This is the week in which a painful truth finally came calling on power in the Oval Office of the White House. The president, though still mouthing his self-reassuring slogans to the public, has on his desk two documents, each telling him in effect that “mission accomplished” has turned into mission bust.

Superficially, the two documents could not be more different. Donald Rumsfeld’s memo on the conduct of the military operations in Iraq, submitted just prior to his sudden dismissal, is a very brief and highly personal summary of the various tactical adjustments that might be considered in the light of the setbacks in fighting the Iraqi insurgency. It conveys anxiety but offers no strategic alternative.

The long-awaited Baker-Hamilton Study Group report assessing broader US policy options in Iraq is a lengthy compromise statement reflecting a typical, middle-of-the-road consensus among an elite Washington “focus group”, composed of esteemed individuals not handicapped by much historical or geopolitical familiarity with the region’s problems.

Arguing for conditional military redeployment from Iraq, it offers sound advice on the desirability of wider diplomatic initiatives to engage Iraq’s neighbours in a collective search for regional stability, including the belated need to tackle seriously the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real importance of both documents is in what they do not say explicitly but implicitly convey: that the war has been a disaster; that the US must find a way to disengage by handing over the mess it created to the Iraqi leaders that the US itself had elevated to power; and that eventually the US may have to leave while blaming those same leaders for the US failure to cope. That notion is implicit even in some of Mr Rumsfeld’s options and it is inherent in the 16-months deadline set by the Baker-Hamilton group for eventual US military disengagement.

Neither document faces squarely two basic and troubling realities: that since in Iraq (except for Kurdistan) real power is not in the hands of the Iraqi politicians resident in the US-protected Green Zone in Baghdad, any political solution must engage the Shia theocracy, with its militias; and that the longer the American occupation continues, the already declining US influence in the Middle East will give way to regional extremism and instability, especially if continuing indecision over the basic strategic choices in Iraq continue to be matched by US unwillingness to address the negative regional consequences of Israel’s prolonged and increasingly repressive occupation of the Palestinians.

The combination of the two has already elevated Iran’s geopolitical power in the region. Hence the need of the moment is not for tactical tinkering or long consensus reports. Can one imagine Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s waiting weeks for a long study by French public figures on how to end the Algerian war that was damaging France’s national unity and international reputation? Leadership derived from a sense of history requires sometimes the cutting of Gordian knots, not tying oneself up in knots.

The president, and America’s political leadership, must recognise that the US role in the world is being gravely undermined by the policies launched more than three years ago. The destructive war in Iraq, the hypocritical indifference to the human dimensions of the stalemate in Israeli-
Palestinian relations, the lack of diplomatic initiative in dealing with Iran and the frequent use of Islamophobic rhetoric are setting in motion forces that threaten to push America out of the Middle East, with dire consequences for itself and its friends in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

America needs a strategic change of course, and it has to be undertaken on a broad front. It must accept the fact that real leadership in Iraq should be based on a coalition of the Shia clergy commanding the loyalty of Shia militias and of the autonomous Kurds and that the sooner a date is set for US departure, the sooner the authentic Iraqi leaders will be able to enlist Iraq’s neighbours in a wider regional effort to promote a more stable Iraq. It must also engage its allies in a joint definition of the basic parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, for the two parties to the conflict will never do so on their own. Last but not least, the US must be ready to pursue multilateral and bilateral talks with Iran, including regional security issues.

In brief, the immediate dilemma is Iraq but the larger stake is the future of the Middle East.

The writer, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is author of “The Choice” (Basic Books)

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