The Big Idea

NATO to the Rescue

The United States can’t save Iraq. Here’s who can.

U.S. soldiers in Baghdad

As the United States begins to acknowledge the magnitude of its defeat in Iraq, the conflict looks more than ever like a speed-chess replay of Vietnam. A tragedy that took a dozen years to unfold in Southeast Asia has played out in less than four in Mesopotamia. Once again, an intervention that sprang largely from idealistic, anti-totalitarian motives has gone awry because of an administration’s deceptions, incomprehension, and incompetence. Once again, the domino theory at the heart of the case has been disproved. And once again, we find ourselves looking for a way out that won’t compound the catastrophe.

As in the final stages of the Vietnam War, we face the question: If we have lost, why are we still there? One answer is that George Bush is a stubborn man—even this week, he was insisting we won’t withdraw “until the mission is complete“—an apparent synonym for “when hell freezes over.” A better answer is that we’re staying to prevent genocide. Without a military force separating Sunnis and Shiites, the present savagery could go Cambodian, with remaining secular democrats as the first victims. A power vacuum could provide a new operational base for al-Qaida and severe sectarian violence (call it what you prefer) could spiral into all-out civil war and regional conflict. As awful as it is now, Iraq would surely get much, much worse if we yanked our troops.

But if the mission in Iraq has devolved into preventing a bigger bloodbath, America is the worst possible missionary. The first reason is that American troops are a primary target for Sunni insurgents and various Shiite militias. The presence of the United States is instigating a great deal of the current violence. The second reason is that the American forces, unlike most European ones, aren’t trained, skilled, or experienced at peacekeeping. Iraq really does need the presence of a foreign occupying force at the moment. It just doesn’t need an American occupying force. This mismatch suggests a final disaster-mitigation strategy: Replace departing American troops with a more effective referee.

The obvious objection to this proposal is: Who on earth wants to send troops to Iraq now? The remnants of Bush’s Coalition of the Willing—the Brits, the Aussies, the fighting Fijians—are nearly as eager to get home. The United Nations ended its operations following the horrific bombing of its Baghdad headquarters in 2003 and isn’t waiting for a return invitation. Asking for additional help in Iraq now is likely to provoke not just outright rejection, but scorn and derision.

Bush deserves all that and more. But not having yet completely sapped the power of the United States, he still has a few cards to play. Other countries should care about preventing the slaughter of innocents in Iraq, just as they should have in Rwanda and should yet in Darfur. But even if many nations won’t make such a sacrifice on humanitarian grounds, they have a variety of self-interested reasons to help prevent a violent collapse in Iraq, including terrorism, refugees, and oil. And because relations with the United States are still important to nearly every country, we retain some leverage to encourage cooperation.

Where might troops come from? The most willing providers would probably be “new” Europeans such as the Poles, who remain eager to demonstrate their cooperative capabilities and earn some cash. Muslim troops might come from neighboring Jordan and Turkey, which have obvious stakes in preventing the refugee crisis that would attend violent partition. Western European nations would be reluctant, but possibly willing, to contribute when faced with the consequences of inaction. For France and Germany, the bargain would involve Bush admitting, at least implicitly, that his previous unilateralism was bad and wrong. Call it the Coalition of the Grudging.

Given the obstacles to action by the Security Council, and the limitations on blue-helmeted peacekeepers, putting such a coalition together under U.N. auspices is a nonstarter—though the United Nations could eventually play a role as the conflict settled down. For the more intensely military phase, the only real option is NATO. A NATO-led deployment in Iraq could follow the model of Afghanistan, where a 32,000-person NATO-plus-11 force is controlling an insurgency, sustaining a weak but viable government, and preventing multiparty civil war. This is precisely what needs to happen in Iraq.

There are, of course, enormous obstacles to raising such a force. But a mission to save Iraq from doom would fit NATO’s growing scope and evolving post-Cold War doctrine, which includes peacekeeping projects, counterterrorism, and dealing with instability spawned by failing states. With the United States now essentially incapacitated by its mistakes, an effective military consortium of the world’s democracies—which is what NATO is evolving toward—is more necessary than ever.

So, where’s Richard Holbrooke when you need him? Mustering such a force and negotiating its rules of engagement would be a heroic diplomatic undertaking, as it was in Bosnia. A NATO agreement to step in would have to piggyback on a Dayton-like grand compromise, in which the leading Iraqi factions agreed to stop beheading each other in exchange for international aid and security guarantees. It’s a long shot, to be sure—but even Brent Scowcroft doesn’t think the idea is completely mad. Having failed to sensibly internationalize the problem of Iraq on our way in, it may not be too late to internationalize it on our way out.