As Congress wrestles with US policy in Iraq, the human reality on the ground grows worse and worse throughout the region. We need to begin grappling with our responsibilities in the face of that burgeoning tragedy.
I fear for the peoples of the Middle East.
I fear for Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, who are already engaged in bloody civil war, and for their co-religionists throughout the region, whose long coexistence is being turned into lethal conflict by US and other outside forces. I fear for the Turkmen and the Kurds in northern Iraq, who are being openly threatened with ethnic cleansing and military attack. I fear for Christians, Jews and other vulnerable minorities spread throughout the region.
I fear for the Afghans, who have yet again been plunged into civil war. I fear for the Iranians, against whom American and Israeli leaders threaten military attack and blithely discuss the use of nuclear weapons. I fear for the Lebanese, who face yet again the destruction of their country by war and civil war.
I fear for the Palestinians, who are already subject to massacre by both the Israelis and by their own rival political factions. I fear for the Israelis; for while US operations in the Middle East have claimed to protect Israel, all the military superiority in the world will not protect the Israeli people from devastation if the peoples surrounding them are sufficiently enraged.
Opponents of US withdrawal from Iraq say we can't leave because of the terrible bloodletting that would result. Advocates of withdrawal point out that terrible bloodletting is already under way, and that the US presence helped cause and aggravate it.
Both sides have a point. US presence and escalation in Iraq, and its threats against Syria, Iran and other countries, are fueling the bloodletting on many fronts. But withdrawal of US troops, absent other new initiatives, is likely to be followed by continuing or expanded civil war and mass killing in Iraq and beyond.
And the danger of slaughter is not just limited to Iraq; it is spreading through the entire region. It threatens those of every nationality and religion. While each of the region's conflicts embodies innumerable rights and wrongs, the current escalation of conflict will not lead to justice for anyone but only to new tragedies for all.
To forestall such nightmare scenarios, the US government, the American people and indeed the governments and peoples of the world need to embrace a radically different objective for Iraq and the Middle East. No longer can we simply ask how to pursue one or another country's power or prestige. Rather, we must ask how to reduce as much as possible the level of carnage throughout the region.
Once we formulate our objective this way, we will find ourselves in a new paradigm in which, no longer paralyzed by stay-or-go dilemmas, new options will open up. For example:
Oil: Much of the conflict among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq and the region is about control of oil. As recent analysis of the US-promoted Iraqi oil law has pointed out, the United States has claimed an outsized share of Iraq's oil wealth for US corporations. The factions in Iraq are fighting in effect over the leftovers from the US corporations' table. The United States can make a lucrative proposition to all parties: We will give up our claim on your oil and agree to simply buy it on the same terms as any other consumer if you establish among yourselves a long-term agreement on how to divide it equitably.
Bases: Polls have established repeatedly that the great majority of both Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq want Americans to leave, and in particular do not want us to retain military bases. The United States can offer a negotiated phased withdrawal, including a commitment to remove all bases, if the parties in Iraq, their neighbors and a supporting international community will establish and guarantee security arrangements that protect the peoples of the region from mutual slaughter.
Palestine: The Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine is a huge source of tension in the region. The outline of a fair settlement has been widely agreed to, and is embodied in many international agreements and United Nations resolutions. But fear and distrust among factions has made it impossible to implement. The United States can make an enormous contribution if, in cooperation with the Quartet and the rest of the international community, it says to the parties: If you can agree on a just settlement, we will commit ourselves to guarantee that it is fairly implemented.
Many other possibilities open up once the question is posed as "What could the United States do to reduce the level of bloodshed in Iraq and the region?" Reconstruction aid, administered in a way designed to provide incentives for cooperation, would be one example. Support for regional peacekeeping would be another. Many such proposals are detailed in the International Crisis Group's report, After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq.
Can such an approach succeed? It is hardly likely to eliminate all lethal conflict in the Middle East. But it should be judged a success if it simply reduces the amount of slaughter that would otherwise have occurred.