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The much anticipated report by the Iraq Study Group proved to be a major disappointment. Those who believed that the commission, co-chaired by Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, would produce a precise outline of a successful end to the war in Iraq and return American soldiers to their homes, discovered that the interminable list of recommendations permitted the U.S. president to avoid choosing a clear direction.

Indeed, only one day after the report was presented, President George W. Bush distanced himself from some of the central recommendations, particularly those calling for negotiations with Syria and Iran, and those which called for a gradual reduction in American troops in Iraq. Last week, the president announced he had ordered newly appointed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to formulate a plan to increase the numbers of U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops in Iraq. There are currently 140,000 troops deployed in Iraq.

"There is no magical formula that will solve the problem of Iraq," Baker told a press conference as he unveiled the report. "However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and to protect American interests." The commission then released its list of 79 recommendations, some relevant, some trivial, some logical, but too frequently couched in vague language. For example, the report's authors failed to set a firm schedule for an end to U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Japan is not a precedent

Baker, Hamilton and their colleagues should be praised for making no attempt to whitewash reality, calling the situation in Iraq "grave and deteriorating." The report reveals that President Bush is facing a dilemma that few presidents have faced before. Many presidents led the U.S. into wars that ended in military occupation of foreign nations, but it appears that few were embroiled to the same extent. If Bush were to examine the experiments of his predecessors, he would discover that conditions in Iraq are different from those in other countries where the U.S. waged war.

Bush and his advisers erred in their belief that Iraq could be transformed into a "torch of freedom" within a short time. They mistakenly based that assumption on precedents in post-World War II Germany and Japan. The U.S. government maintained a military administration in Japan for seven years, and did not grant full sovereignty to West Germany until 1955. The occupation of Iraq is only three years old. Japan and West Germany were prevented from rearming for many years, and the U.S. bore the burden of defending those nations from the former Soviet Union for a very long time. In Iraq, on the other hand, rearming of militias continues undaunted, and an enormous arsenal remains in the country.

Conditions in Iraq also differ from those in Japan and Germany after World War II, which influenced the rise of democracy in the two nations. World War II effectively destroyed fascism, however, totalitarian regimes remain in place following the war in Iraq. Some of them inflame, incite and assist adversaries of the U.S. Whereas Germany and Japan were homogenous societies, Iraq is today comprised of ethnic groups that are fighting among themselves.

The Baker-Hamilton report appears to have accelerated President Bush's recognition of failure in Iraq. Last week, he admitted for the first time that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq. He has now adopted the formula concocted by senior U.S. Army officials: "We're not winning, we're not losing." This is a vast shift in the position that he took up on the eve of midterm elections in November, when he declared: "Absolutely, we're winning."

The Baker-Hamilton report outlines the negative consequences of continuing Bush's current policy in Iraq: Runaway chaos, heightened suffering of the Iraqi people, a humanitarian crisis, increased ethnic cleansing, the chance of a regional war, conflicts between Sunnis and Shi'ites throughout the Muslim world, skyrocketing gas prices, the continued existence of a base for terrorist activity, severe damage to the U.S. global influence, a greater chance that America will fail in Afghanistan and increased polarization in the U.S.

The cost of staying in Iraq underlines the need to sort out this predicament: Every day that the U.S. Army remains in Iraq costs the nation $246 million. By the end of the year, the cost of the war will reach $265 billion, and the White House is requesting an additional $170 billion (which also includes the cost of the war in Afghanistan). Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated that staying in Iraq for another four years would cost the U.S. Treasury at least $1 trillion.

So, what should we do with Iraq, Bush and his advisers ask themselves. It is obviously impossible to continue this way. Bush knows that he is trapped: If he withdraws from Iraq before the central government in Baghdad successfully takes the reins, without putting an end to terror attacks, a bloody civil war is likely to ensue, and the U.S. will be blamed for the harrowing outcome. But if he decides to stay in Iraq, the U.S. will be forced to pay a high price in blood. To date, close to 3,000 American soldiers, and more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in Iraq, and this price is becoming unbearable.

The Iraq Study Group recommends gradually reducing the troops deployed in Iraq, empowering the central government in Baghdad and empowering and training Iraqi troops to assume responsibility. The report also calls for operating within a regional framework to create fertile conditions for agreements between nations in the region that would involve them in formulating a solution to the Iraqi problem. To that end, the report recommends Iranian and Syrian involvement in U.S. initiatives in Iraq, and also promoting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is doubtful that President Bush will adopt these recommendations, and it appears that the search for the correct path will continue for quite some time.

In an attempt to find precedents similar to the situation in Iraq, and to examine possible solutions according to those precedents, it would be appropriate to compare Iraq with 1990s Yugoslavia, rather than late-1940s Germany and Japan. Both Yugoslavia and Iraq were created at the beginning of the 20th century from the remnants of empires (the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires), and they were established within borders that included diverse ethnic and religious groups, which, had they been asked, would have preferred to remain as separate nations. Yugoslavia was finally dismantled into several ethnically-based nations, and entered a bloody civil war, accompanied by brutal ethnic cleansing. Iraq may also divide into three parts that resemble the three provinces that existed in the area during the Ottoman Empire: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. A Kurdish area in the north, a Sunni area in the center, and a Shi'ite area in the south.

This scenario raises many fears in the U.S. Many experts warn that this division could lead to regional war and a higher status for Iran in the region; they also claim that the three ethnic groups lived peacefully until the rise of Saddam Hussein. They remind the rest of the world that the only civil war in Iraq was between two Kurdish factions in the 1990s.

This approach, however, ignores basic tensions the U.S. occupation allowed to emerge in Iraq: Regional enmity between Sunnis and Shiites has existed for hundreds of years, and it became more acute when modern Iraq was established, in 1922. The Kurds have waged an armed war for their independence for decades, which Iraqi regimes crushed with an iron fist. One reason for the lack of broader conflict between ethnic groups was the Sunni minority government, which subdued the Shi'ite majority by means of a malevolent secret police force. Hussein's reign of terror did not permit open Shi'ite or Kurdish opposition.

Oil could be the glue

Those who oppose the division of Iraq also ignore the fact that the Kurds enjoy full autonomy in the north. The Kurds have, in practice, had their own nation for the last 15 years, since the first Gulf War.

It appears that the model which stands the greatest chance of success is a federal nation, in which each of the three areas will enjoy a great deal of autonomy. The greatest obstacle to a solution of this type is oil. The Sunni area lacks oil wells. Thus, it is safe to say that the Sunnis would oppose a division, which would deprive them of the 80 percent of profits from oil located in the Shi'ite area and 20 percent in the Kurdish area.

In an article they published in The New York Times in May, Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. and Leslie Gelb suggested the following five-stage solution:

1. Preservation of a unified Iraq by the establishment of autonomous Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni regions. A central government would be responsible for interests common to all the ethnic groups like security, borders and division of oil profits.

2. The Sunnis would be guaranteed proportional profits from oil revenues. Oil will ultimately provide the glue that keeps these three ethnic groups together.

3. A broad program will be formulated to create employment by increasing resources and rehabilitating the nation. Funding would come mainly from oil-rich nations in the Persian Gulf.

4. The American military would gradually withdraw its troops from Iraq. The majority would leave by the end of 2007, and a minimal force would remain to deter Iraq's neighbors and operate against terrorist groups.

5. An international conference would pledge to respect Iraq's borders and stabilize relations between Iraq and its nations. Baghdad would become a federal city that does not belong to any of the three regions.

Despite all the interest in the Biden-Gelb proposal, President Bush did not relate to the plan, until today. Bush still adheres to the "stay the course" slogan. While "we're not winning," he insists "we" will ultimately win in Iraq. While this is possible, until then, American soldiers will continue to be killed by Iraqi snipers, car bombs and roadside bombs. Once again, Bush should learn the lessons his predecessors understood: The U.S. deployed 500,000 troops in Vietnam, a nation with a population half of Iraq's in 1970. NATO sent 100,000 troops to Bosnia and Kosovo, where the population was a fifth of Iraq's.

The U.S. did not win the war in Vietnam, and was forced to withdraw and leave the nation to the Communist North Vietnamese. A total of 54,246 American soldiers died in Vietnam and another 103,284 were wounded. Millions of Vietnamese lost their lives. The cost of the war was $584 billion. The Americans are approaching similar financial costs in Iraq in giant steps. The question is whether President Bush will find a solution for the Iraqi problem before the number of American soldiers and civilians who lose their lives in Iraq approaches that of Vietnam.