- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

In extremis is a nautical term. Extremis means that a ship is in dire danger of sinking, colliding, grounding or foundering in monstrous seas. In those circumstances, only the most radical maneuvers are likely to right the ship or to bring her to safety.

The United States appears in or very close to extremis in Iraq. The difference between America in Iraq and a ship at peril at sea is that there is probably very little the United States can do, however radical, in finding a safer course in Iraq. That is up to Iraq and the Iraqis. We can stand in the background and provide aid, counsel and added security for Iraq’s still-fragile military. However, the baton of responsibility has been passed.

What is actually happening in Iraq largely depends on who one finds as a credible observer. Security in Iraq is either getting better or worse. Reconstruction is moving swiftly or slowly. Life in Baghdad is improving or not. The Bush administration reinforces this ambivalence in its public testimony. The White House, the vice president’s office and the State Department are still bullish.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who by all accounts has done a remarkable job, is honest in stating the uncertainties and risks that lie ahead. The senior American military, by and large, is fully cognizant of the realities on the ground in Iraq regarding security and politics.

The military has done its best to present an objective image of the dangers, risks and uncertainties in Iraq. However, given strict civilian control of the military, criticism has not been as direct or as pointed as some senior officers perhaps would have liked to offer.

The conclusion is unambiguous. Iraq’s future depends on the Iraqis. While passage of the constitution was perhaps more important for the Bush administration to quell critics here, as the Dec. 15 elections loom, political parties in Iraq are coalescing around religious, tribal and ethnic groupings centered on Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd. The adjudication of power will thusly follow well-defined lines made by Iraqis, not Americans.

Americans, however, tend to be impatient and action-oriented. What, if anything, should the administration be considering beyond “staying the course?” Here are two suggestions.

First, states in the region must be involved in the future of Iraq, as they will be profoundly affected by what happens in Saddam’s old domain. Sens. Chuck Hagel and John Kerry have separately called for a regional conference to convene on Iraq’s future. The White House should embrace that proposal.

The Sunni states in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia clearly are concerned about what happens in the Shi’ite south of Iraq as well as the influence of Shi’ite Iran. Turkey is watchful of Kurdistan. Russia has immediate interests, as do the other Arab and Muslim states. The forum or framework for such a conference must be determined, as well as the aims that must point toward peace and stability in the region.

Second, the administration needs to formulate a damage-limitation strategy that supposes Iraq remains in a state of violence and political unrest. It need not do that publicly for understandable reasons. But what if Iraq descends into civil war, political anarchy or a partition, de facto or real? The failure to anticipate the postwar needs in Iraq is no excuse to repeat the same mistake. Planning for a crash landing is essential.

Perhaps it is time to consider a regional security structure, a kind of junior NATO or ANZUS, or perhaps a version of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization that links China, Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian states. Perhaps it is time to consider bolder diplomatic policies toward Iran and Syria that focus on negotiation and not confrontation. And perhaps it is time to take initiatives to reduce tensions elsewhere, particularly in Asia over Taiwan and North Korea. After all, if Iraq disintegrates, the last thing that is needed is a second or third crisis.

The Bush administration is under siege. Scooter Libby’s indictment, fury from the right over Harriet Miers’ judicial nomination, public-opinion polls that are at rock bottom and a rough trip to Argentina put great pressure and strain on the White House. Still, a few good ideas might turn things around.

More importantly, they might actually be good for Iraq and for America. And to drive these ideas home, perhaps a small delegation of senators ought to meet with the president very privately, not so much as to read the riot act but to implore him to broaden his thinking.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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