War Stories

Advice and Dissent

U.S. pols need to get real about Iraq’s problems.

Condoleezza Rice 

A couple of weeks ago, according to the New York Observer, Sen. John McCain stood in a small back room of Manhattan’s Regency Hotel and told a group of wealthy political donors, “One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit.’ “

Someone in the room should have told McCain to do the same thing.

Then again, McCain isn’t so different from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who made a special trip to Baghdad last month with Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for the purpose of telling the members of Iraq’s fractured leadership, “Start governing.” She made a similar plea on a second trip, a few weeks later, this time with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “The key now is to get the government up and running … and then go about the work of dealing with the security situation, dealing with the economic situation.”

It’s reminiscent of Ross Perot’s loopy run for the White House in 1992, when he told eager voters that he’d “just take a look under the hood and fix the problem”—as if politics were like making an engine run, when it’s more like deciding where the car should go.

Does McCain really think that the disputes between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis—a complex of historical, social, tribal, cultural, religious, and economic fissures—amount to nothing deeper than “bullshit” that can be swept away by a session of sit-down and straight-talking?

Did Rice really think she’d make sparks fly by going to Baghdad, wagging her finger, and telling the leaders to start leading? In her case, a sub-agenda was to convince Ibrahim Jafari to step down as prime minister, and, through whatever manipulations, whether Rice set them in motion or not, he eventually did. To what end, though, is as unclear as ever. “The key,” as she put it, is indeed “dealing with the security situation, dealing with the economic situation.” But she made the point as if she were offering a sage solution, not restating the obvious problem.

Is this a peculiarly American thing? Does the basic consensus that underlies our political system make our politicians blind to the nature of countries steeped in unmediated animosities? (For all their differences, political parties in the United States don’t regard murder and mayhem as proper tools of settlement.) There is a tendency to view violent conflict as the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication—when, in fact, it’s often the result of the combatants’ understanding one another all too well.

Certainly, somewhere beneath her steady pose, Rice must know all this. After all, she has a doctorate in international relations, a field where such observations are carved into basic principles. And her essays, at least those written before she joined George W. Bush’s administration, reflect those principles.

A revival of capital-R Realism—as in hard-boiled, amoral, Kissinger-style Realpolitik—may not be exactly what’s called for. But a return to small-r, common-usage realism would be refreshing. Whatever the aims and ideals of a foreign policy, it has to start off from the world as it is. If John McCain thinks the Sunnis and Shiites are just bullshitting, he’s going to have a hard time bringing peace to Iraq, should he be elected president. If Condi Rice thinks that, with a dash of pressure and willpower, the Iraqis can make the wheels of governance spin, no wonder she and her associates look so crestfallen whenever they speak on the subject.

It’s not just Republicans who suffer from realism-deficiency. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Leslie Gelb, a senior official in several past Democratic administrations, have spun their own flight of fantasy. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Biden and Gelb proposed splitting Iraq into three “largely autonomous regions”—one Kurdish, one Sunni, one Shiite—”responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security.” Baghdad would be the seat of a “viable central government,” which would control border defense, foreign affairs, and oil revenue. Areas of “mixed population” would be protected by “multisectarian and international police.”

Gelb proposed a similar plan two years ago, and though it sounds more appealing now than it did back then, it still raises many questions and solves no problems. How would this Baghdad central government be made “viable,” other than by declaration? With what resources, by what policies, would it control border defense, make foreign policy, or—knottiest of all—divvy up oil revenue? These areas of “mixed population” include Baghdad and Kirkuk, the sites of the most intense ethnic conflict. Who are these “multisectarian” police who would protect them? How are they to be kept from breaking down into sectarian militias? And what countries will provide the “international” police? Gelb and Biden write that their plan will allow U.S. troops to exit Iraq responsibly. In fact, the business of guarding borders—external and internal—would require far more troops.

Finally, even if all these questions had logical answers, and even if the Bush administration or the U.N. Security Council adopted this proposal as its own, what power would they have to impose this plan on Iraq? There is not the slightest sign that any Iraqi faction favors such an extreme form of federalism (except the Kurds, who want outright independence). Until they do, such grand schemes amount to jibber-jabber. The problem isn’t so much that they carry a whiff of 1920s colonialism, it’s that they carry no whiff whatsoever of today. It’s a more detailed and sophisticated—but no more realistic—version of Rice’s “Start governing” and McCain’s “Stop the bullshit.” It’s a wish, a fairy-tale command, not a strategy.