No foreign policy decision since America’s retreat into isolationism in the 1930s has done more to harm American and global security than the Iraq war. The invasion and incompetently executed occupation have devastated Iraq and unleashed a civil war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions. Iraq has become a recruiting cause and training ground for a new generation of terrorists–young men bent on the suicidal destruction of Americans and Iraqis alike. The balance of power within the Middle East has shifted dramatically in favor of the most radical and extremist elements in the region–led by a newly confident Iran. But what has made the war a blunder of truly historic proportions is that it has cost America the trust of its friends and allies around the world–a trust that since 1945 has been instrumental in translating America’s economic and military power into global influence and leadership.
The overarching challenge confronting the United States after Iraq,
therefore, is to restore trust in American leadership. The world needs
good reason to once again place its confidence in America’s power,
policy, and purposes. That will require broad changes in how Washington
conducts foreign policy, especially in its willingness to listen to
others and practice what it preaches. But to succeed in rebuilding
trust, Washington must first contain the problems that the Iraq war has
unleashed: the rising violence inside Iraq, the renewed confidence of a
newly ambitious Iran, and the ideological gains made by the jihadist
terrorist network. Before we build a new house, we have to put out the
fire burning down the old one. If we don’t, whatever rebuilt trust we
enjoy elsewhere will be moot in the Middle East: Even a well-behaved
Washington that is once again trusted by friends and allies around the
world will have trouble attracting followers if the region spirals into
greater instability and violence.
The first and most immediate task facing the United States in the
Middle East is to minimize bloodshed within Iraq, provide help to those
caught in the crossfire, and prevent instability within the country
from spilling across its borders. As much as Americans might wish
otherwise, the departure of American soldiers and Marines will likely
trigger more fighting, at least in the short term. The flame of
sectarian and ethnic warfare has been lit. As the sad histories of the
Balkans, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Sudan show, fires like these are
difficult to extinguish and often produce staggering death tolls.
Trying to prevent that outcome is not only a moral obligation, but a
strategic necessity: American interests can only be harmed if we leave
behind an Iraq that collapses into the sort of communal violence that
wracked Lebanon in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s.
To avoid that nightmare, any U.S. troop withdrawal must be
accompanied by a major, Dayton-like effort that would bring all the
parties to the table to negotiate a settlement on key political issues:
sharing oil revenue, distributing power between the central government
and local political entities, and ensuring a monopoly over the means of
violence by abolishing militias–within a fixed timetable (say, one
month). At the same time, Washington must be prepared to do everything
to help Iraqis caught in the full-scale civil war that will ensue
should the peace effort fail; American and other international forces
still in the country could establish safe havens inside Iraq to provide
security, shelter, and safe transit abroad for those who want to leave.
Washington will also need to take steps to keep Iraq’s problems
within its borders. Talk that Iraq’s troubles will trigger a regional
war is overblown; none of the half-dozen civil wars the Middle East has
witnessed over the past half-century led to a regional conflagration.
But obvious flashpoints exist. Therefore, Washington will need to
maintain substantial troops in northern Iraq to reassure the Turks and
deter the Kurds from declaring independence. Elsewhere, the United
States will need to use diplomatic tools–as well as the continued
presence of troops in the Gulf region–to persuade Iraq’s neighbors to
limit their efforts to manipulate the Iraqi civil war to their own ends.
The second challenge the United States faces is to contain Iran’s
ambitions and redirect its aspirations. Four years after U.S. troops
entered Baghdad, Tehran has emerged the big winner. Saddam Hussein is
dead, the limits of American power have been revealed, and Iran’s
co-religionists dominate Iraq’s government. It is not surprising, then,
that Iran is keen to flex its muscles. The problem is that the
government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks regional domination, intends to
acquire nuclear weapons, and supports terrorists.
The Bush Administration’s policy of working with European allies to
press for U.N. sanctions against Iran needs to continue. Iran should
pay a price for breaking its obligations under the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty. But a policy based solely on coercion is
guaranteed to fail. Too many countries–led by China and Russia–want
economic relations with Tehran for isolation to work. Military strikes
are unlikely to end Iran’s nuclear program. They will, however, enrage
Iranians, who can easily retaliate against U.S. interests in the region.
As distasteful as it is, then, the United States has to complement
its policy of sticks by offering Tehran some substantial carrots.
First, there needs to be an unconditional offer to reestablish full
diplomatic relations. If the United States could restore diplomatic
ties with the Soviet Union 15 years after the October Revolution, it
can restore them with Iran 28 years after the Islamic Revolution.
Second, Washington should offer to normalize economic ties if Tehran
limits its nuclear program and halts support for terrorist groups. Such
an offer won’t succeed in buying off Ahmadinejad. Rather, its purpose
would be to exploit divisions within Iran and encourage the opposition.
The Administration’s open hostility to Iran has enabled Ahmadinejad to
deflect domestic criticism of his government’s many missteps and to
silence pro-American voices. Supplementing the closed fist with an open
hand can help reverse that dynamic.
America’s third challenge will be the same one we have faced since
9/11: stopping jihadist terrorism. The invasion of Iraq has
reinvigorated a jihadist threat that was in shambles after the
Afghanistan war. Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts could not have received
a bigger boost. At the same time, Iraq is now a training school and
testing ground for jihadists. The lessons they learned, such as how to
effectively deploy road-side bombs, have already migrated beyond Iraq,
as battle-tested jihadists head home to help spread their knowledge and
hatred to others.
Containing and ultimately defeating the jihadist threat will require
a mix of strategies. Notwithstanding the Iraq debacle, Washington will
occasionally need to use military force to take out jihadi cells
training in the mountains of Afghanistan or the wilds of Somalia. But
because the next jihadist plot could come just as easily from a
neighborhood in Hamburg or Harrisburg, it will be more important for
Washington to improve other counterterrorism efforts. In spite (or
because) of massive bureaucratic reorganizations, the quality of U.S.
intelligence and homeland security efforts remains deeply inadequate.
We can and must do much better.
The flip side to trying to stop jihadists is to decrease the number
of young Muslims who want to join their fight in the first place. That
will require taking active steps to diminish the intense anger many
Muslims and most Arabs feel toward the United States. The withdrawal of
U.S. troops from Iraq will help, but it will not be enough; minimizing
the suffering of Iraqis will also be important. Washington must avoid
the appearance of abandoning Iraqis to their fate. To that end, and as
painful as it might be in the context of America’s ongoing immigration
debate, Washington must do much more to help the millions of Iraqis who
have been displaced or become refugees as a result of this misbegotten
But the most important step toward diminishing Muslim and Arab anger
will be to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. Although the
chances that Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved any time soon
are slim at best, taking Palestinian grievances seriously and pushing
both sides to take risks for peace is crucial. It counters the jihadist
narrative about America’s pernicious role in the Middle East and can
turn the public relations tide in favor of the United States. As long
as Osama bin Laden can credibly claim that Washington is indifferent to
Palestinian suffering, he will have purchase on the Muslim imagination.
Ultimately, America’s ability to successfully manage the fallout
from Iraq, contain Iran, and defeat the jihadist threat will greatly
influence its ability to repair the damage that has been done to its
claims of global leadership. But that broader effort will also require
far-reaching changes in how Washington operates in the world. A
go-it-alone foreign policy will not work. The Bush revolution has made
much of the world deeply suspicious of American claims to global
leadership. The importance of the elections of pro-American leaders,
such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, for
America’s ability to regain the trust it has lost overseas is easily
overstated; the publics in many allied countries remain deeply
skeptical about American motives and values. Unless the United States
can demonstrate that it too is willing to abide by the rule of law and
work with others on shared global challenges, even friendly leaders
will find it difficult to follow Washington’s lead. If that happens,
the ultimate costs of the Iraq war will be far more devastating and
long-lasting than we currently anticipate.