It seems incumbent on those of us who have opposed the war in Iraq to offer some kind of strategic alternative to the current stalemate and endless occupation. (More on what that alternative might be momentarily.) This is necessary, first of all, because constantly criticizing policy without offering other viable options is a morally questionable posture, politically effective, perhaps, but hard to defend and justify. It's also necessary because the Bush administration not only has no final exit strategy beyond elusive "victory," it doesn't want one.
In late November, intelligence expert Richard A. Clarke told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose that the administration plans to lay the groundwork for the US staying in Iraq at least 10 more years; it visualizes semi-permanent American bases, continuing influence over the Baghdad government and its oil-export program, and a regional staging area for further excursions into democratic nation-building. These objectives, not the amorphous WMDs, turn out to have been the real reasons for the Iraq invasion.
If opinion polls are to be believed, the American public has other ideas. It wants out and soon, one way or another. God did not speak to the man in the street, as he did to George W. Bush. Average citizens do not share their leader's quasi-religious vision of remaking an imperfect world. They backed him, in the short run, because they were angry, apprehensive and also (let's admit it) vengeful in the wake of 9/11.
Iraq seemed as good a place as any for venting our national spleen and making a point to the Arab Middle East. But three years on, reason and reality have taken hold. In the latest analysis, Americans don't really want to be imperialists.
For one thing, the costs are just too high. According to Chalmers Johnson, author of the esteemed and award-winning Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire [Holt Metropolitan, 2000], there are no fewer than 750 US military bases around the world, an unacceptable burden to maintain for a country with no draft and a voluntary armed force stretched thin to the breaking point. Iraq has exacted its own special blood sacrifice, with troop deaths climbing inexorably toward 3,000 -- a high price for hegemonic folly.
On top of that, there's the critical budget situation. Iraq has already cost American taxpayers roughly $250 billion, with no end in sight. Projections are that when the total bill comes due, it will approach $1 trillion, perhaps more -- far beyond the administration's casual $50-to-$60 billion prewar estimate. The $250 billion spent thus far would be nearly sufficient to eliminate the national budget deficit; the $1 trillion the invasion, occupation and reconstruction may ultimately cost would cancel a fifth of the entire national debt. We're talking real money here.
The worst aspect of the monetary black hole that is Iraq is its diversion of funds badly needed at home. While federal defense spending, stimulated by Operation Iraqi Freedom, has shot up 76% since 2001, spending for everything else the government does has lagged. Capital expenditures on such things as highways, airports, mass transit, sewage treatment and community development, for example, have risen only 10% over the past five years. Overall military spending, including Iraq, now eats up 20% of the entire federal budget, 40% if Social Security and Medicare (which are budgeted separately) are not included in the mix. Clearly, we need to find a way to restore some fiscal balance, and getting out of the Mesopotamian swamp is the most obvious immediate answer.
This returns us full circle to the search for strategic alternatives. One that deserves increased attention is what has been called the three-state solution, the working premise of which is that Iraq is not really a single country at all, but a natural troika cobbled together into one artificial entity by self-interested outsiders pursuing their own purposes. Modern-day Iraq was created out of three disparate, tribally based provinces of the ancient Turkish Ottoman Empire that fell into British hands at the end of World War I, when France and Great Britain carved up the Arab Middle East into spheres of influence as part of their spoils of victory. It was established as a colonial protectorate, and its boundaries were arbitrarily drawn with an eye more toward military needs and petroleum resources than toward ethnic or religious coherence. The result is a schizophrenic nation historically at war with itself.
The three-state solution, an idea initially put forth in 2003 by Leslie H. Gelb, former State Department official during the Carter years and current president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, is to reformulate Iraq along traditional sectarian lines, thus defusing its internal conflicts by dividing it into its logical constituent parts. Gelb's approach, as originally outlined, called for three autonomous units based roughly on the Ottoman provincial system: a Kurdish state in the north, centered at Mosul; a Shi'ite state in the south, centered at Basra; and a Sunni state in between, centered at Baghdad. These could either opt for independent nationhood or form a loose confederation with each other.
Gelb's formula, endorsed by presumptive presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), freed at last from his slavish support of the futile Bush policy, has been recently updated and refined with the senator's help. The joint Gelb-Biden proposal calls for recognizing Iraq's separate identities by decentralizing the country and allowing each autonomous, self-governing region (Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'ite) to run its own domestic affairs.
Overlaid on this structure would be a central government in Baghdad, established as a mixed-population federal zone, which would be responsible for common interests like national defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Resource-sharing, minority and gender protections, and democratic guarantees would be part of the arrangement, and maintaining the system's integrity against outside interference would be an international, perhaps a United Nations, responsibility. Creation of this Iraqi federal system would be followed, finally, by a removal of American troops within two years of the plan's implementation.
A three-state solution for Iraq offers the promise of a third-way alternative strategy that avoids the unappetizing options of open-ended occupation (the Bush prescription) and precipitant withdrawal, regardless of the consequences. It makes sense because it's founded on both historical antecedents and present-day realities. Progressives, Democrats and others looking for a way out of our Mesopotamian dilemma would do well to seize upon it.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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