Events overtake premise of Democrats on Iraq

Henry Kissinger:

The U.S. presidential campaign has been so long and so intense that it seems to operate in a cocoon, oblivious to changes that should alter its premises. A striking example is the debate over withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Over the past year, many have proposed setting a deadline for withdrawal. Proponents have argued that a date certain would compel the Iraqi government to accelerate the policy of reconciliation; would speed the end of the war; and would enable the United States to concentrate its efforts on more strategically important regions, such as Afghanistan. Above all, they argued, the war was lost, and withdrawal would represent the least costly way to deal with the debacle.

These premises have been overtaken by events. Almost all objective observers agree that major progress has been made on all three fronts of the Iraq war: Al-Qaeda, the Sunni jihadist force recruited largely from outside the country, seems on the run in Iraq; the indigenous Sunni insurrection attempting to restore Sunni predominance has largely died down; and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has, at least temporarily, mastered the Shiite militias that were challenging its authority. After years of disappointment, we face the need to shift gears mentally to consider emerging prospects of success.

Of course, we cannot tell now whether these changes are permanent or whether, and to what extent, they reflect a decision by our adversaries, including Iran, to husband their forces for the aftermath of the Bush administration. But we do know that the outcome of the conflict will determine the kind of world in which the new administration will have to conduct its policies. Any appearance that radical Islamic forces were responsible for a U.S. defeat would have enormous destabilizing consequences far beyond the region. How and when to leave Iraq will therefore emerge as a principal decision for the new president.

Whatever the interpretation of recent events, the Sunni part of Iraq has created local forces backed by several Sunni states to fight al-Qaeda and indigenous insurgents. These, in turn, have contributed to easing Sunni concerns over being marginalized by the Shiite majority. All along, the Kurdish region has developed its own self-defense forces.

In this manner, prospects for reconciliation among the three parts of the country, Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni, have appeared not through legislation, as congressional resolutions applying the American experience imagined, but by necessity and a measure of military and political equilibrium. Since the need for American forces in dealing with a massive insurrection has diminished, they can increasingly concentrate on helping the Iraqi government resist pressures from neighbors and the occasional flare-up of terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda or Iranian-backed militias. In that environment, the various national and provincial elections foreseen for the next months in Iraq's constitution can help shape new Iraqi institutions.

A strategic reserve can now be created by the United States out of some of the forces currently in Iraq, with some moving to other threatened areas and others returning to the United States. American deployment is transformed from abdication into part of a geopolitical design. Its culmination should be a diplomatic conference charged with establishing a formal peace settlement. Such a conference was first assembled two years ago on the foreign ministers' level. It was composed of all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria; Egypt; and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That conference should be reassembled and charged with defining an international status for Iraq and the guarantees to enforce it.


The inherent contradictions of the proposed withdrawal schedule compound the difficulties. Under the fixed withdrawal scheme, combat troops are to be withdrawn, but sufficient forces would remain to protect the U.S. Embassy, fight a resumption of al-Qaeda and contribute to defense against outside intervention. But such tasks require combat, not support, forces, and the foreseeable controversy about the elusive distinction will distract from the overall diplomatic goal. Nor is withdrawal from Iraq necessary to free forces for operations in Afghanistan. There is no need to risk the effort in Iraq to send two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan; those troops will become available even in the absence of a deadline. (It should be noted that I am a friend of Sen. John McCain and occasionally advise him.)


It will be hard for Democrats to turn around the demagoguery of the past year and accept that they were wrong about Iraq. I think they will continue to argue that it was a mistake to go into Iraq, but they will have to accept the results anyway, because to deliberately lose at this point would be to damaging politically for them. It is too bad they have not had to pay a political price for being so wrong about Iraq. At best they have been faint hearted and at worst they have embraced defeat in a war we are winning.

Kissinger observes how disastrous the situation would be if the Democrats had prevailed. What is worse is that the Democrats actually hoped for a disaster because they thought they would benefit from it politically.


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