Beyond Baghdad

By Richard G. Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (THE WASHINGTON POST, 30/01/07):

Since President Bush announced that he would send more American troops to Iraq, the debate on Iraq policy has reached new levels of stridency. Opponents of the war have rallied against what they see as an unjustified escalation, while the administration has dismissed opposition as defeatism. Vice President Cheney went so far as to say a withdrawal would show that Americans «don’t have the stomach for the fight.»

Military action in Iraq, however, defies orthodox notions of victory and defeat. We are not in Iraq to defend territory or even to destroy an enemy. Rather, we are pursuing the amorphous task of coaxing out of the Iraqi people and government political decisions that will result in a democratic, pluralistic society that is conducive to regional stability.

While the emergence of such a government and society is still worth pursuing, we must recognize that it is an optimal goal. It should not be the focal point of our Middle East policy or the sole measure of success in Iraq.

We need to recast the geo-strategic reference points of our Iraq policy. Some commentators have compared the Bush plan to a «Hail Mary» pass in football — a desperate heave deep down the field by a losing team at the end of the game. Actually, a far better analogy for the Bush plan is a draw play on third down with 20 yards to go in the first quarter. The play does have a chance of working if everything goes perfectly, but it is more likely to gain a few yards and set up a punt on the next down, after which the game can be continued under more favorable circumstances.

The president’s plan is an early episode in a much broader Middle East realignment that began with our invasion of Iraq and that may not end for years. Nations throughout the Middle East are scrambling to find their footing as regional power balances shift in unpredictable ways.

At the center of this realignment is Iran, which is perceived to have emerged from our Iraq intervention as the big winner. We paved the way for a Shiite government in Iraq that is much friendlier to Iran than was Saddam Hussein. Bolstered by high oil revenue, Iran has meddled in Iraq, rigidly pursued a nuclear capability, and funded Hezbollah and Hamas.

But the pendulum of Middle East politics may be swinging back against Iranian assertiveness. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and others have become increasingly alarmed by Iran’s behavior and by widening regional sectarian divisions. Because of this dynamic, U.S. bargaining power in the Middle East is growing. Moderate Arab states understand that the United States is an indispensable counterweight to Iran.

This opens up opportunities for solidifying our broader strategic objectives, and it offers a backup option in Iraq. Even as the president’s Baghdad strategy goes forward, we need to plan for a potent redeployment of U.S. forces in the region to defend oil assets, target terrorist enclaves, deter adventurism by Iran and provide a buffer against regional sectarian conflict. In the best case, we could supplement bases in the Middle East with troops stationed outside urban areas in Iraq. Such a redeployment would allow us to continue training Iraqi troops and delivering economic assistance, but it would not require us to interpose ourselves between Iraqi sectarian factions.

The secretary of state’s recent trip to the Middle East and the dispatch of an additional aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf showed that the administration understands the gravity of what is happening in the region. The United States should make clear to our Arab friends that they have a role in promoting reconciliation within Iraq, preventing oil price spikes, splitting Syria from Iran and demonstrating a more united front against terrorism.

The administration must avoid becoming so quixotic in its attempt to achieve the optimal outcome in Iraq that it fails to adjust to shifts in the region or political realities within Iraq. Although any administration would be reluctant to talk about a Plan B when its primary plan is still in motion, the president and Congress must reach a consensus on how to protect our broader strategic interests regardless of what happens in those Baghdad neighborhoods or on the floor of the Senate. Otherwise, the fatigue and frustration with our Iraq policy that is manifest in the resolutions of disapproval before the Senate could lead not just to the rejection of the Bush plan but also to the abandonment of the tools and relationships we need to defend our vital interests in the Middle East.