Monday, July 23, 2007

Crossing Iraq's Rubicon

Last Thursday (July 19th) the United States Institute of Peace hosted a three-person panel whose job was to discuss “Crossing the Rubicon: Next Steps in Iraq.”

The title of the session suggests something of the premise of the organizers. In Roman law, for a general to cross the Rubicon River at the head of his legions was a declaration of war upon the Roman Republic – a treasonable act. The psychological shock on the Roman Senate and citizens as well as on the one violating this stricture had to be severe. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the usually resolute Julius Caesar was undecided virtually up to the point of no “turning back” – that is, his horse had waded into the river bed – when, in 49 BCE, he led his armies across the shallow, 29 kilometer-long boundary marking the divide between Trans-Gaul and Rome proper.

In modern parlance among academicians, policy wonks, and think tank pundits, Caesar was unprepared for unexpected resistance from the Senate and the tribunes of Rome; that is, he had no Plan B.
Amazingly, 2,049 years later, with Rome’s experience fully laid out, it appears that the Bush administration suffers the same shortcoming but in a world that is far more complex than was Caesar’s.

The discussants – Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group, John Packer from Human Rights Internet (Canada), and Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress – clearly were critical of where the U.S. stood and very cautious about future prospects.

Hiltermann sees conditions worsening because the surge (Plan A), despite White House assertions, has demonstrably failed. This, he affirms, was inevitable given the shortage of troops to provide needed military security, over-reliance on the military instrument, and the unexpected early opening and subsequently early closing of the “window of opportunity” to lay the foundation for building a democratic Iraq.

Korb flatly declared that whichever way the administration turned, it would not detect any good alternatives for the future. Both tactically and strategically, the administration had trapped itself into failure in Iraq and therefore would never achieve its vision of stabilizing the greater Middle East. Given this reality, U.S. interests in the area need to scale down and try to salvage two policy elements: stop the violence in Iraq from spreading to other countries, and prevent terrorists from using Iraq as a base for their operations.

Packer saw the choice of the electoral system imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority as a significant problem in that it worked against equitable representation of the Sunni minority by treating the entire country as a single “district.” Yet at the same time there is no leeway for “opting out” because of the sheer complexity of the interactions inherent in modern society. The “solution” drives the society back toward its tribal and ethnic base – which is to say to the level of a divided and therefore a failed state.

All three discussants rejected “soft” partition as a solution, in part because, once started, there is no way to control the number of entities involved. The Kurdish area is a case in point right now, where each of the two Kurdish parties has its own defense and interior ministry.

The U.S. would welcome multinational help in the political, diplomatic, and economic arenas but not the military. But other countries are increasingly reluctant to get involved – at least until Washington admits defeat and demonstrates it will accept other countries as equal partners and not auxiliaries.

There is not enough time left for the U.S. to try to “fix” Iraq. The U.S. has crossed the Rubicon of unilateralism but, unlike Caesar, cannot consumate the challenge to multilateralism. Washington must recross the boundary and withdraw its troops in a way that minimizes military encounters and, at the same time, substitutes economic and political support for the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government, and the larger Middle East.


Blogger rasphila said...

What an incredible panel! This report on it was a major public service.

It's hard to disagree with any of the points made. We have simply dug a very deep hole for ourselves in Iraq, and every way out is fraught with problems for us and for the Iraqi people. I'm a bit less hopeful than the panelist who advocated scaling back our objectives. I agree we should do that, but I'm not hopeful we can achieve any policy objectives in Iraq, even more modest ones.

Actually, that's too pessimistic. It may still be possible to exit from Iraq while minimizing further harm, but we will need solid diplomacy and international support to achieve even this. It seems to me that minimizing further harm should now be our policy objective. But we can't do this by ourselves. As you say, we have to go back across the Rubicon and admit that crossing it—acting unilaterally—was a mistake. I am not betting the ranch that we'll do this under the current Administration.

4:27 PM  

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