What We Need in Iraq: A Healthy Dose of Realpolitik

Listening to the Petraeus/Crocker congressional hearings yesterday, it struck me that while Gen. Petraeus was doing all that he could to stabilize the situation in Iraq, what was missing was a bigger discussion of our long-term strategic goals in the region. The discussion seemed to be all tactics, all the time.

What we need in Iraq is a healthy dose of realpolitik. We need to hire Count Metternich as a consultant to give us some ideas on how to bring all the powers together in a latter-day Congress of Vienna so we can work all of this out in a way that will give a little something to everybody.

Metternich dealt from a position of weakness. He represented the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was strong on paper but was helplessly divided by a wide variety of conflicting ethnic minorities. He was trying to keep a balance of power between the French, Germans and Russians, so that none would become so powerful that they would threaten his relatively weak empire.

The United States is in a different position than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We have the largest and best-equipped military on the planet, and we have the largest economy in the world. But, when it comes to Iraq, we are playing a weak hand. Most Americans want us out of Iraq. The opposition party — the one that prefers a quick pullout of Iraq — is favored to win in the upcoming elections. And patience is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in Washington.

What are our vested interests in Iraq? What do we get out of staying there? What happens if we leave? What deals can we cut that will achieve our goals and reduce our presence (and risk and expenditures)?

Colin Powell famously said of Iraq, “If you break it, you buy it,” meaning that if we invade Iraq we would be responsible for putting it back together again. That is not necessarily the case. We can pick up tomorrow and leave, and let the Iraqis figure it out for themselves. We stay because it is in our self-interest to stay. But what is that self-interest? That has never been fully explained by this White House.

In my mind, there are three reasons that it is in our self-interest to stay in Iraq. First, we can better defend Israel from Iranian attack. Second, we are in a better position to take the fight to terrorists, both Sunni terrorists and Shiite terrorists, in Iraq. (And don’t think that being on Iran’s borders, both on the Iraqi side and on the Afghani side, doesn’t give us some advantages in a possible war with the Iranian regime.) Third, we are better-positioned to secure necessary oil supplies by being in Iraq.

By leaving Iraq precipitously, we will abandon a big military presence in the region. Sure, we will continue to have a base in Turkey, and a presence in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but it wouldn’t be the same. That means we can’t continue to put pressure on the Iranian regime. That means we lose a base from which to fight both Sunni and Shiite terrorists. And we lose control of a valuable source of oil.

Providing stability solely in Iraq is not a strategic goal. Given Iraq’s inherent instability for the last 4,000 years, it also isn’t a realistic goal, unless we want to bring back Saddam Hussein. The Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites just don’t really love each other, and never really will.

A better strategic goal is to create a Congress of Iraq, with all the major players invited. This is where Metternich would really come in handy.

Each of the major players inside Iraq (Kurds, Shiites, Sunni, etc.) and inside the region (Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait) and each of the global powers (the U.S., the U.K., the EU, Russia, China) should be gathered today (perhaps in Vienna), and deals should be cut to satisfy all of the stakeholders.

Oil revenue, national security, territorial integrity, spheres of influence, an alliance against terrorists — all of these things should be on the table for discussion. When Metternich brought the Great Powers together in Vienna, he built a framework that preserved peace for the better part of a century. We need a latter-day Metternich to do the same for the Middle East and Iraq.