Sixty percent of Americans want the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, according to a March 12th Gallup poll. And sixty-four percent, according a recent CBS poll, believe that the Iraq War was never worth fighting to begin with. After five years, four thousand troops killed, and thousands more crippled and mentally traumatized, Americans are fully comprehending the horrendous cost of our endeavor in Iraq.
The general sentiment of pessimism is correct. The Iraq War should have never been authorized and the time for withdrawal is now. But others in the political mainstream—yet statistically on the political fringe—employ several arguments for staying the course. They argue that Al Qaeda in Iraq will regroup, gain strength, and attack us here, even though Al Qaeda in Iraq comprises only 2 to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency, a paltry figure for a group allegedly poised to dominate a country of 27 million people. Supporters of the war claim that it’s merely been a problem of execution, and that withdrawal would make America look weak. But this assertion could easily be stood on its head: Iraq is now the cause célèbre for jihadists flooding into Iraq because we are there, thus the longer we stay the weaker we become. Leaving would weaken the jihadists and actually improve our standing in the region. But arguments for staying the course usually come from the very people who got us into Iraq; so these shouldn’t be the go-to-experts for developing solutions to get us out.
But how do we withdraw responsibly, minimizing the chaos left in our wake? How do we turn our moral obligation to aid Iraqis into an achievable mission for withdrawal? There are numerous components to withdrawing from Iraq. A central one is a component that has been least addressed: engaging Iran. Implementing such a policy will be tricky, not only because the Iran’s clerical leadership is difficult to deal with, but because engaging Iran will require America’s foreign policy establishment to significantly shift its ideological orientation, moving from the belief that diplomacy is weak to the thinking that diplomacy is one of the most potent instruments in our foreign policy toolbox.
Untangling the diplomatic, economic, and ideological roadblocks established over the last three decades will not be easy. But the stability we seek in Iraq is impossible unless we make a concerted effort to induce the actors surrounding Iraq to be responsible stakeholders. That result can come about only if we engage Iran openly, maturely, and without preconditions.
Since 1979, when a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the United States has attempted to isolate Iran throughout the Middle East. Occasionally, the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently, when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But overall, relations with Iran have been frosty, and until a U.S. administration alters that situation, diplomatic avenues will remain closed, and stability in Iraq will remain elusive.
Today, Iran is the only country that has the necessary influence to promote peace in its war-ravaged neighbor. As U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told The Washington Post several weeks ago, no one in the U.S. and Iraqi governments “feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation.” Constructive Iranian influence could provide that crucial tipping point.
Let’s look at area in which negotiations with Iran might progress. Iran currently sits on some of the largest known oil reserves in the world, but lacking refinery capacity and technical expertise, is forced to import more than 40 percent of its gasoline. America can offer incentives to reduce this burden, and in return, Iran could encourage Iraq’s two largest Shi’ite political parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Dawa Party-both of which Iran supports-to offer concessions to al-Tawafuq, the main Sunni political bloc.
Iran’s role in Iraq is just one piece of the puzzle. Negotiations should also involve Iran’s control of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, of course, Tehran’s nuclear program. Moreover, rather than engage Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the United States must go directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who truly controls the apparatus of government and has the final say on the country’s nuclear ambitions.
But Americans still skeptical of engaging one’s adversaries need only look at historical precedents: Richard Nixon’s engagement with China. Nixon’s engagement occurred during the Vietnam War, when China’s assistance to the North Vietnamese could have precluded dialogue. But U.S. officials recognized the regional role China was playing and used it to America’s strategic advantage. The same should be done with Iran. It may take months, or even years, but dialogue is imperative, and the sooner the better.
Finding an American leader who will engage Iran without preconditions will be difficult. The U.S.-Iranian relationship is currently at a stalemate because America insists that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before a dialogue can take place. That demand is unrealistic and short-sighted. Demanding as a precondition the very goal we want to achieve is illogical, although it perfectly encapsulates why Bush’s foreign policy on so many fronts has been a failure.
The Persian Gulf is a nexus of energy, security and economic interests. To address one area without regard to the others and expect satisfactory outcomes is unrealistic. Most important, refusing to talk with our adversaries unjustly burdens our armed forces, saddling them with the responsibility of meeting all of our expectations in the region. Fighting a needless, ideological war in Iraq is bad enough. Ignoring other states in the region only exacerbates the quagmire, ensuring that any palatable resolution remains out of reach.
Pulling ourselves out of Iraq will take true leadership. And true leadership will take a bold visionary willing to initiate sound, pragmatic statecraft, rather than continuing the faulty reasoning that saps America of its treasure, soldiers, and influence within the region.
MALOU INNOCENT is a Foreign Policy Analyst at The Cato Institute