Milton Viorst is the author of the forthcoming Storm from the East: The Arab World in the 20th Century (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12/11/05):
The question, of course, is how do we get out of Iraq? President George W. Bush is increasingly isolated in claiming we are on our way to victory or democracy or human rights or even the restoration of Baghdad’s electric grid.
Even before Iraqi violence began spilling over into Jordan, American forces have clearly failed at maintaining order. It is time for a different approach, one that may lie with the Arab League.
In Lebanon 16 years ago, the Arab League ended a seemingly intractable civil war. The Lebanese – Christians, Druzes, Shiites, Sunnis, even Palestinians – had been killing one another since 1975.
Interventions by Syria, Israel and the United States made matters only worse. President Ronald Reagan withdrew a contingent of marines after a suicide bombing killed 241 servicemen.
Throughout the 1980s, private militias fought pitched battles and imprisoned civilian hostages, many of them Americans. The only way to end the bloodshed seemed to be to divide Lebanon along religious lines. But none of the factions, not even the Christians, wanted the country split. Exhausted as the Lebanese were by the fighting, the vision of a unified nation remained intact. That is when the Arab League stepped in.
The Arab League was always known as a weakling. But the fractious Arab states agreed at last that Lebanon’s civil war and the prospect of partition threatened them all. Pulling Lebanon together was an incentive that superseded their divisions. In January 1989, the Arab foreign ministers met and set up a Committee of Six – Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates – to devise a peace proposal.
At a subsequent Arab League summit, a troika of the Saudi and Moroccan kings and the Algerian president was given six months to come up with an agreement. Lakhdar Ibrahimi, then a highly regarded adviser to Algeria’s president, was named the project’s chief diplomat. Though Ibrahimi had no army behind him, he spoke as an Arab to Arabs, with the full moral authority of the Arab community. The Lebanese listened.
In September of that year, after Ibrahimi had negotiated a cease-fire in Lebanon, the troika invited Lebanon’s Parliament to meet in Taif, a mountain town in Saudi Arabia, to discuss an Arab League draft of a new charter. After three weeks of bargaining, the parliamentarians signed an accord based on the draft, with all the Lebanese factions conceding more than they ever imagined they would. To be sure, the time was right: Lebanon was fed up with war. But crucial to Taif was the absence of foreign involvement. It was an Arab triumph.
The Taif agreement did not produce a perfect ending. Given Lebanon’s inherent volatility, that would have been too much to ask. For years, Syrian and Israeli forces continued to intrude in Lebanese affairs. And Taif did not stop the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other officials. But parliamentary rule has been working, and life has become more or less normal. That is far more than anyone expected before Taif.
Is there a lesson for Bush? Even more than Lebanon’s combatants, Iraq’s factions agree on one thing: they want no more Western intrusions. Although Iraqis recently ratified a new constitution, the insurgency goes on. In contrast to the Arab League in Lebanon, the United States has a huge army in Iraq – and no moral force to stop the killing.
Since failing to head off the invasion of Iraq, the Arab League has been waiting in the wings. It has made clear that it considers the regional autonomy contained in the constitution a bad precedent, divided as many Arab countries are by sectarianism. And with insurgents attacking their diplomats, Arab nations have been slow to send representatives to Baghdad. But given the chance, the Arab League might well pull together, as it did in Lebanon, to settle what looks increasingly like a hopeless war.
The Arab League can be America’s best exit strategy. True, we would be asking Arabs to clean up our mess. But the Arab states have an interest both in America’s leaving and in Iraq’s cohesion.
At the very least, the Taif model suggests that Arabs are likely to do better than America at getting Iraqis to rebuild their society together. The alternative, as it was in Lebanon, is more bloodshed.