Earlier this year, when the American presidential election campaign got under way many believed it would provide a serious debate on Iraq which experts saw the hottest issue if not of the epoch, at least of the season.
So far, however, the debate has not happened. Now, US media are full of reports about how Iraq is fading as an issue altogether.
Cynics might suggest that both opponents and supporters of the war have an interest in letting it slide into oblivion.
Unable to deny that things are better now than a year ago, opponents of the war fear that this might persuade voters that President George W Bush might have been right after all.
For five years, opponents of the war have periodically sounded the tocsins about the supposedly coming civil war in Iraq. (Some even suggested on a dozen occasions that Iraq was already in civil war.) They have predicted “ the end of Iraq”, including its division into mini-states, or, at least, its de facto partition into sectarian cantons.
However, none of those jeremiads came to pass; Iraq defied all predictions, good or bad.
Supporters of the war, on the other hand, are not sure that the recent easing of the situation in Iraq, known as the Petraeus touch, after the American general who commands the US-led coalition forces, might not last until polling day.
There is one other reason why opponents of the war might not want the Iraq issue to dominate the campaign.
Any close examination of the situation today might lend credence to Bush’s analysis that the Islamic Republic in Iran has emerged as the principal troublemaker there.
That, in turn, could lead only to one conclusion: the need to take action against Tehran.
Supporters of the war share the concern, albeit for an entirely different reason.
Unable to build a consensus on dealing with the Iranian threat, they would rather let Iraq, good news from there notwithstanding, fade from the debate.
For many opponents of the war, the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was something akin to Original Sin in Christian dogma. The war in Iraq must be lost so that the guilt of its perpetrators is attenuated, at least in part. Americans don’t even have to wait until the outcome of the struggle becomes clear. Harry Reid, leader of the Democrat majority in the Senate, decided that the war was “lost” almost a year ago.
But, how to avoid a serious discussion of Iraq now?
Opponents of the war have an easy answer.
They claim that the war was illegal, presumably because Jacques Chirac didn’t specifically approve it and Kofi Annan, moaned about it mildly two years after it had taken place.
They would also cite pseudo-studies that claim hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths as a result of Saddam’s demise. The fact that these studies, including a scandalous one published by the Lancet, have been examined and found to be bogus, is conveniently forgotten.
Then of course, one could always recall the scandals of Abu-Ghuraib, the allegations against profiteering by big American companies, and, last but not least, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.
For those still sore about Saddam’s demise the best policy is to constantly focus on the ugly parts of the past five years.
As L.P. Hartley observed, the past is another country; there they do things differently.
If opponents of the war always shift the focus back to the past, supporters of the war respond by flashing their torchlight on events of a putative future.
They counter the jeremiads of their opponents by some of their own.
The catalogue of catastrophes they foresee runs something like this: If the US abandons Iraq now, genocide would follow; al Qaeda would revive; Iran would benefit enormously; the Middle East would become destabilised; America’s word would be devalued; and so on.
All of that, of course, may or may not happen.
We simply don’t know. Like the past in Hartley’s dictum, the future, too, is another country. There, things are not done until after they have happened.
For my part, I don’t think that the American departure from Iraq would lead to genocide. The Iraqis are not Huttus and Tutsis or Serbs and Craots. The sectarian war we witnessed there a couple of years ago, was a war of the sectarians, not a conflict that set neighbour against neighbour as in Rwanda or former Yugoslavia.
Nor do I think that Al Qaeda would be revived.
Even if the Americans leave before new Iraq is consolidated, Al Qaeda in Iraq has had its back broken. Having lost the popular base it once had in parts of Sunni Iraq, it is unlikely to regain the prospect of winning power anywhere in Mesopotamia.
I don’ think that Iran would benefit either.
On the contrary, it might find itself bearing some of the burden that the US is bearing in Iraq. And that, for a fundamentally weak and fragile state like the Islamic Republic, increasingly facing major challenges at home, does not look like beneficial.
Would the Middle East become more destabilised if the Americans left prematurely?
Again, we don’t know.
The US has helped kept some tensions under control. Its departure could release them, leading to regional wars. But we know that even a major war, like the one that Khomeini and Saddam fought in the 1980s, would not necessarily affect the broader balance of power. In any case, why should Americans bother if the nations of the middle East wished to squander their human and financial resources on imitating the immature nations of 19th and 20th century Europe?
Even the argument that a premature US withdrawal could devalue “America’s word” is not as strong as it appears. Most people know how the US system works, and nobody in his right mind would build an entire strategy on the assumption of unwavering support from Washington.
People in the Middle East and elsewhere know that American administrations change through elections and that the priority of both Democrat and Republican parties is to win power not to comfort actual or putative allies.
The US abandoned its allies in South Vietnam to massacre, life in concentration camps, and boat people ordeal. The US shut its doors to the Shah, a lifelong ally, and after admitting him for medical reasons, quickly expelled him in the most humiliating manner. And, yet, elsewhere, America’s word was not devalued. Even the current massive devaluation of the US dollar does not seem to have reduced demand for it across the globe.
The reason for this apparent paradox is not hard to fathom.
The US is estimated in relation with its economic, military and cultural power, likely to remain unsurpassed in for the foreseeable future.
More importantly, perhaps, when all is said and done, the US has often behaved better than other major powers in history. All big powers betray, if only because they have no permanent friends but permanent interests. The US has betrayed less than most, and les brazenly.
The only useful debate about Iraq would focus on what is happening now, not what happened five years ago or what might happen five years from now.
It is what is happening now that makes new Iraq worth fighting for, not only for the Americans but also for all those who dream of a free, pluralist and prosperous Middle East.
That, however, should be treated in another column.