- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

Most Americans — including President Bush — have now determined things are not going well for us in Iraq and that we need to change our approach there. Most also understand “we” means all of us — Republican or Democrat — because the various enemies we fight in Iraq have sworn to kill us all, regardless of political affiliation. In short — like it or not — “we” are all in this war together and had better get it on the right track.

Nevertheless, it’s important to understand how and why we have not yet succeeded — especially if there’s an opportunity to correct the situation, as even the critics believe we have. So, here is a very brief “pathology report” — including key findings — of our Iraq policy so far:

(1) Going in. The president acted on the best information available to him and there wasn’t a substantially different conclusion reached by our friends and enemies alike.

Finding: There is no percentage in second-guessing whether we should have gone in. We did so assuming they had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That there in fact was no WMD is a separate and distinct issue that goes to how we collect human intelligence. Suffice it to say there was a systematic failure of this function, but that’s another story and being addressed separately.

(2) If the reason we went in was the WMD and to remove Saddam along with it, then why did we stay after doing so? There was no persuasive explanation given that the mission had changed and we now wanted to establish a democracy in Iraq. While Mr. Bush gave a few thoughtful and inspirational speeches on the subject, this kind of complex issue requires public affairs to “stay on message” for a sustained period — i.e., “for the duration.”

Finding: There was and is a massive failure of public diplomacy from the White House to get the “democracy” message across: Most Americans were never sold — and are still not sold — on the “democracy” mission in Iraq. The proof is the mid-term election result.

(3) The bad news for whoever had the “democracy” idea in the first place is that the Iraqis don’t appear to be sold on it either, nor do most leaders of “democracies” in the Middle East. What exists in Egypt, Turkey or Jordan is as good as it’s going to get for democrats in the Middle East, and to achieve something like that in Iraq would in itself be a miracle. However, it may have been possible to start the Iraqis on the way toward it, and this was probably the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.

Even then — to have a chance for success — we had to act with rational relationship to the overwhelming dominance of religion and tribalism in Iraq and the region, and not in a way that simply put Shi’ites in charge of Iraq — which is how it looks to others in the region and the primary reason there is chaos in Baghdad.

Our policymakers should have realized the closest thing to democracies in the Middle East were countries with Sunni dominant cultures: So maybe it would not be a good idea to attempt to enable a Shi’ite dominant democracy for all of Iraq.

Accordingly, the folks happiest with our approach in Iraq are the Iranians, who have been given a grand opportunity (by us) to expand their radical Shi’ite influence in the region. Moreover, we had already knocked off Saddam, a Sunni, for them: something they could have never done. This, of course, has most of our “friends” in the Middle East either puzzled or angry with us, including the Israelis, who have reached some rapprochement with Sunni-dominant regimes.

Finding: We have demonstrated a surprisingly poor understanding of fundamental political dynamics in the Middle East and were either unaware of or ignored some immutable facts of sectarian life there.

Enabling a Shi’ite dominant democracy for Iraq was and is such an outrageously unattainable goal that one wonders whether it was the “real reason” we stayed in Iraq after Saddam was deposed, and it was clear that there was no WMD to be found.

I wrote about this anomaly in Commentary a year ago (The Washington Times, Dec. 2, 2005): If the “real reason” we went into — or stayed in — Iraq was not so much democracy, but to “forcefully counter the influence of violently anti-American Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab Middle East” (a formulation suggested originally by Nicholas Lehmann) maybe we haven’t done so badly after all, just by “being there.”

However, as I also wrote: “If this is the strategic case for staying in Iraq now, the administration must make it far more effectively than they have so far.” Sadly, this remains another critical public diplomacy failure of our Iraq policy.

In sum, to “correct” what we have done to date in Iraq, we should quickly identify and enable a moderate and tolerantSunni leadership while marshaling key support for it elsewhere in the Middle East. This should be reasonably easy and will demonstrate to our regional supporters that we now understand a far more realistic approach is necessary for our “democracy” policy in Iraq. Above all, we simply must do a much better job of getting our message out to publics — both foreign and domestic.

Daniel Gallington writes on national security issues.

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