British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston famously explained in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” It would be wise to step back from the day-to-day reporting on Iraq and consider what “perpetual” interest led to the U.S. intervention. President Bush set this out in his 2002 State of the Union address, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
Overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime ended the Iraq threat to resume its weapons of mass destruction programs when the corrupted and compromised U.N. sanctions collapsed. But that threat is very much alive next door in Iran. The Bush administration is working to build an Arab coalition against Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has outlined this new coalition in meetings with foreign ministers of the Six Plus Two group. The six are the Gulf States of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates; the Plus Two are Egypt and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan openly criticized Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah for carrying out a cross-border raid from Lebanon into Israel, triggering more than four weeks of heavy fighting in July and August. Iran, with its support for militias in foreign lands, its nuclear ambitions and its aggressive Shia faith, poses a much greater threat to the Sunni Arab world than does Israel, which has hunkered down behind sealed borders and only wants to be left alone.
Cooperation on missile defense, maritime patrol, anti-terrorism, energy security and counterproliferation are discussed. A U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative naval interdiction exercise was held at the end of October near Bahrain.
Iraq became the front line against Iran after the pro-American shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Saddam became the hero of the Arab world during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. But he brought disaster upon himself when he invaded one of his major allies, Kuwait, in 1990. When the U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait, it did not march on Baghdad. Then-Secretary of State James Baker worried “Iraq might fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brand of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq’s Shi’ites and quickly transform themselves into the dominant regional power.”
This should have led to postwar U.S.-Iraq reconciliation, but Saddam had gone mad. He continued to threaten Kuwait, plotted against America and even made overtures to Iran for a united front against U.N. sanctions and inspections. Were Iraq to become a reliable security partner, as Mr. Bush has recently said again, Saddam had to go.
But is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an acceptable replacement? This depends on whether Mr. Maliki can rise above his career as a Shia partisan to become a truly national leader of Iraq. Though born and educated in Iraq, Mr. Maliki went into exile in Iran and Syria during Saddam’s crackdown after the Gulf war. He was deputy leader of the De-Ba’athification Commission in the postinvasion interim government, which critics charge became a witch hunt against Sunnis.
American officials claim Mr. al-Maliki is independent of Iran and an Arab nationalist. Yet he was supported for election by Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-U.S. cleric who heads the Mahdi Army militia, has a powerful Shi’ite bloc in the government and is aligned with Iran. Sheik al-Sadr’s base is Sadr City, a Baghdad slum of 2.5 million Shi’ites. The Mahdi Army has both spawned and protected death squads. There have been many armed clashes between Mahdi and U.S. troops.
Following a recent raid by Iraqi special forces (with American advisers) against a Shia death squad leader in Sadr City, Mr. al-Maliki vowed to “review the issue with the multinational forces so that it will not be repeated.” And on Oct. 31, he ordered dismantling of U.S. checkpoints around Sadr City. If Mr. al-Maliki does not declare against Iran’s Mahdi agents in Iraq and cooperate in their elimination, Washington should consider shifting its support to the Sunnis.
Though a minority in Iraq, the Sunnis are a majority in the Muslim world. Such a tactical shift would help build support with the Six-Plus-Two Arab coalition, and also with the governing Islamic Party in Turkey, which is Sunni and concerned with Iranian influence in neighboring Syria. The dictatorship in Damascus is based on the extremist Alawi sect of Shia, which is a minority within the country. The U.S. has been negotiating with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, who have pledged to cooperate against al Qaeda’s foreign fighters. These local leaders met with Mr. al-Maliki on Oct. 26 to discuss an alliance against other Islamist militants, which should include the Mahdi Army. It is up to Mr. al-Maliki to decide, and soon.
The U.S. sympathized with the Iraqi Shi’ites when they were oppressed by a hostile Saddam, but continuing to support them if they fall under hostile Iranian influence does not coincide with America’s “perpetual” interests.
William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.