Sunday, May 06, 2007

After Iraq: Kurdish Option

[posted by Callimachus]

Francis Fukuyama spells out where we stand in Iraq in looking forward, and it's as grim as I think it is:

The surge was the last military card we had to play, and now our bluff will soon be called.

... Let's not kid ourselves. The situation today is in some ways much worse than the one faced by President Nixon in Vietnam 35 years ago. At that time, South Vietnam had an army with a paper strength of 1 million men that, despite its problems, was able hold on for three years after the U.S. withdrew its ground forces. The South Vietnamese army provided Henry Kissinger with his "decent interval" between the U.S. withdrawal and South Vietnam's collapse. (Indeed, Kissinger argues with some plausibility that the South Vietnamese military could have hung on indefinitely if Congress hadn't cut off funds for U.S. air support.)

Nothing like that exists or will exist in Iraq for the politically meaningful future. As of November, the Pentagon claimed it had trained 322,000 Iraqi military and police, but it admitted that the actual number on hand was much lower because of desertions and attrition. Iraqi forces continue to suffer huge shortfalls in armor, weaponry, logistics and communications, and it is unclear how they would fare without American hand-holding.

I also agree with his premise that if we were committed to the work and willing to stick with it for the better part of a generation, Iraq could be the place we want it to be. Somehow, though, everyone on all sides of the matter in the U.S. got the notion that this was supposed to happen in 5 years or less.

Fukuyama's conclusion is something that Andrew Sullivan and the other neo-cons-turned-neo-realists will love: "An intensifying civil war will be a tragedy for Iraq, but it is not the worst outcome from a U.S. standpoint to have a number of bitterly anti-American groups duking it out among themselves." The use of "tragedy" here is an unconvincing elegy to cover the cynicism of the second clause of the sentence.

I'm not all that surprised when people who initially supported the war come around in those terms. In their initial decision to support the war they accepted tragic consequences that assuredly were to follow, for the sake of the good outcome that seemed certain to follow. What surprised me is when peace activists, in support of an immediate U.S. withdrawal, also start to adopt this tone and this callousness toward the certain deaths of innocents, since this was the ethical fire at the heart of their rage.

Here's one alternative that accepts the inevitable retreat without conceding failure of the vision. Pull back the core of U.S. troops into the Kurdish region, which already is effectively autonomous if not independent. It also has seized, as few other places have, the opportunities opened by the fall of Saddam and the presence of Americans willing to pitch in and help build a free, strong Iraq. It is, despite rough spots, a success story.

Establish bases there. Be a presence, but not an authority. Let the development that has begun to happen there continue to happen. Shelter it, but don't control it. And let it be a haven for the Iraqi Arabs of good will who have been our friends these past four years and who otherwise are doomed to die. The Kurdish economy is so strong it can absorb the refugees.

Let the Kurds work out their development, even when it means they will get mad at some U.S. policy and protest against us in the streets. Great! Let al-Jazeera and the rest show the footage of that.

My model is West Berlin: The city that won the Cold War. While the missiles sat in their silos and the tanks never fired a shot in anger, the impudent, fun-loving West Berliners sat in the middle of a sea of socialist gray and lived well. And people in the East noticed. Oh, how they noticed. Nobody in West Berlin wanted it this way, but they ended up in a house with glass walls and the socialist world gathered round. Their living rooms became the lit-up display windows for capitalism and popular freedom.

Kurdistan could be that. Over time, I am confident, the light of a prosperous and liberated Muslim nation governing itself, at peace with America and the West without losing its dignity or soul, will change the world the way some of us hoped the mere overthrow of Saddam would. The war was the bid to change things on the fast track. It didn't work (some would say it never seriously was tried). Now try it the slow way.

Downsides? Kurdistan is landlocked, and surrounded by suspicious neighbors. So was West Berlin. But Kurdistan's prosperity depends in part on access to markets for its products, particularly that black sticky stuff that comes out of the ground. The pipeline through Turkey will be essential, and Turkish sensibilities will have to be respected.

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