“I lyom asal, ilyom basal” is a traditional Arab proverb. Translated literally, it means “a day of honey, a day of onions.” The idea behind it is that life is filled with contradictions. Anyone doubting this truth need only consider the last year, and especially the last few weeks, in Iraq. News of millions of Iraqis voting freely for a new government shared the front page with stories describing the near-daily loss of American and Iraqi lives. There is evidence of stability and unrest, economic recovery and ruin, political progress and alienation. Almost everything said and written about Iraq is true.
On the positive side, Iraqis have voted three times in 2005, twice for a national government, once for a constitution. Their economy grew by nearly 4% this last year. Recent polls show that more than two-thirds of Iraqis are optimistic about their future. Large areas of the country are relatively safe and secure.
It also is accurate to portray the glass as half-empty. Most significant is the continuing insurgency fueled by the Sunni minority unhappy over losing its disproportionate political power. In addition, there are at least hundreds of Al Qaeda terrorists who have entered Iraq from neighboring countries. Oil output—at 2 million barrels a day—is no higher than it was two years ago and below what it was before the war. Electricity production is about 10% below prewar levels. And the pace of training Iraqi security personnel has been maddeningly slow; nearly three years after the war, fewer than 40,000 Iraqi police and soldiers are rated at high levels of quality.
The mixed picture also reflects political reality in the United States. Although four recent speeches by President Bush and an address to the nation from the Oval Office have bolstered domestic political support for the war, debates continue to rage over whether this war was necessary or wise, on whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. Time and energy would be better spent debating where we go from here.
As 2005 ends and 2006 begins, U.S. options are essentially two: maintaining the U.S. presence until Iraqi government forces can handle the lion’s share of the burden of maintaining security, or setting an arbitrary exit date, in six or 12 months, for all U.S. troops.
A calendar-determined withdrawal, something urged by Reps. John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi and others, remains a decidedly minority preference within the Congress, the only body other than the Iraqi government that could impose this course on the president. Such an option would, and should, be seriously considered only if it became certain that no amount of continued U.S. effort would bear fruit. We are not at that point, and with luck will never reach it. To commit to leaving under present circumstances would be irresponsible. It is not, as is often stated, that withdrawal would undermine the value of all sacrifices made until now. Rather, leaving too soon could lead to a civil war among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that in turn would draw in the neighboring states.
Why must that be prevented? Because chaos in a country of Iraq’s resources and its location would be enormously costly. Terrorists would establish a stronger foothold there. Oil and gas production, the foundation of the world economy, would be disrupted. And perception among pro-Western governments that the United States is a reliable friend and ally would be gravely harmed.
For now, the only feasible and desirable option facing the United States in Iraq is "staying the course." This is how the president often terms his policy. But it also is something of a misnomer. It suggests a static policy when, in fact, our policy has been changing.
The Bush administration has recognized that we cannot sustain the current level of military effort given the strain on manpower and equipment; that force reductions would ease domestic political pressure on the White House and that it would address the argument that the insurgency is in part a reaction to the large U.S. presence. Near-term reductions also can be justified on the basis that the scale of American effort may actually be slowing the emergence of a capable Iraqi army, in that it reduces the urgency and breeds what some describe as a culture of dependency.
We will see the continued reorientation of U.S. forces away from offensive operations and toward the training and advising of Iraqis. More emphasis will be placed on holding secured territory and leaving the fight against the insurgency to Iraqi soldiers and police. This too should reduce U.S. casualties.
The big hope in the White House is for political, military and economic progress to come together in a mutually reinforcing way. Look for the United States to urge the dominant Shiite and Kurdish political leaders to give the Sunni minority meaningful positions in the next government. Shiite and Kurdish leaders also will be pressed to amend the recently adopted constitution to address legitimate Sunni grievances.
The goal is to reduce Sunni estrangement, which should reduce violence, which should pave the way for economic reconstruction, which should further reduce Sunni alienation. The goal is to create in Iraq what might be termed a virtuous cycle.
Will this come to pass? The truth is that no one knows and that it will be Iraqis more than Americans who will decide the country’s future. The good news is that the president’s recent public explanations of his Iraq policy and his tone of greater modesty have narrowed divisions here and bought time to move things in a positive direction.
It is, in principle, possible that Iraq one day will come to resemble what the president seeks: a successful democracy at peace with itself and its neighbors, providing a model for other states in the region to emulate. You would have to be an optimist and then some, though, to be confident in this outcome.
Far more likely is something less and different: a barely functional Iraq, with a weak central government and highly autonomous regions, including a relatively secular, Kurdish-dominated north; a far more religious, Shiite-dominated south; a similarly religious, Sunni-dominated west; and a demographically mixed and unsettled center that includes the capital of Baghdad. Think of it as a version of today’s Afghanistan minus the poppy fields.
Such an outcome would constitute a mixed bag for those who hope that change in Iraq will stimulate change elsewhere in the region. A working Iraqi democracy would encourage other reformers in the region; that said, nearly three years of violence, the loss of Sunni primacy and the rise of religious fervor have soured many Arabs on following Iraq’s lead.
Still, a barely functional Iraq would be good, and at this point good enough. Sometimes in foreign policy, it is more important to avoid catastrophe than it is to reach for perfection. This is one of those times.