Out of the Tar Pit

"We can’t pull out; we can’t win. Like a tar pit, Iraq has trapped the United States. If American troops remain there, few observers expect things to get better; and they may well grow worse. If the troops pull out, problems will certainly worsen for nearly everyone: for Iraqis above all, but for Iraq’s neighbors too, and for the United States. The country awaits the report of the Iraq Study Group as anxiously as the ancient Greeks anticipated oracles from Delphi. From what we already know, the commission’s report is likely to interpret the problem as a regional one and to propose a combination of military and diplomatic tools to work our way out of this trap, with the emphasis on the diplomatic route the administration of George W. Bush has so long scorned.

The failure of U.S. policies in Iraq, together with the ill-fated Israeli assault on Lebanon, have demonstrated the fallacy of the neoconservatives’ fixation on hard power, a policy under which they publicly announced the United States would brook no rival and would impose its dominance on the world. It seems all but inevitable now that if the United States military has a further role to play in Iraq, it will be the one it has long resistednamely, serving as a policeman, if it can, to prevent sectarian strife to avoid igniting a regional conflagration. Though the point will come when the moral debt the United States owes the Iraqi people for what it set loose with the 2003 invasion will have been paid, for the time being curbing the sectarian violence remains a U.S. responsibility. But in the end, American military force, such as it is, cannot resolve the problem of Iraq. Whether a few months from now or after a long, violent struggle, the denouement will be achieved by that despised tool of soft power, diplomacy.

As the study group’s co-chairman, James A. Baker III, has made clear, any solution will have to involve Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria, to be sure. But Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will have to be included as well. Unless it quickly takes up the diplomatic option, the United States may soon find itself playing catch-up. The Iraqis understand the need for regional backing for a settlement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already reached out to Iran and Syria; and the Iranian and Iraqi presidents have already met at the invitation of the Iranians. Not to be outdone, Vice President Dick Cheney flew off to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah, and President Bush met with the Iraqi prime minister in Jordan.

All peace conferences are difficult, but a regional peace conference on Iraq will be particularly trying, because, with the United States obviously weakened and its ties to once friendly countries frayed by the war, there is no power with the authority to force the negotiations to work. This makes unpalatable concessions more necessary than ever. Any settlement will require the United States to eat humble pie, not only by seeking Arab and Iranian help to extricate itself from Iraq, butespecially difficult after 30 years of hostilityby accepting the legitimacy of Iran’s revolutionary government.

Under such conditions, Mr. Baker may be the very best person to serve as the U.S. special envoy. As secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, the steely Mr. Baker showed he understands the Middle East. He is remembered in the region for his singular defense of Palestinian rights and for standing up to special interests in finding solutions to problems there. He possesses the canny pragmatism found in the best lawyers as well as inventiveness in finding solutions for tough situations; and he has the personal strength and laconic speech that would enable him to make concessions without either losing face to adversaries or forfeiting the trust of people at home.

Our present dilemma is not the result of neoconservative delusions alone; it is also a fruit of our collective national illusion about U.S. primacy in the world after the cold war. The Clinton administration was wiser than its successor in its use of soft power, but it still indulged a flawed sense of global entitlement that fed resentment abroad, in trade negotiations, in neglect of the global warming regime and in its rejection of the International Criminal Court, to name just three irritants. America after Iraq will be a changed place, still formidable but no longer a giant astride the world. We Americans will have to forgo our pretensions about being Number One. When we extricate ourselves from the tar pit that is Iraq, the nation must repeat neither the cycle of frustrated recriminations that followed the Vietnam War, nor the irresponsible optimism that followed the cold war. Instead, we must assume the responsibilities of a historically blessed nation in what others will remind us is fast becoming a multipolar world.

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