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Time for Hard Choices on Leaving Iraq
By Frank Smyth, August 9, 2006, Newsday

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While the unexpected crisis involving Israel and Lebanon rages on with no end in sight, the United States needs to stay focused on the Iraqi crisis of its own making. Lately, even the most articulate supporters of that war have finally declared that our efforts there are not working. But navigating our own safe passage out of Iraq at this stage will require more than simply throwing up our hands.

The time has come to make some hard choices. So far, the highly partisan debate here has been about whether to set up a timetable for U.S. forces to leave Iraq and, if so, when. But this is little more than political posturing unless we first pave the way for our forces to leave without the nation imploding while drawing in other states in the region.

It might help if we could try to understand Iraqis on their own terms. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently announced his outrage over elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to criticize the Lebanese group Hezbollah for its ongoing, indiscriminate attacks against Israel. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) expressed her affront over the same Iraqi government's plan to offer amnesty to Iraqi insurgents who have attacked American forces.

These Democrats are making the same mistake many Republicans did in presuming that Iraqis would not only be grateful for our help in bringing democracy to their nation, but that they would show it by electing leaders with whom we would get along. We seem to forget that most Iraqis are poor Shias who long lived under the boot of Saddam Hussein, while Shia groups elsewhere, namely with Hezbollah and in Iran, each supported Iraqi Shias against Hussein far more consistently than we did.

Now, if we are going to find our way out of Iraq, we must scale down our expectations. Iraq will never be the pro-American beacon of Western values that architects in the Bush administration naively promised. Nor is the ongoing Iraqi insurgency, or the nation's even faster rising tide of sectarian violence, likely to end until after Iraq's elected, Shia-led government negotiates a settlement with the nation's own entrenched Sunni insurgents.

This may well require granting insurgents an amnesty for attacking not only U.S. forces but armed Iraqi forces. After all, Great Britain was forced to accept even tougher terms to negotiate a settlement in Northern Ireland with the Irish Republican Army. One difference in Iraq might be that an amnesty would not extend to those responsible for attacks on Iraqi civilians, most of which have been carried out by foreign fighters loosely associated with al-Qaida.

Another concession we may well need to make is to give up any permanent U.S. military bases on Iraqi soil. Only the Kurds in the north really want us to stay there, anyway, to keep them from being overrun by Turkey. Of course, none of these steps would change anything overnight. But renouncing our own claims to retain any long-term military presence in Iraq could help change the political climate inside the country.

As long as Iraqis of all kinds can blame their daily problems on occupying U.S.-led troops, the nation's various groups - including insurgents, sectarian militias and government authorities - can put off facing one another to try to resolve their differences. Already Shia militias are demanding greater autonomy in the south. Great Britain recently announced its plans to turn over the southernmost city of Basra to the local Shia militia by early next year.

The United States is sure to feel more pressure to follow suit, even though doing so could easily help lead to the bloody breakup of Iraq. Anyone advocating an immediate or otherwise premature U.S. withdrawal should keep in mind that no matter what one chooses to call it so far, Iraq's ethnic cleansing could still get much worse.

But there is at least one silver lining hanging over today's stormy region. Hezbollah's status throughout the Arab world has only risen from its ongoing rocket attacks against Israel, and this has notably helped defuse tensions between Shias and Sunnis in much of the Arab world. Many radical Sunnis who previously denounced Shias for practicing their own interpretation of Islam now accept Hezbollah as a partner in a broader anti-Western struggle. This could help strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Maliki both inside and outside of Iraq to try to find a settlement to both the insurgency and sectarian strife inside his own nation.

The same storm drops at least one flash retort, too, on those who still claim the Bush administration only went into Iraq to set up a puppet government and steal Iraqi oil. Even if that were the original intent, no doubt the elected Iraqi government is speaking with its own voice today, though it remains dependent on U.S. troops for its survival.

Not the democracy we wanted? It's the one we got, so we'd better get used to it if we want to bring our troops home anytime in the foreseeable future.

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