Nothing long the noose concentrates a hanging man’s mind. So goes the old proverb. One could apply it to Iraqi politicians in the past five years. Each time they found the noose tightening, they began to acknowledge reality and cooperated with one another. As soon as the nose was loosened, however, they resumed their quarrelling and petty personal rivalries.
These days the proverb seems to be working both ways.
On the one hand, there is no doubt that the noose is loosening if only because Al Qaeda has been all but smashed as an effective organisation in Iraq while the broader insurgency is fading into memory. To be sure, Al Qaeda is still capable of buying a few children or insane women from their families and using them as human bombs. It is also still capable of planting some bombs here and there, hoping to kill indiscriminately. But it can no longer develop a coherent strategy even in the four provinces where it had built a support base.
However while that noose is loosening another is beginning to tighten. This one represents the time factor in the US-led coalition’s military presence in Iraq.
Those who follow developments in Iraq know that such a presence would be needed for several more years, certainly at least until after the next general election in 2009. Despite their undoubted progress, the new Iraqi army and police are far from ready to cope with domestic terrorism, armed banditry, militias, and hardly disguised military units despatched by the Khomeinist republic in Tehran. To all that might be added the fact that many Iraqi tribes have re-armed, at times with US support, and, in a different contest, might prefer to pursue their goals with bullets rather than ballots.
Thus, the US-led coalition’s is needed, at least for the time being.
But, whether or not the Americans will stay does not solely depend on Iraqi politicians. Ultimately, Washington must be convinced that its continued commitment is in its own interest.
President George W Bush has vowed not to leave Iraq before it is ready to defend itself. However, in just 11 months’ time, Bush will no longer be in the White House. If Senator John McCain replaces him, the current front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination, the American commitment is sure to continue, albeit in ways that might be different from what we have seen so far.
A win by Senator Hillary Clinton may also mean the continuation of aspects of the current American policy. When I last met Clinton she gave me the impression that she regarded Iraq as a fundamental test of US global leadership.
The problem for the Iraqi leadership, however, is that there is no guarantee that either McCain or Clinton would win. Even if either of them wee to win, it is not at all certain that they would be able to persuade a new Senate and House of Representatives to endorse a prolonged US presence in Iraq.
The current rising star of the American presidential race is Senator Barak Obama whose principal marketing pitch is that he didn’t vote for the war in Iraq. (He couldn’t have, if only because he was not a member of the Senate at the time this was decided.)
Obama presents himself as a “candidate of change” and top of his list of things that need to be changed is US policy in Iraq. Well, there are two ways that policy can change. First, the US increases its commitment and uses more power to help its friends win. Or, it decides that Iraq was a bad bargain from the start and that the sooner one abandoned it the better.
The way things look like right now, it seems to me that Obama is a “cut-and-run” man. His advisors on foreign policy, and the Middle East in general, are men and women who are determined to settle an ideological score with Bush. Without saying so in public, these advisors pretend that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a “progressist” one among the generally “reactionary” Arab regimes and that the US has been wrong to ignore the “ anti-Imperialist” aspirations of the region’s masses over the past six decades. Obama has let it slip that he might bomb Pakistan, presumably because it is an ally of the US, but promises to talk to such “progressist” regimes as the ones in Damascus and Tehran without any preconditions.
No doubt things are not as easy as Obama might think or pretend. Big power strategies are not made and unmade at the whim of any new group of policymakers in Washington.
Nevertheless, an Obama administration, pursuing some of the same illusions that led Jimmy Carter into disaster in the Middle East three decades ago, could do a lot of damage before the American public, as fickle as a monarch of fairy tales, wakes up to the reality of US national interests. Carter’s illusions at the time helped produced the fundamentalist-military coup d’etat in Pakistan, the Khomeinist seizure of power in Iran and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Obama’s illusions could encourage all those who wish to reshape the Middle East against American interests that their time has come. And that could mean fresh trouble for new Iraq.
The argument that Obama Democrats use in support of disengagement from Iraq is that the new Iraq leadership is unable to sort out its differences and unite the nation and that there is no reason why the US should support one faction against another in what looks like an ongoing or at least an impending civil war.
Anyone familiar with Iraq’s current realities would instantly recognise the hollowness of that argument. Iraq is neither in a state of civil war nor heading towards it. Even if the Americans were to leave, the main danger would be a resurgence of Al Qaeda terrorism and a disguised Iranian military intervention rather than an Iraqi civil war.
Nevertheless, because in politics perception is often more important than reality, the American “dis-engagers” could easily put the fuming remains of a Baghdad car bomb on television and enlist a few talking heads to speak of an Iraqi civil war, as they have repeatedly done over the past five years.
The Iraqi leadership should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The best would be a prolonged commitment by the US-led coalition, at least until after the next Iraqi general commitment and the formation of a new government issuing from it. That means at least until the spring of 2010.
The worst would be a precipitous US withdrawal that might even make the holding of the next election impossible.
To prepare for that the Iraqis need to form a new government of national unity with a broader popular base, some new elements, and a more consensual programme.
When Saddam was toppled in 2003, his exiled opponents rushed in and provided the backbone of the new leadership elite. Over the past five years, however, new leaders have emerged, especially at lower and medium levels of local and national politics. These need to be given an expression in a new government.
It is also important to hold the municipal elections without further delay, allowing people-based local government to replace rule by militias and tribes.
Last but not least, Iraq needs to sign new treaties with the US and other allies, ensuring their commitment for the next tow to three years.
If the Iraqi leaders wake up and do what they need to do, the prospect of an Obama presidency may prove to have been a good thing, after all, even if it never becomes reality.