The situation in Iraq is not simply a matter of invasion without conquest, a failing puppet state. Iraq was already a minefield, and the invasion’s waltz of quickstep missions turned that minefield into a very complex disaster zone.
The West ploughed the minefield to sow seeds of democracy and a country free of tyranny. But an army of about 120,000 plus another 100,000 mercenary “contract workers” brought a lot of boots without many seeds, and as they keep working the field four years later, the only crops on hand are religious hatred and divisive sectarian crusades. The rest of the world has politely reminded these intellectually challenged sharecroppers that their crop is not a marketable commodity in this modern age of the WTO.
There is a thick catalogue of ideas assessing the ways that it all went wrong. Clashes of civilizations, religious extremism, ends of history and recycled doctrines of older eras come out in the endless debate about Iraq and how to fix it. A generous batch of mismatched experimental solutions has been tossed into the ring: expanding the war, deflecting blame onto Iran, partitioning Iraq, or engaging Syria. With such a disaster at its border, it seems strange that anyone should criticize Iran for seeking to defend itself. Meanwhile, Bin Laden seems to have regenerated his pack of terrorists and is back in business in Iran’s other volatile neighbor.
Iraq is more complex and has many more dimensions than the Vietnam war ever addressed. The ultimate trajectory is no longer about the withdrawal of foreign troops, as armed forces cannot change the politics of this long-troubled region. The Iraq debacle is merely one part of a complex regional dilemma of interwoven puzzles no one has solved despite sometimes desperate attempts. They cannot be solved unilaterally and, above all, must be propelled by a paradigm shift – in political postures, realigned relationships, rational strategies and support, and in correcting Washington’s presumptions about the region.
Much has changed in the region and none of Washington’s political assumptions or structural calculations are valid today – about Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or any nation from Pakistan to Israel to Morocco. An objective wholesale reassessment is necessary, starting with a simple question: given the political (and monetary) capital invested by Washington, what has been the overall rate of return?
Two ideas come to mind as starters, and admittedly both are untested in American politics. One is about holding early elections in the United States, even though it would require a new law. Why wait for another 18 months and live through this period of uncertainty at such an important juncture in history? It would be a democratic step forward, commonly practiced in other countries, if voters decided to question confidence in their leadership.
The second idea is a direct referendum on the war, a rare event in federal elections. A direct popular vote on a series of questions might be a refreshing approach for a polarized political system. This is also uncharted territory in America, but worth exploring. The referendum could produce clarification of America’s position on a number of festering issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict, relations with Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and many other questions long looming over the horizon.
Either of these could break the logjam and predictable pattern of politics. They ought to clear up false perceptions, potentially leading to a paradigm shift in American politics and in U.S. policies in the Middle East. I tend to believe that is a better choice than aimlessly wondering around in a minefield.
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