"So, how does it all end?" This was Larry King's question on Iraq to Sen. Barack Obama, following President Bush's State of the Union address. Mr. Obama's answer wasn't bad and the president should have used the thought -- at least the suggestion -- in his speech.
Mr. Obama said that we should not expect a "Jeffersonian democracy" to emerge in Iraq. This is an essential public diplomacy theme the White House is simply not getting across. Not only that, they must start talking about more realistic outcomes in Iraq. Nevertheless, and at least for the State of the Union speech, they stuck to their traditional description of goals: A "democratic Iraq" with the "rule of law" providing for the "security of Iraq" and "an ally in the war on terrorism." All fine longer-term goals but not likely achievable anytime soon.
Meantime, the assorted bad guys and other regional actors have already put together their own plans to maximize their positions as U.S. influence wanes. At the forefront is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's likely scheme to directly support Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr's militia rather than oppose it, because it supports his longer-term plan for a Shi'ite dominant Iraq and eventual eradication of Sunni political influence in Iraq. Any tactical moves or statements to the contrary over the next few months are likely deceptions on the part of both Mr. al-Maliki and Sheik al-Sadr.
Here are some other moves we should expect:
(1) Don't be surprised if Sheik al-Sadr's Shi'ite insurgents "melt away" for the next nine months or so. They would have determined they have already won and that all that is needed is a respectable period of time for the Bush administration to save political face and begin to leave. In their likely assessment, this would be analogous to our departure from South Vietnam and conforms to the often-repeated "rules" of classic insurgencies.
In this scenario, the most serious opposition Mr. al-Maliki and Sheik al-Sadr would face isn't from the United States; it's from Sunnis in neighboring countries. This would be especially true of Saudi Arabia, which is likely to intervene directly. The Saudis already have suggested they might do so to support Iraqi Sunnis if the Shi'ites get too greedy. The Saudi effort would be aimed at creating and protecting a Sunni enclave in Iraq that had some significant geographical claim to oil resources. Right now, the most interesting part of this scenario is that the Saudis don't believe they have to ask permission to intervene.
This would pit the Saudis directly against the Iranians, who would continue to sponsor the more radical Shi'ites in Iraq, but in a dramatically stepped-up manner, to include actual incursions in the north and south of Iraq. Again, except possibly for Turkey in the north, who would stop them as we reduce our military presence?
(2) Some of the various armed Sunni groups have determined they must show that 21,000 new U.S. troops in Baghdad will not create the kind of security needed for any kind of "democratic" government in Iraq. This has already begun with new rounds of Sunni-sponsored violence, especially in the capital region.
(3) The Kurdish North of Iraq will not be free from risk. Turkey, long tiring of the threat from the Kurds to their South, could feel confident enough -- as the situation further deteriorates -- to venture militarily into Iraq to neutralize Kurdish insurgents by taking control of the territory necessary to do it. And, it is likely no one would stop them if they decided to do so.
(4) While Westerners and Iraqi ex-patriots may hope for a multiethnic and multisectarian Iraq, none of the current leaders from any of the factions plan to allow this to happen. The stakes are far too high for personal gain and family corruption, long traditionally the entitlement for the group in power. Money, graft and family corruption, and not so much sectarian principals, remain the primary motivators in Iraq -- after all, it is the Middle East.
(5) As the Shi'ites and Sunnis struggle for control of Iraq, we can expect to see public executions of those who betrayed their various loyalties -- this will make Saddam and his henchmen's hangings seem comparatively tame. The lesson for us: We shouldn't be so hard on the Shi'ites for stringing Saddam up -- one only need recall the far less distinguished fates of Benito Mussolini and Nicolae Ceausescu in more "civilized" Europe.
(6) The unmistakable direction of these pressures will be to drive the various factions in Iraq even farther apart and invite the intervention of both Sunnis and Shi'ites from around the region.
The key question: What should or can we do in such a quickly degrading situation, especially with public and congressional support for any U.S. involvement in Iraq rapidly declining in the United States?
We should quickly work an arrangement with the Saudis, Jordanians, Turks and selected others in the region to support a moderate and tolerant Sunni leadership for Iraq. We should support this effort in the same way we managed the rebuilding of Europe after World War II with a Marshall Plan-type effort, which will be far cheaper than sustained military operations there. Perhaps just as important, this approach will have the advantage of reducing the burgeoning and dangerous influence of Iran in the region -- a common concern of all responsible nations there.
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