsibility for their own security. But we all need to face the likelihood that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

That was the underlying message of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, released last week. It warned the administration that if the sectarian conflict continues, as it almost certainly will, "we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate." The current conflict isn't just a civil war, the analysts noted; it's worse -- with criminal gangs, al-Qaeda terrorists and Shiite internal feuding adding to the anarchic state of the country.

And for critics of the war who favor a quick American withdrawal, the analysts had this stark warning: "If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during [the next 12 to 18 months] . . . we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq." With U.S. troops gone, the analysts forecast, the Iraqi army would collapse and al-Qaeda attacks inside and outside Iraq would surge. "Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable."

In this bleak situation -- where, as everyone keeps repeating, "there are no good options" -- what's the right course for U.S. policy? A useful approach may be to start planning, not for the best but for the worst. Congress and the administration should begin thinking about potential catastrophes in Iraq -- and about how to protect the core national interests of the United States and its allies.

In thinking about catastrophic outcomes, I have been guided by a paper that was privately circulated last week by Robert Jervis, a professor of political science at Columbia University. He begins with this assessment: "The U.S. will withdraw its troops from Iraq at some point, and when it does, if not earlier, the situation is likely to deteriorate badly. This could be a truly dreadful time -- it could be a tsunami sweeping over the entire region."

So how to protect vital American interests amid this tsunami of violence? I would offer several basic precepts, drawn from conversations with experts in and out of government:

· Contain the sectarian violence. The United States can't stop the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, but it can try to keep this conflict within Iraq's borders. Here lies the great danger of the new strategy of "realignment" that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined in an interview with me last month. In seeking to rally Sunni Arab moderates to combat Iran and its proxies, the United States risks expanding the Sunni-Shiite fault line from Iraq to the region as a whole.

This is a dangerous course. The risks were summed up by Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League. The war in Iraq "opened the gates of Hell," he told me, and if the conflict expands to Iranian-backed Shiites and Sunni Arabs, "we will enter Hell itself." America should not encourage this descent into the inferno.

· Protect the oil. The United States should be planning with its allies how to secure the region's oil supplies. We have done it before: Persian Gulf oil exports continued through eight bloody years of the Iran-Iraq war, thanks in part to U.S. naval escorts and reflagging of tankers. America should help prepare a similar international effort now, including new pipelines that avoid the Gulf altogether.

· Shield the Iraqi population. America hasn't been able to stop the civil war, but U.S. troops can reduce the slaughter and help provide humanitarian relief for what's likely to be a growing tide of refugees fleeing the battle zones.

· Talk with the neighbors. Facing the prospect of a catastrophic outcome in Iraq, the United States must engage in dialogue with all the regional states, including Syria and Iran. America shouldn't initially offer any deals, much less "grand bargains," but it should talk about mutual security interests and explore where they converge.

· Push for Arab-Israeli peace. The one thing everyone in the region seems to agree on -- from Israel to Saudi Arabia -- is the need for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians themselves can't offer Israel a meaningful peace agreement now -- they're too weak, angry and disorganized. But the Arabs, led by Saudi King Abdullah, can. That's the breakthrough Rice should pursue.

These crisis management steps won't stop the catastrophe that is unfolding in Iraq, but they could mitigate its effects, which may be all we can hope for. And the benefit of worst-case thinking is that things occasionally work out better than expected.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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