What do we do about Iraq?
Let's start with what we want to do. Then we'll ask what can we do.
What do we want to do? The war's original objectives were to find and secure Hussein's WMD. It's clear now that before the war those WMD: (i) didn't exist; (ii) were destroyed; or (ii) were transported to Syria. Regardless of the explanation for our inability to find them, the WMD rationale for war no longer exists.
Following our failure to find WMD, the rationale for war evolved to include removing a dangerous dictator and establishing democracy. Hussein has been removed, so that objective has been achieved. Among the war's stated objectives, therefore, we're left with the establishment of democracy.
Before going on to the question of what we can do, it's important to consider possible unstated objectives, as well. I believe our unstated (and true) objective was to establish an overwhelming US military presence adjacent to Syria and Iran so as to pressure those regimes and possibly to change them. The current scope of the Iraqi insurgency, however, means we have neither the military means nor the domestic political support to invade Syria or Iran. It's likely that Assad and the mullahs understand this. Therefore, our objective of pressuring these regimes through our military presence in Iraq is not achievable -- unless can first achieve the final remaining stated objective of establishing democracy in Iraq. We'll come back to that in a moment.
Another of our unspoken objectives in Iraq was to get the country pumping oil again to build slack into global supply, thereby lowering prices and ensuring access in case of political instability elsewhere (the sequence would be: remove Hussein, end sanctions, rebuild the oil infrastructure). You need look no further than the prices posted at your corner gas station to know that this objective has not been achieved. But it might still be achievable -- more on which in a moment.
Although it would be impolite to say it out loud, let's accept that, at this point, we would settle for reasonably pro-western stability in Iraq as the fruits of our efforts there, even in the absence of democracy. Thus, the whole thrust of the war now boils down to this question: can we stabilize Iraq? If so, how? And what if we can't?
I don't believe we can stabilize Iraq within its present borders. First, the country has become too fissiparous. In the absence of centrally-supplied security, ethnic groups instinctively turn to their own militias, and, as Thomas Friedman has noted regarding his experience in Lebanon, once militias assume a prominent role in society they become extremely difficult to co-opt or eradicate. Moreover, I don't believe the Kurds have ever been interested in re-integrating into Arab Iraq. Why would they be? They've had de facto independence since the end of the first Gulf War, and have enjoyed reasonable amounts of democracy, prosperity, and, most of all, stability as as result. I have yet to read any plausible explanation of why the Kurds would agree to return to the Iraqi fold. Accordingly, I believe the Kurds' game is ostensibly support Washington's goal of keeping the country unified, while simultaneously doing all they can to prepare for and foster the day their independence becomes de jure. If one of the three players we're trying to get to live together has no interest in the project, how can it possibly succeed?
So: the current internal dynamic of Iraqi society tends toward a break-up into three Iraqs: Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni. External forces, chiefly in the form of the US military presence there, act to counter this tendency. Over time, I believe Iraq's internal tendency will prove stronger than the external forces acting to counter it, and the country will split into three.
All right. If it's true that we can't stabilize Iraq within its present borders, what should we be doing instead?
As a first step, we should change our currently stated objectives to make them more open-ended. The new emphasis would be along the lines of "supporting the future that Iraqis choose for themselves." Then, following the failure of some appropriate milestone (perhaps the current efforts to form a national unity government), we could shift our diplomatic efforts toward ensuring as orderly as possible a break-up of the country into three new entities.
To put it in slightly different terms: the first step would be to use different language to describe our current objectives in Iraq (part of our current difficulties lie in the overly lofty objectives the administration articulated following the failure to find WMD). For anyone who would object that we can't change our objectives in Iraq, I would argue that of course it's possible: indeed, we already have. One more change ought to be no more difficult than any of the previous ones.
Then, using the greater linguistic flexibility we have created, we can plausibly (in fact, accurately), note that the future which Iraqis have chosen for themselves involves three Iraqs rather than one, and that we must of course respect that choice. All our diplomatic and military efforts would then be in the service of steering the country in the direction its internal forces are currently taking it, rather than fighting against the tendency of those forces. Windmills, in other words, rather than windbreaks.
(One reason we need to change our view of our own objectives is that, so long as we see a departure from Iraq as a defeat, we will be inclined to stay there much longer than necessary. For more on how a nation decides when enough is enough, click here.)
A three-Iraq solution is probably not as bad as the conventional wisdom would have us believe. In the absence of a foreign military presence to unite them, Shiite Iraq and Shiite Iran would quickly rediscover their historic differences of language, culture, and nationality (China and Vietnam were allies during America's engagement in Indochina, but were at war within four years after our departure from Saigon). The Sunni center of the country is without oil, and could probably be quarantined until its current pathologies receded. As for Kurdistan, I believe the basis exists for a grand bargain between Iraq's Kurds and Turkey: in return for Turkey's recognition and declared respect for Kurdistan's independence, Kurdistan renounces all revanchist objectives with regard to territory that is now Turkey, renounces support for the PKK, and publicly or privately assures Turkey of access to cut-rate oil from Kirkuk.
Moreover, freed of the constant sabotage wrought by a largely Sunni insurgency, the Kurds and Shiites could rebuild their oil industries. The oil they would then make available to the world market would be a huge boon to the US economy.
For anyone who finds my proposed three state solution unacceptable, I ask: compared to what realistic alternative? We have to work with the facts as we find them (indeed, as we have created them), not with what might have been or what we wish could be.
To some, my prescription might seem overly pessimistic. Many people note that there is much good news in Iraq that goes unreported. I'm sure this is true. But I'm equally sure of much bad news that we're missing, too. The country has become so unsafe that journalists no longer have even minimally acceptable access
or insights into what's going on. When that's the case, my sense is that what you're missing is more bad than it is good.
As a society, we're probably not ready to accept that a three state solution is now the best outcome we can hope to retrieve in Iraq. But the good news, if you want to call it that, is that three states is where Iraq is heading whether we like it or not. We can always get behind it later. But the effort would be easier, more plausible, and probably less bloody if we did so now.