America’s debate about bringing our troops home from Iraq is largely consummated — at least for this presidency. Thanks to Army Gen. David Petraeus’ reasonably successful appearances before Congress earlier this month, that rhetorical argument has shifted to the presidential campaign. The actual details of our long-term drawdown will be hashed out within the Pentagon and Central Command as both struggle with the challenges of troop burnout and threatened military strikes against Iran.
As for Iraq itself, we collectively enter a strategic space where it’s possible to chart real progress across three mini-states surrounding a dysfunctional capital. Now, instead of trying to rebuild Iraq as a unified whole, we face the more manageable challenges of connecting the Kurds, Sunni and Shia — in that order — to the global economy. It’ll be mostly oil, but at least they’ve all got some.
The long-successful Kurds now become nation-building role model for the recently flipped Sunni, whose tribes have given up trying to recapture Baghdad or regain their former dominance. Their recent tactical alliances with the American military thus serve two purposes: driving out the hated and ultra-violent al-Qaida and protecting the Sunni from Shia militias and a Shia-dominated central government.
America’s surge-extended force now focuses on reducing Iran’s clandestine military efforts among the Shia, where Tehran cleverly backs all horses in the race, while reducing overall intra-Shia violence. The danger we now face is that the Shia, after winning their furious civil war against the Sunni, will suffer yet another within their ranks as their two great militias battle for ultimate domination.
Iran naturally wants to fuel an Iraq-wide resistance to America’s continued military presence because, the sooner the Americans go, the better Iran’s chances to further expand its influence. Plus, a staunchly anti-American stance in Iraq dovetails nicely with the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to deter U.S. military intervention aimed at regime change, as well as its overall regional strategy of combining anti-Americanism with anti-Israeli fervor in a united Islamic front.
Iran pushes the ideal of a united anti-American/Israeli Islamic front for the same reasons its Shia protégé in Lebanon, Hezbollah, makes common cause with Palestinian Hamas against Israel: it masks a reach for power by the historically oppressed Shia across a region long dominated by Sunni autocracies. By toppling Iraq’s Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and setting in motion the region’s first Arab Shia-dominated state, the Bush administration unwittingly revived Persian Iran’s revolutionary ambitions, which now must be quelled along with Iraqi Shiite ambitions to dominate all of Iraq.
Where Bush’s surge strategy succeeded best was in taking what seemed like an accumulating Iraq conflict and morphing it into a sequential conflict: Where yesterday our troops were fighting al-Qaida plus Sunni insurgents plus Shia militias plus potentially Iran, now our agenda appears largely reduced to just the Shia militias plus Iran. By flipping the Sunni tribes against al-Qaida, our forces effectively move on — so to speak — to the next challenge.
That’s an incredibly important tipping point when it comes to U.S. domestic support for our continued operations. As long as our forces seem to be moving sequentially from one challenge to the next, like they did in the Balkans across the 1990s, the American public will sense just enough progress to stomach our losses in this far costlier effort.
The Bush administration’s great temptation in its remaining months will be to rush into military strikes against Iran under the dual premises of reducing its meddling in Iraq and setting back its efforts toward achieving nuclear capability. While this approach would clearly satisfy our allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, it will likewise push Tehran into an all-out effort at sabotaging our maturing victory in Kurdistan and our nascent success among the Sunni — not to mention yet again turning Hezbollah and Hamas loose against Israel.
A better, more patient approach would be to let Petraeus’ surge force make its careful effort among Iraq’s Shia while the Bush administration focuses mightily on boosting Kurdistan’s continued economic emergence and jump-starting reconstruction and recovery in partnership with our new Sunni tribal allies.
In short, let’s lock in what security gains we can in Iraq before conflating that conflict with another involving Iran. After nearly 4,000 casualties, the American people deserve nothing less from President Bush than an Iraq postwar finally done right.