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Washington’s strategic position in the Middle East is stronger than it has ever been, contrary to superficial interpretation. With much of central Iraq out of US control and a record level of close to 100 attacks a day against US forces, President George W. Bush appears on the defensive. The moment recalls French Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s 1914 dispatch from the Marne: “My center is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.” To be specific, the United States will in some form or other attack Iran while it arranges the division of Iraq.
That Sunni diehards and Shi’ite adventurers would prevent the pacification of Iraq never was in question (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance?, December 23, 2003). Leaks of a National Intelligence Estimate warning last week of impending Iraqi civil war suggest that Washington is thinking past the loser’s game of occupation.
The phony war between reluctant Iraqi recruits and rebels will persist past November, but something deadly and different will follow on Bush’s reelection. Russian paratroops will be busy in the Caucasus after the Beslan atrocity, making a Russian presence in Iraq unlikely, contrary to my earlier forecast. (That may have been the intended outcome of the incident.) Nonetheless, Washington has a winning card to play, and the decibel level of protests from Tehran as well as from the US opposition suggests that it is well anticipated.
If Washington chooses to dismember Iraq rather than pacify it, who will win and who will lose? Washington always has had the option of breaking up the Mesopotamian monstrosity drawn by British cartographers in 1921. The only surprise is that it has taken US intelligence so long to reach this conclusion. Whether America’s policymakers are slow learners, or whether Bush chose to perpetuate the farce of Iraqi nation-building until the November elections, we may never know. An Iranian alliance with Iraq’s Shi’ites poses a danger to this maneuver. But that danger, in turn, drives the US toward action against Iran.
Ahmad Chalabi, the Shi’ite Iraqi leader closest to the Pentagon, endorsed Kurdish independence in the following exchange with the Middle East Quarterly (MEQ, summer 2004 issue):
MEQ: Some high-profile American analysts, such as Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have called for Iraq to be split up into three states. Are they right? Should Iraq be broken up? Why shouldn’t the Kurds have independence?
Chalabi: All peoples have the right to self-determination and that includes the Kurdish people. Why should they be any different? If the exercise of that right leads them towards independence, then so be it. We will negotiate with them. The days of using violence to build this country are over.
Iraq’s Shi’ites, who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population, have no reason to subsidize the Sunni minority with revenues from oil wells located in their centers of ethnic preponderance. The simplest way to deal with resistance in the Sunni triangle is to break off the oil-rich Kurdish north and Shi’ite south, and let the Sunni center eat sand.
Washington loses nothing by promoting an independent Kurdistan, except for Turkey’s dwindling goodwill. It is not surprising that Ankara warns darkly of Kurdish plots behind US operations in Iraq’s northwest (Turkey snaps over US bombing of its brethren, K Gajendra Singh, AToL September 18). At the Pentagon, patience grows thin for the crypto-Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is the new sick man of Europe (In defense of Turkish cigarettes, August 24), and Washington has less and less to gain from it.
For that matter, the Kurds are more than Washington’s pawns. Their love (in Franz Rosenzweig’s luminous phrase) for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death; if the present opportunity for independence passes them by, the glacial tide of modernity will grind their language and culture underneath (You have met the enemy and he is you , June 29). Binding them to Mesopotamia may prove more trouble than it is worth. A kind of historic judgment would afflict the Turks in the form of Kurdish independence, for Turkey employed the Kurds to expel the Armenians in 1915, leaving them in what used to be known as Western Armenia.
That leaves the specter of a greater Shi’ite entity as the main dissuasion against an Iraqi breakup. News reports of US efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime have been circulating for the better part of the year, and some media (eg the New York Times on September 1) linked press leaks about Israeli spies in the Pentagon to internal administration debates over possible action against that country. Iranian officials have warned daily against US efforts to undermine their regime, as have American opponents of the Bush administration, for example the University of Michigan’s Middle East scholar Juan Cole on August 29 in his “Informed Comment” weblog: “It is an echo of the one-two punch secretly planned by the pro-Likud faction in the Department of Defense. First, Iraq would be taken out by the United States, and then Iran.”
All of this was so much ectoplasm until Saturday, when the US forced through the International Atomic Energy Agency a resolution demanding that Iran cease enriching uranium. Now the strategic logic is as compelling as it was in 1914, when the German general staff insisted that immediate war with Russia was preferable to waiting until the eastern giant completed its railway network. Washington is assembling its case for some form of intervention against Tehran, and turned an important corner of diplomacy with the weekend’s warning.
For Iran, the emergence of a quasi-independent entity from among the Iraqi Shi’ites presents as much danger as opportunity, that is, as much of a channel of US influence into Iran as a source of Iranian leverage in Iraq. Chalabi, accused of betraying US secrets to Iran, personifies this duality.
Personalities are less important than the layout of the chessboard. America’s next move will be to break out of the stalemate in Iraq by widening the conflict.