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After occupation: a containment strategy for Iraq

About the author
Ian Shapiro is Sterling professor of political science at Yale University where he also serves as Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He has written widely and influentially on democracy, justice, and the methods of social inquiry. He is the author of Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror (Princeton University Press, 2007)
Increasing numbers of Americans have come to see that Bush administration's "surge" in Iraq is not working and that the civil war there is escalating. Yet the White House still refuses to set a date for the departure of American troops, even though the administration candidly admits to having no Plan B. This means that that the United States is drifting back to the pre-surge policy summarised by President Bush at the end of 2005 that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

This is like telling a teenager that you will keep supporting him until he starts earning a living. Setting a date for the United States to depart is preferable because it will force the Iraqi government to rise to the security challenges before the US leaves. Otherwise there will certainly be a collapse when the costs - measured in American blood, treasure, and public opinion - force a withdrawal, regardless of the situation on the ground in Iraq.

But there is a more important reason for the US to set a date for departure from Iraq and then leave. This is a necessary precursor for rebuilding a strategy of containing the terrorism that will otherwise emanate from post-occupation Iraq.

Ian Shapiro is Sterling professor of political science at Yale University, and author of Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror (Princeton University Press, 2007)

Unless the US leaves, it is hard to see how it can diminish the widespread doubts the country has created across the region about American imperial ambitions there. And assuaging those doubts will be a vital first step to developing successful containment strategies for terrorism emanating from the middle east.

As the Baker commission recognised when it reported in December 2006, it is vital to prevent Iraq's sectarian conflicts from spilling over into neighbouring countries, and to limit the ability of terrorists to transit through those countries into the broader region and beyond. At a minimum this will require working with Syria and Iran.

Talk to them

Despite the US's many conflicts with the governments of both countries, they share interests in common with America in preventing the spread of conflict and terrorism from Iraq. The Bush administration reversed decades of American policy in the middle east by openly embracing forcible regime-change in Iraq. Before that Syria had cooperated for two and-a-half decades in Lebanon (a process that began, with Henry Kissinger's permission, in an effort to stabilise the country during the civil war in 1976). Kissinger's decision had embodied a widespread belief in Washington, which would persist through successive Republican and Democratic administrations until 2001, that only the Syrians could hold Lebanon together. That belief was reaffirmed in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf war, in which Syria supported the US-led coalition against Iraq.

The Syrians stopped cooperating with the US-led military policies in the region during the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. Having failed in their support of Saddam Hussein against the US-led invasion, the Syrians then turned their support to the insurgency. Their about-face seems to have been born of the belief that, unless the US failed or became bogged down in Iraq, Syria would be the next target for "regime change". This was a reasonable fear. The Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus was the only other Ba'athist regime besides Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and there was open speculation in US government and neo-conservative circles at the time that Syria might indeed be next. If the US stops threatening Syria, there will be significant opportunities to explore common interests in stabilising the country's border with Iraq.

Also in openDemocracy on United States policy in the middle east:

Stephen Howe, "American Empire: the history and future of an idea" (12 June 2003)

Anatol Lieven, "Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism? "
(22 February 2005)

John J Mearsheimer, "Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq war: realism versus neo-conservatism"
(19 May 2005)

Ivan Krastev, "The end of the ‘freedom century'" (27 April 2006)

John C Hulsman, "Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future"
(21 September 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The US in Iraq: stay the course, pay the price" (12 January 2007)

Michael Lind, "What next? US foreign policy after Bush"
(12 February 2007) - with responses from Mary Kaldor, Richard Falk, Sankaran Krishna, Mark Kingwell, Mark Luccarelli and David Rieff, and a reply by Lind

Despite all the sabre-rattling between Washington and Tehran, the United States and Iran share substantial interests in the region. They have a common interest in ensuring that the Taliban does not regain power in Afghanistan. They have a common interest in Iraq's territorial integrity. If it were to break apart this would precipitate huge problems for Iran with its Kurdish populations. Despite the railings of President Ahmadinejad, it should be remembered that Iran is a status-quo power in the region. The Iranians have not invaded any country since the 18th century, and Iran has no territorial claims against any neighbour.

Ahmadinejad's hand has been strengthened by the Bush administration's unpopular actions, but it is clear that the mullahs understand the importance of reining him in. In June 2006, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei created a new strategic council for foreign relations, to which he appointed political figures who had been associated with the reformist Khatami era (1997-2005). This suggested an agenda to diminish Ahmadinejad's rogue pronouncements on international affairs. Public admonition of him for his statements denying the holocaust was another signal that the mullahs want to ratchet down confrontational rhetoric.

This is not to say that the US should be sanguine about Iran's nuclear ambitions. A nuclear-armed Iran might well be on the cards. The US should certainly try to prevent that from happening, or at least slow it down as much as possible. But just as a strategic opening to China was helpful in containing the Soviet Union, so a strategic opening to Iran will be helpful in containing the terrorism that can to be expected to emanate from Iraq. This is not to say that Iran does not also need to be contained (just as China had to be during the cold war even after Nixon went to Beijing). It is to say that adversaries often share common interests that make it feasible and sometimes necessary to work with them.

Iran is now the most powerful nation in the region after Israel, partly due to US actions in removing its two principal adversaries in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Saddam-ruled Iraq. This makes it unavoidable that Iran be part of the post-occupation containment strategy for Iraq.

Another essential element of a post-occupation containment strategy is that the US should restore resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict to the centre of American policy in the region. No other issue unites the US's potential adversaries in the region against it more.

If the US stands by the Bush administration's position that any settlement must accept new "realities on the ground" (including some 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank) at a minimum this will strip any future US administration of the chance to be an honest broker in the Middle East conflict. More likely it will ensure the persistence of a potent breeding-ground for terrorism directed at American targets and citizens. America should stand firmly for a Palestine/Israel settlement that can garner support from all of the major population groups between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Anything short of this places its national security at risk unnecessarily.


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