President Bush: Iraq War Peacemaker?

After last week’s seismic reconstruction of the political landscape in Washington, a shaken George Bush is stepping carefully into the strange new role of bipartisan consensus builder.

Undoubtedly, the ‘thumping’ force that delivered the House and the Senate to the Democrats was driven by the Bush administration’s Iraq debacle, with 60% of Americans now believing that the war will ‘hurt the long-term security of the United States’.

It is significant that President Bush has nominated Robert Gates to replace the unrepentant Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defence. Apart from his central role in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, Dr Gates is an old Bush family friend and trusted former CIA director under George H W Bush. Although Dr Gates was tainted by his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, he is revered by his supporters for being a ‘realist’ when it comes to international politics.

Arguably, it is realism that has been lacking in the Bush administration’s course in Iraq. While drawing up the plans for the US invasion, Rumsfeld believed the installation of a US-friendly democratic government would supported by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, and would be a straightforward matter. He took little interest in the social and political history of Iraq, and thus had no understanding of how Iraqi society would fracture once US forces had toppled Saddam Hussein. He refused to even consider post-war Iraq in terms of either the US occupation or exit strategies.

So when social and political tensions burst open like angry wounds all over Iraq, the Bush administration was caught off guard and without enough troops to control the chaos. The sectarian violence in Iraq has generally been described as a ‘civil war’, yet the Center for American Progress has recently identified four separate conflicts: a Shiite-Sunni civil war in the center, intra-Shiite conflicts in the south, a Sunni insurgency in the west and violence between Arabs and Kurds in the north.

These conflicts have gained considerable momentum on the Bush administration’s watch over the past three and a half years, and House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has stated that this has severely eroded the availability of good exit strategies for the US. Nevertheless, Americans have demanded that the Bush administration and Congress reach some form of agreement to change course in Iraq.

It is highly unlikely that the US will immediately withdraw all its troops, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want to ‘cut and run’ without first reducing the level of violence and restoring civil order in Iraq. This is a moral imperative for some, and a matter of prestige for others.

One option that has been doing the rounds is the partitioning of Iraq into three states – one each for the Shiites (south), the Sunnis (west) and the Kurds (north). This plan has a diverse support base which includes James Baker, Robert Gates, Bush administration neoconservatives – and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. It was recently reported that Mr Baker supports “…a division of the country that will devolve power and security to the regions, leaving a skeletal national government in Baghdad in charge of foreign affairs, border protection and the distribution of oil revenue.” Dr Gates has also been a proponent of the partition plan within the Iraq Study Group. His support, along with that of Mr Baker, probably means that the Bush administration will start pushing the case for partitioning Iraq.

Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad apparently favors partition because he believes this would maximize internal conflict and leave the regions open to Iranian invasion. When Iran licks its chops and prays for partitioning, that should sound alarm bells for the Bush administration. At the same time, critics of the partition plan also believe that the partitioning of Iraq would escalate instability, mainly because of the uneven geographical distribution of oil reserves (e.g., there are no oil fields in the west, the proposed Sunni state) and the complex way that ethnic and religious groups are intermixed and intermarried throughout the country. Turkey has also threatened to invade any future Kurdish state. So it seems that the partition plan would cause more conflicts than it would resolve. And with Iran poised to capitalize on any resulting instability, the partition could pose the greatest threat yet to Iraqi sovereignty.

Another alternative that has been gaining support centers on the devolution of power to the actual power structure as it exists in Iraq, where local leaders are the authorities recognized by local people. Just over two weeks ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expanded his government’s power base by negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with defacto local ruler Muqtada al-Sadr. Maliki then convinced US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley to meet with them in the hope that the US would begin treating al-Sadr as a partner in restoring order in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Maliki has meanwhile persuaded seven insurgency groups so far to disarm and join the political process. The Maliki government has also offered an olive branch to disaffected Sunnis by inviting former members of the Ba’ath Party to be re-instated in various government positions, including the police and security forces.

This combination of devolution, diplomacy and power-sharing seems to offer the most promising and realistic prospect for political stability in the new Iraq.

Prime Minister Maliki has recently expressed profound disappointment in the Bush administration’s ignorance of Iraq. He said that, when he first heard that the US would be invading Iraq, he figured they understood the reality on the ground in terms of Iraq’s history, society, economy and politics. He says it is now clear that they had no such understanding. Last month, after President Bush started publicly prodding the Iraqi Prime Minister to quickly gain control over the sectarian violence – which US troops have been unable to do for three and a half years – Mr Maliki pulled off the gloves and hit back at the Bush administration’s still-tenuous grip on reality.

At the end of the day, Nouri al-Maliki is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iraq. He understands his native Iraq and he wants to lead a peaceful sovereign nation. Instead of treating him as a puppet, the US needs to stop dictating unworkable goals and support Mr Maliki’s strategies to resolve sectarian conflict in a way that is realistic in Iraq. A similar compromise position is being struck in Afghanistan, where it just isn’t realistic for the Prime Minister (jokingly referred to as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’) to control all the regions.

Instead of pursuing vaguely defined and unrealistic goals in an open-ended mission, the Bush administration should adopt a scaled-down mission with clear exit criteria: support the democratically-elected government’s initiative to reduce sectarian violence through negotiation and power-sharing, and drive al Qaeda and other jihadist groups out of Iraq. Then return our troops to the US homeland.

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