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What Iraq can teach us about Iran

Former Iraqi minister of trade and defense Ali A. Allawi has an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, where he outlines the main challenges in post-occupation Iraq and maps out a broad approach for dealing with them. Not surprisingly, he is better at identifying the problems Iraq confronts than in providing ready solutions, for the simple reason that there aren't any easy answers to Iraq's current plight.

Saddam Hussein's brutalities notwithstanding, that is one reason why some of us thought invading Iraq was a foolish idea back in 2002-2003. Iraq's military power had been largely defanged by defeat in the 1990-91 Gulf War and by ten years of punishing sanctions, so it was no longer a serious threat to vital U.S. interests. Equally important, no one ever gave a plausible account of how a post-Saddam social and political order would be established, especially in light of what was known about Iraq's fractious and violent history and deep internal divisions. We had no plausible "exit strategy" going in, and it is no surprise that we are leaving a broken country behind. (That's not an argument for staying longer, by the way, because we don't know how to fix it and most Iraqis want us out).

In any case, a passage in Allawi's piece caught my eye and bears further scrutiny. Here it is:

"Iraq must reimagine the Middle East, creating new economic, security and political structures that weave Middle Eastern countries closer together while peacefully accommodating the region's ethnic and religious diversity.

In the American-Iranian cold war, Iraq must resist being dragged into a confrontation. We have real interests on both sides and can play an important role in mediating and even defusing that conflict."

In essence, Allawi is saying that Iraq should strive to play a balance of power game in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, seeking good relations with all its neighbors, and adopt a creative and flexible approach to dealing with the diverse social and religious forces in the region. Such a strategy would not preclude Iraq tilting one way or the other as currents of power and interest shift, but it implies not allowing Iraq to get drawn into rigid alignments or permanent commitments that harden animosities or limit its diplomatic flexibility.

What struck me, however, was how Allawi's blueprint applies even more strongly to the United States. The United States is not a Persian Gulf state, and we have no interest in trying to run these countries. Instead, the United States has only three overriding strategic interests in the Gulf region: 1) make sure that Gulf oil and gas keeps flowing to world markets (even though the U.S. gets very little of its own energy from this region, a reduction in the global supply would send energy prices soaring), 2) discourage the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and 3) reduce the danger from anti-American terrorism.  The best way to pursue these three objectives is to play balance-of-power politics ourselves: minimizing our military footprint in the region while striving to make sure that no single power dominates it and reducing incentives for anti-American terrorism or WMD proliferation.

It follows that the United States should be seeking to have good relations with as many states as possible -- so as to maximize its diplomatic options and resulting leverage -- and to do what it can to dampen regional tensions. (Note: this is also what Allawi advises Iraqis to do). From this perspective, a prolonged Cold War with Iran is in fact a policy failure (or at least not an achievement), even though avoiding one may be difficult given all that has already occurred. Our various "special relationships" in the region should be rethought as well, especially in light of the political upheavals that have been sweeping the region and rendering the future more difficult to forecast. In such circumstances, a smart great power would seek to maximize its options going forward, instead of being permanently and visibly committed to a status quo that is visibly shifting before our eyes.

And above all, the United States needs to start thinking about an approach to the region that is at least somewhat mindful of the opinions of most of its residents. We still don't know exactly how the Arab revolts of 2011 will turn out (and I'm guessing we won't know for some time), but one likely consequence will be the eventual consolidation of Arab governments that pay considerably more attention to popular sentiment than their predecessors did. Even if these regimes fall short of full democracy, their leaders can see what is happening within their societies and they are going to try to cater to public opinion to the extent that they can. Unfortunately for us, popular sentiment in much of the Arab world is decidedly hostile to the main thrust of American Middle East policy. So if the United States wants to preserve its influence in the region over the longer term, it is going to have to devise a strategy for the areathat is more congenial to Arab publics, and not just a handful of ruling elites. This doesn't mean abandoning important U.S. interests, pandering to popular opinion, or giving more meaningless speeches, but it does mean thinking strategically about our long-term interests, and not just about the next election.

In short, Mr. Allawi has some sensible ideas for how Iraq should behave in the months andyears ahead, but his advice may be even more applicable to Iraq's former occupier. 

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

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