The Right Bet in the Mideast

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/01/07):

It was axiomatic during the Cold War that presidents should not gamble with matters of national security. The stakes were too high. The Bush administration’s Iraq policy has long suffered from a lack of that prudence — and the misplaced gambler’s instinct is especially evident in the administration’s plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

President Bush’s «surge» is a mistake because it is piling more precious chips — more human lives — on what so far has been a losing bet. The public sent a clear message in the November election that it wants to take some of those chips off the table. That cautionary theme — that it’s time to reduce America’s bet on the long shot that Iraq’s sectarian mess can be fixed quickly — was ably distilled by the Iraq Study Group in its December report.

Bush chose to go the other way, to pursue «an experiment based on high risks,» in the words of Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has written extensively about Iraq.

What prompted Bush’s decision, by the president’s own account, was his concern about the consequences for regional stability of an American failure in Iraq. To avoid the Baker-Hamilton problem of negotiating from weakness, Bush has chosen instead to signal American resolve in the region in various ways: by sending more troops to Baghdad; by seizing Iranian agents operating in Iraq; by sending additional warships into the Persian Gulf; and finally, according to the well-sourced foreign policy Web site, by working covertly with Saudi Arabia to support the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah.

These moves are especially risky now because they are played against the background of a Middle East riven by conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. This sectarian war is destroying Iraq, and a similar war is perilously close in Lebanon. In this larger arena, U.S. strategy is hard to understand: We are allied with the Shiite government in Iraq against Sunni insurgents; and we are allied with the Sunni government in Lebanon against Shiite insurgents.

Edward Luttwak, a contrarian strategist, argued in the Wall Street Journal last week that by riding Shiite and Sunni horses at the same time, we have accidentally hit upon the divide-and-rule strategy that «past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism.» I fear that Luttwak is being uncharacteristically overoptimistic. The reality is that in neither Iraq nor Lebanon are we checking the rising regional power, Iran.

And it seems to me that our adversaries are doing a better job at this business of cynical alliances: Iran and Syria are the key supporters, respectively, of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Yet although they are backing different sides in Iraq, Iran and Syria remain close and effective allies. Two years ago, a pro-Syrian Lebanese warned me in an e-mail that the United States would be caught in a «sandwich strategy» in Iraq — squeezed by Sunni and Shiite fighters who shared a hatred of American interference. His warnings have proved chillingly accurate. He wrote me a few days ago to reiterate that, for Arabs who oppose American intervention, the operating rule is: «You kill us, we kill you.»

The lesson of the Cold War was to be tough — but also to be careful. I wish I saw more evidence of that prudence now. When U.S. officials encourage the Saudis to check Hezbollah by sending money to Sunni groups in northern Lebanon, do they understand that this region is a stronghold of al-Qaeda and that they are pushing Sunni-Shiite tensions toward the point of explosion? When officials contemplate regime change in Syria, as the Bush administration again seems to be doing, do they understand that they may be creating a wider band of chaos that would stretch from Lebanon to the Iranian border?

When the administration decides to send more ships into the Gulf as a signal to Iran, do officials understand that there are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who might favor a torpedo attack — so as to provoke an American retaliation and suck us deeper into an apocalyptic battle for control of the region?

In this volatile part of the world, there’s just one area where I wish President Bush would take more risks — and that’s in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If you want to strike a blow at Iran, Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads all at once, that’s the way to do it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a start this week, but this is one poker game where we should be adding more chips — doubling down the American stake in peace.