More than any other issue, it is the US invasion of Iraq that has separated the US from the rest of world after September 11th. It has also divided the United States internally, weakened its capacity to deal with the threat of extremist Islamic terror, and made a mockery of US power. While Guantanamo, Afghanistan, limits on civil liberties in the US, and the US acquiescence in Israeli bombing have set the US apart from the rest of the world, how many countries can really say they have not tortured prisoners, bombed innocents, imprisoned their own citizens without just cause, or over-reacted in their efforts to fight insurgencies and rebellions? However, other than the Soviet Union and Iraq, itself, no other country after World War II has had the power or the chutzpah to invade another, simply in order to remake it.

While the US Administration argues that Iraq is a part of the “war on terror”, most critics argue that it is at best distracting the US from dealing with terrorism, or, at worst, destroying its ability to do so. Still, it is hard not to be sympathetic to the project of a democratic pluralist Iraq, however much a mess the US has made of it. Is there a way, in which this US Administration, as opposed to some imaginary one with perfect information and ideal morals, could have achieved, or still can, a more stable Iraq.

Regime change without an invasion

All advocates of invasion also advocated regime change. But all advocates of regime change did not advocate invasion. So this administration could have mobilized a broader coalition, if it had actually implemented what was clear in its political rhetoric and official policy. It formally sought to end Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, but informally made it clear that it would not settle for anything less than regime change. The problem was the Administration’s insistence that regime change could only be secured through the barrel of a gun. There may have been another option.

Envoy_1Instead of invading on 20th March 2003, the US could have sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad with an ultimatum, two decades after his previous trip to Iraq as a presidential envoy of Ronald Reagan. Rumsfeld could have offered the following deal. Saddam Hussein agrees to an inclusive transitional government, grants formal self-rule to the Kurds, ends human rights abuses, cooperates against Al-Qaeda, and allows in UN inspectors. In exchange, the US would not invade Iraq. With the US forces poised to invade, it would have been an offer that Saddam Hussein would have found hard to refuse. But what if he had? There would be war, certainly no worse than what Iraqis face now. Even if he had stalled after accepting the deal, it would have been the beginning of the end of his autocratic authority.

A different beginning

Having invaded Iraq, what could the US have done differently? First the US could have prevented the looters from looting Iraq. A curfew combined with stringent measures, immediately after the invasion, would have stopped the looting and made Iraq safer. Second the US could have retained the Iraqi Army, an army of conscripts with no personal loyalty to Saddam Hussein, except for certain elite units. Third the US should have retained all former Baathists in professional positions, only “screening out” former Baathists who had committed abuses. Instead the US first expelled them all and then “screened in” former Baathists who had not committed abuses.

The result of such a “screening in” policy was that the entire professional class – university professors, teachers, doctors and engineers – who joined the Baath party simply to get a job were initially excluded from working. They then had to go through a cumbersome process to prove they were innocent before they got their jobs back. This took time, money, and energy on the part of those affected, and kept Iraq from using much needed local talent to reconstruct the country. These three policy decisions required neither new resources, nor prior planning. They only required sensitivity to the ground situation and a political understanding of how people behave under dictatorships and during transitions. Any one of these decisions could have had a significant impact on the post-war situation in Iraq. All three together might have changed the tide.

What can the US do now?

Now the US is facing terrorism, a tough insurgency and a divided Iraq. Bringing Iraq around would require breaking up the problem into three manageable parts. First the US can work with Iran to stabilize the Shia South. This would entail easing pressure on Iran’s civil nuclear program, lifting sanctions and engaging diplomatically, in exchange for better cooperation from Iran in reining in militias and monitoring the borders. Since Iran also has an interest in a stable Iraq over an unstable one, this is not an impossible deal to make. In any case it is unlikely that the UN Security Council will back the US on sanctions against Iran, so the US has little to lose. Of course, if it waits too long, it may also have little to offer.

Second the US can work with the governments of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and even Turkey, to help secure local autonomy and rights for Kurds within each of these countries. The pay off is greater stability in these countries, and more secure borders for all of them. The Kurdish regions in each of these countries, straddling many of the borders, then become better managed and policed, enabling a crackdown on the infiltration of men and arms to the Iraqi insurgency, rather than facilitating it because of unstable borders.

Third the US should negotiate with the ex-Baathist and nationalist insurgents in the central parts of Iraq, while isolating Al-Qaeda elements. This would reduce incentives for cooperation among the different insurgencies, and increase the likelihood of greater stability. To do this, however, the US would have to backtrack from a major plank of its policy after September 11th. It would have to concede that all terrorists are not the same – there are some terrorists you can and should actually talk to. And that Iraq is not just a central part of the war on terrorism, but a country facing a triple transition from Baath party dictatorship to multi-party democracy, US occupation to Iraqi self-rule, and Sunni Arab domination to pluralism. This would not be easy to do.

If this fails withdraw

The loss of international goodwill, the erosion of support in the US, the anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and the anguish in Iraq, may make it politically impossible for the US Administration to take the above steps, even if it were ready to concede that Iraq may have nothing to do with the war on terror. This may leave the US, Iraq and the world with no option but a withdrawal from Iraq. Whatever its drawbacks, such a withdrawal is increasingly beginning to look like the least bad option available.