In the ongoing debate over what to do about Iraq, Bruce Riedel and Samuel Berger weigh in on the side of withdrawal:
A clear US commitment to a complete, irreversible withdrawal from Iraq may now be the only way to develop a regional concert of powers that could work with Iraqis to try to stabilise the country and cauterise the conflict.
None of Iraq's neighbours was eager for the invasion four years ago, with the possible exception of Kuwait. All of them saw the US and UK occupation as inherently destabilising, especially if it looked permanent. All are now worried that the civil war in Iraq will serve as a breeding ground for terror and violence that will be increasingly exported to their own countries.
But these countries cannot work constructively with an American occupation army - especially not Iran, which has the most capability to be a decisive force given its intimate ties to virtually every Shia and Kurdish politician, its geography and its economic connections. Most of all Tehran wants to see the US leave Iraq for good so it cannot be a base against Iran. The Saudis and Jordanians find it both difficult and less urgent to engage when the occupation is open-ended. The Syrians find Iraq to be a good place to keep America bogged down and less threatening. The Turks fear that a long-term American presence encourages Kurdish -separatism.
These calculations may well change once there is a clear time-line for complete American and British withdrawal and the end of occupation. At that point it is in the self interest of each of the neighbours to concentrate on shaping post-occupation Iraq and especially preventing the terrorist threat that instability creates. All Iraq's neighbours will find it easier to engage when it is not in support of an occupation army. None will want to see another gain direct control of part or all of Iraq. All will want to avoid a power vacuum for al-Qaeda and other terrorists. We should seek to build on the narrow moment of time when those self-interests might be put into harmony to stabilise Iraq.
I have a high opinion of Riedel's assessment of Al Qaeda and the "war on terror" (which-by the way-came out before the new NIE that said basically the same thing) and his advice on how to get out of Iraq is measured and sensible. The question over what to do whe our occupation ends (as it inevitably will) is now boiling down to a debate between those who think getting out now best protects our interests, to those who think that leaving a residual force behind will allow us to still accomplish something useful. How I feel about this changes everyday, depending on which expert (and I do mean "expert", not "pundit") I read. I would like to see our forces continuing to hunt al Qaeda in Iraq, and yet at the same time it makes sense to think that our leaving will "pull the rug out" from under Al Qaeda as Riedel suggests. I like the idea of protecting the Kurds, but is it correct to assume that the Turks will over-reach or the Kurds won't be able to protect themselves? I think having troops in the country gives us some leverage over other Middle East countries, but will they work with us if we're there? Would leaving, and the threat of a worsening civil war, focus their attention on the role they need to take in Iraq, instead of the entire mess being left in our laps?
And finally, and most importantly, to what extent will the reasoned debate of Middle East experts influence our post-occupation strategy? Will the debate be lost entirely in the American people's ever-growing distaste for the war? Or in other words, will politics dictate complete withdrawl no matter what plans are made next? It is in this context that I think Democrats must vigorously continue trying to take control of the debate on what to do next in Iraq. Republicans have advised Bush to get realistic on Iraq before his political enemies seize control of the war from him. I would advise Democrats to stay focused on seizing control of the war from Bush before events here at home and in Iraq make complete withdrawal the only politically feasible option.