Most commentators believe uncertainty in Iraq was the key reason for Democrats' success in last week's elections. Yet uncertainty about the United States' policies is also the No. 1 issue of Iraqi politics. We have two uncertainties, stuck together like Siamese twins, fed by partisan politics.
Most Iraqis knew little or nothing about America in 2003 when the U.S.-led Coalition forces entered Baghdad. Since then, most have learned at least one thing about the United States: Like a fickle monarch, it could wake up one morning and reverse whatever it was committed to a day before.
This may be a naive, even unfair, perception of America. But it is the one around which most players in Iraqi politics have built their strategies.
The Shiites, grateful though they are to America for having helped them win power for the first time, feel obliged to have a insurance policy for when (not if) the Americans cut and run. This is why all prominent Iraqi Shiite politicians have been to Tehran.
That insurance, however, comes at a price. Iran's rulers insist that the new Iraq turn a blind eye to the activities of Shiite militias, created and armed by Tehran with Hezbollah support.
And, because they are unsure of American steadfastness, the Shiites are pressing for a federal structure that would give them 90 percent of Iraq's oil regardless of what happens next. That, together with the increased activities of Shiite death squads, enrages the Arab Sunnis.
These Sunnis know that as long as there is a U.S. military presence, the Shiites can't move into Sunni provinces to solve the problem the Oriental way - that is, by large-scale killings and ethnic cleansing. But what if the Americans leave before Iraq has a government capable of protecting all communities?
Uncertain about U.S. intentions, many Sunni Arabs tolerate (if not actually support) the Saddamite bitter-enders and, to a lesser extent, the non-Iraqi jihadists and suicide bombers. Just as Iraqi Shiites look to Iran for insurance, Iraqi Sunnis regard Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Syria and Egypt, as putative protectors.
Uncertainty about American fidelity also affects the policies pursued by Iraqi Kurds. Assuming a worst-case scenario, they, too, have sought a deal with Tehran while trying to grab as much Iraqi land as they can before the Americans leave. The net effect of that is a weakening of the new Iraqi state - whose flag is absent in the three provinces controlled by the Kurds.
The Saddamite bitter-enders and al Qaeda also base their strategies on the assumption that American will jettison its allies. They know that they can't win against the combined forces of the U.S.-led Coalition and the new Iraqi army and security. But what if the Americans run away before the new Iraqi government is able to protect the country?
The Saddamites hope that, in the chaos following a U.S. cut-and-run, they could seize Mosul and part of the area around it. Al Qaeda hopes to carve out a mini-emirate on the edge of the western desert from which it can launch terror attacks anywhere in the world.
Uncertainty about American intentions also affects the policies of regional powers. Most Arab states have opted for wait-and-see. They have refused to reopen their embassies in Baghdad or to invite new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for official visits.
Their position, put to me last week by a senior Arab official, is clear: "Why should we throw our lot in with the new [Iraqi] regime when the Americans may abandon it any time? Would it not be better to wait and see who emerges on top in Baghdad, or whether or not there will be an Iraq, after the Americans have left?"
These are not fanciful calculations. The Arabs know that the United States has refused to provide the new Iraqi army with a credible weapons system. This army is equipped with 72 old Soviet tanks, presented by Hungary as a one-off gift. Most of its units would have to hitch a ride with the Americans to the battlefield because they have virtually no transport of their own.
Nevertheless, this new army has shown that, given leadership, it can fight with courage and determination. Yet an army that is expected to fight some of the worst terrorist groups in history, plus the remnants of Saddam's elite forces, almost with bare hands, is routinely castigated by the U.S. media as "ineffective" if not "cowardly." Would it be a surprise if this new army decided not to put all its eggs in a basket that the Americans may drop at any moment?
Uncertainty about American policy in Iraq is compounded by the almost daily torrent of bizarre, often ridiculous, ideas aired by the American political elite. (Senators and pundits suggest that Iraq be carved into three or five mini-states, for example, while the Iraq Study Commission is rumored to favor an Irano-American condominium over Iraq.)
Fear of U.S. fickleness goes far beyond the army and the political elite. Millions of Iraqis have decided that the prudent course is to sit on the fence, keeping open as many options as possible.
It is unfair to blame them. As they ponder the events of the past years, they see that America has achieved all of objectives in Iraq, toppling Saddam's regime and dismantling his machinery of war and repression. Iraqis have had a chance to write their own constitution, and hold referenda and free elections at all levels.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis have fulfilled their part of the contract that took shape in 2003, when the Coalition entered Iraq and the people of Iraq decided not to fight for Saddam. They assumed America would stay by their side until they become capable of protecting their new system.
At first glance, what we have in Iraq might look like a zugzwang - a case in game theory in which a player has no good moves. Last week, a majority of Americans apparently voted against the current policy in Iraq. But they didn't vote for any alternative - because none was offered.
Had there been no uncertainty in Iraq, there would have been none in America either, and vice versa. It is urgent to end at least one of the two.
Clearly, the easier uncertainty to end is that concerning U.S. policies. With the elections over, Democrats should see Iraq for what it is: a success that is challenged by powerful enemies, and inadequately supported by friends and allies who doubt America's commitment. The first step needed is to dispel those doubts.
For Democrats, Iraq was a stick with which to beat Bush and regain control of the Congress. But working to make Iraq a failure would harm the strategic interests of the United States and its allies in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
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