IRAN BY PROXY
Obama could “Open” Iran over Iraq: Don’t Let the Hawks Ruin It
By Neil Thompson (Special to Informed Comment)
As news arrives that the last of Syria’s of chemical weapons stocks have been removed from the country and talks between the West and Iran over that country’s long running nuclear program miraculously continue to progress, patient diplomacy seems to be getting more results than military action lately. That lesson should not be lost on pundits now fuming about the march of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) to the gates Baghdad. Interest in Iraq’s ongoing civil war had died down somewhat since the Obama administration withdrew American troops in 2011, yet the fighting dragged on and has now merged with the civil war in neighboring Syria. Western governments now find themselves in the paradoxical position of being hated by both sides of the present regional conflict in the Middle East. This is the final grand achievement of the armed democracy promotion that originally destabilized the region.
Instead of pointing fingers about who “lost Iraq” I think the great unraveling of the post-2003 Iraqi state will one day be seen as a real turning point. It has already forced Washington to think hard about where its militarized strategy in the Middle East since 9/11 has left its interests. The general perception is that they have taken a walloping, at great cost in prestige, blood and treasure. Nor is the US now the only state to have imperiled its regional standing with a reckless foreign policy. Stubborn Iranian backing for Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’a supremacist regime as it excluded Iraqi (Arab) Sunnis from jobs and political power has come back to haunt Tehran; the virulently sectarian ISIL has since cut off the vital Iraqi land bridge that Iran uses to supply its Lebanese and Syrian allies/clients. Furthermore the only part of Iraq which is doing well is its semi-independent Kurdish region, which may now well leave the disintegrating Iraqi state. It sits alluringly just across the border from Iran’s own downtrodden Kurdish minority. With the US reluctance to jump back into the snake-pit of modern Iraq, the chance now lies open to use this temporary convergence of regional interests to build on the earlier start made with Tehran on the nuclear talks and actually end the tug-of-war that has enabled the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
A “Nixon-goes-to-China” reset with Tehran may sound unlikely in this loaded moment of crisis. But the vituperative rhetoric between “Red” China and America was every bit as bitter in the 1950s and 60s as the war of words is between Iran and the US today; Beijing was still backing insurgents against the US supported-regime in South Vietnam when Nixon visited in 1972. No one is suggesting that Washington and Tehran will ever become ‘best buddies’. China and America are not that today. But their prickly cooperation since Nixon sets a nice precedent for how Iran and the US could get over their relationship issues. In 2013, after the terrible Ghouta chemical attack in Syria, events could easily have led to a disastrous Western strike against the Syrian government. Sensibly, President Obama cut a deal with Syria’s international patron Russia instead; like Nixon, he understands that sometimes it’s better to talk to your enemies. The Ghouta attack actually created the diplomatic willpower by both sides to deal with Syria’s insecure chemical weapons stockpiles. The present Iraq disaster offers another such rare opportunity, this time for a temporary reset between Iran and America.
Any solution to the Iraq-Syria crisis needs to be comprehensive. That cannot occur with a still-bickering international community. Indeed part of the intractability of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict is that the collapse of central authority in Syria and Iraq has sucked in all their neighbors and patrons; the West, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf States, Lebanese groups, Iran, various Syrian factions and so on. Violent anarchy knows no formal boundaries. Since 2011, when the US left Iraq and the Syrian uprising began, ripples of conflict have spread to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. After so much bloodshed the transitions out of these civil wars will not be easy. But the internal strains can be considerably reduced if the international environment is right and the outside states push together for a peace settlement. Sunni states should remember it was in Syria that ISIL found the territory and resources to regroup after its first near-defeat in Iraq. Drawing the venom from the Syrian side of the struggle first will be a necessary step towards ending it in Iraq as well. In any case, Iraqis and Syrians have been fighting in each others’ countries for too long to separate the wars at this point. Focusing on reforming the Baghdad regime to include Sunnis, as pundits are arguing now, will help, but only addresses half of the problem.
The US and Iran should set aside their differences to work out a general agreement among the patrons of both sides of the Syrian part of the war. By backing a Syrian version of the Taif agreement, Obama would begin America’s ascent out of its Middle Eastern morass that his predecessor tipped it into. By working with Tehran and not Damascus, Washington would also avoid having to openly associate with the odious government of Bashar al-Assad. Properly enforced by neighboring states, a general agreement for a cessation of war-making material to both sides in Syria by their foreign backers, combined with an economic embargo to stop funds for military purposes getting out and smuggled arms getting in, would starve groups like ISIL that profit from Syria’s war economy. It would also end America’s bizarre policy of confronting ISIL in Iraq and de facto allying with it in Syria. Hurting the ability of both the rebels and the Syrian regime to continue the struggle would help push them towards serious peace negotiations which have so far stalled. Only then will efforts to help Iraq have their full effect.
Many commentators are too black-and-white in their thinking on the Middle East. As the recent interim breakthroughs over Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons have shown, by focusing on single issues international agreement towards diplomatic progress in the region can be made. Similarly deals can be made with your political rivals; in the Syrian conflict Russia’s credibility has been raised by the successful dismantling of government chemical weapons under international supervision, although the West and Putin remain at loggerheads over Ukraine’s future. Only together can America and Iran reduce the instability and misery sweeping Syria-Iraq. Although they remain strategic competitors, that doesn’t mean that controlling the explosive situation unleashed by their joint meddling in Syria-Iraq isn’t in both governments’ ultimate self-interest.
Neil Thompson is a freelance writer and editor for Atlantic Community. He has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East but is now based in London. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University and sometimes blogs about current events here.
THE US PUBLIC
Not Worth It: Huge Majority Regret Iraq War, Exclusive Poll Shows
A divided nation finally agrees on something overwhelmingly: the war in Iraq was simply not worth fighting.
Seventy-one percent of Americans now say that the war in Iraq “wasn’t worth it,” a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll shows, with skepticism about the lengthy war effort up substantially even in the last 18 months.
Just 22 percent now believe the 2003 war effort was worthwhile.
In a January 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asking the same question, 59 percent of Americans said the war wasn’t worth it, versus 35 percent who said the opposite.
Half of respondents also said that the United States does not have a responsibility to help the Iraqi government as the country descends into sectarian violence, while 43 percent said that America should intervene.
Americans are even more pessimistic about Iraq – where insurgent groups now threaten to overpower the government – than about the war in Afghanistan. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month showed that 27 percent of respondents said the Afghan conflict was worth it, versus 65 percent who disagreed. Negativity about Iraq appears to rival that of the Vietnam War; three Gallup polls conducted from 1999-2000 found that about 7 in 10 Americans believe that 1970s war was a “mistake.”
Among diverse groups rarely in agreement on other big ticket items, skepticism about Iraq runs deep. Just 22 percent of men, 23 percent of young adults, and 21 percent of seniors say the war in Iraq was worth it.
Support for the war has dropped in almost all categories, but particularly among Republicans and conservatives. Now, Republicans are split about equally (46 percent worth it / 44 percent not worth it) on the issue.
When it comes to intervention in Iraq, “elite” groups - whites and those with higher incomes or an advanced education - were more likely to say that the U.S. has a responsibility to help stop the violence in Iraq.
The poll of 1,383 voters, conducted June 16 to June 22, has a margin of error of +/- 3.27.