Editor’s Note: Despite resistance from key U.S. military commanders and the leaders of the new Democratic majorities in Congress, George W. Bush appears poised to press ahead with a “surge” – or escalation – of U.S. forces in Iraq.

In this guest essay, former CIA analyst Peter W. Dickson looks at some of the arguments behind the “surge” plan and some alternative strategies:

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Bush puzzled many pundits with his frequent references to the lure of isolationism and its dangers.

No one at the time wondered or asked if this warning meant that Bush had some personal premonition of defeat in the Middle East. Surely it was strange for a man so confident then (and even until very recently) to raise the specter of isolationism – an impulse which has deep historical roots in American psyche since the nation was founded more than two centuries ago.

To discourage a pendulum swing in favor of greater withdrawal from the world, prominent neoconservatives and their allies within the Republican Party have sneered at the Baker-Hamilton report as providing political cover for defeatists who wish to sell out Iraq or otherwise capitulate to terrorist groups and nation-states that lend support to them such as Iran. Realists whether liberal or more conservative, such as Brent Scowcroft, are compared to Neville Chamberlain in a grossly misleading historical analogy.

Beyond this, the prominent neoconservative Robert Kagan in a Washington Post op-ed item entitled “Our Messianic Impulse” insisted that expansionism has always been the “dominant strain” in the nation’s character and should remain so no matter what happens in Iraq.

Praising America’s messianic impulse as “the hearty offspring of the marriage between America’s driving ambitions and overpowering sense of righteousness,” the smug Kagan offers this as a philosophical rationale for his call for dispatching more troops to Iraq to get the violence under control. [Washington Post, Dec. 10, 2006]

He is not alone in calling for what is now known as “a surge” in troop strength especially around Baghdad though many senior military commanders (including Generals Abizaid and Casey) had been highly skeptical of such a strategy. Kagan’s younger brother Frederick, a former West Point professor, and retired Gen. Jack Keane seemingly have won a receptive audience at the White House for the particular surge strategy they designed under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Focusing heavily on stabilizing 23 Sunni or mixed Sunni-Shite neighborhoods in Baghdad, they advise sending in an additional 30,000 troops to clear and hold these residential districts primarily on the west side of the capital city free of insurgents and death squads for at least 18 months. The Kagan-Keane report calls for the participation of some Iraqi army units in this surge, with presumably the Iraqi army taking over full responsibility for security after 18 months.

While only the White House has evidently seen the full Kagan-Keane report, an executive summary was released in mid-December and the text of a so-called Phase I Report was issued on Jan. 5 in conjunction with an AEI conference including Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Joseph Liebermann, I-Connecticut, as main speakers.

These various reports and also a long Kagan-Keane op-ed item in the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2006, give no hint of any political negotiations or brokered deals concerning these volatile Baghdad districts before sending in the U.S. troops.

The closest the Phase I Report comes to addressing this issue is its language about how a successful surge operation “will set the conditions economic development, political development, reconciliation, etc.”  In other words, the expectation is that the surge will promote or lead to Shia-Sunni reconciliation which seems dubious.

Since exclusively Shia districts would be left untouched, this strategy seems to entail high political risk, if it cannot be kept for being seen as being primarily directed at the Sunni who are already being expelled from mixed communities on a fairly large scale.

The Kagan-Keane strategy seems to have no interest in linking deployment of more U.S. troops to a well-defined political objective such as trying to separate the domestic combatants as much as possible, via a brokered political settlement to specify in advance safe havens for the beleaguered Sunni and Shia families.

Why should U.S. troops be risked to preserve, and could they preserve, the ideal of mixed religious communities at this late hour in the wake of the botched execution of Saddam Hussein? Doesn’t negotiated segregation make more sense?

The historical precedents would not only be the Indo-Pakistani population exchange in the late 1940s, but also a similar arrangement involving the Greeks and the Turks in the early 1920s. No one underestimates the difficulties, but compared to an uncontrollable ethnic-sectarian conflict, it at least offers some hope for greater stability as Ambassador Peter Galbraith and Les Gelb, former President of the Council on Foreign Relations, have argued.

Obviously, a Baghdad-area ceasefire would be required to allow time to negotiate clearly safe havens in this urban region. This requirement offers a constructive role for the Malilki regime which needs badly to overcome the damage done to its reputation following the poor handling the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps it is not totally beyond hope that in the context of a ceasefire accord, the respective Shia and Sunni militias might be persuaded to help American and Iraq troops facilitate the peaceful relocation of those seeking physical protection and safety.

If the surge is linked to pre-deployment brokered deals for each district, it also would help the American troops from being seen as directed against the Sunni. The Sunnis represent about 80 percent of all Muslins in the world.  Washington would find precious few Arab countries where the Sunnis are the majority supporting a surge strategy, if U.S. troops are seen primarily as serving the interests of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. 

If Washington makes clear a good faith offer to use its troops specifically to facilitate relocation – a more clearly defined mission with a politically neutral objective – then if this gesture is rejected, or the parties refuse to cooperate sufficiently, then at least American troops can be withdrawn with honor.

Regional Talks

Would opening discussions with Iran make sense here? Possibly, but making concessions to get their support seems dubious.

Tehran wants a nuclear weapons option too badly to give that up. They have funded to some extent Shia militias and death squads. A proposal for a ceasefire and negotiated relocations would force those parties to make a clear choice whether they want to allow Iran to meddle or obstruct a brokered peace.

Finally what about the broader threat Iran seems to pose for the region and Israel in particular?

Even if Iran would endorse a brokered peace, its president has sponsored a conference of Holocaust deniers and has called for the elimination of Israel. In the eyes of many Israelis and the neocons in America, Iran poses a dire “existential threat” to the Jewish state which surely would intensify in their minds following an ignominious American disengagement from Iraq.

How could a US troop withdrawal from Iraq not destroy Tel Aviv’s confidence in the long-term American commitment to protect Israel?

The Iranian nuclear threat is still several years away. Uranium enrichment is difficult and its somewhat easier weaponization compared to a plutonium bomb is something that even the North Koreans do not seem to have solved. Nonetheless, paranoia remains high among Israelis and prominent neo-conservatives who were the architects of the strategy of a pre-emptive war against Iraq.

So what are the options, especially if there is no brokered ceasefire and safe haven deal in Iraq?

Several neoconservatives, such as Frank Gaffney, have argued that Washington needs to gird itself for the unavoidable need to attack and destroy as much of the Iranian nuclear program as possible.

That was the thrust of an op-ed item entitled “On Iran, Giving Futility a Chance,” by Robert Kagan who expressed impatience concerning what he regards as the need to move soon beyond futile diplomatic negotiations with Tehran. [Washington Post, July 13, 2006]

The rumor mill is now fueled with each and every military or naval deployment that might be geared for a preemptive attack, such as the recent dispatch of another aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

However, most analysts consider widening the conflict in the Middle East, when the United States is bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq, as an extremely high risk. Given the furious retaliation that might ensue, a preemptive attack against Iran might only make sense if most U.S. forces are already out of Iraq.

One suspects that Washington is more likely to deploy naval forces in the Gulf to bolster a UN-sanctioned embargoed against Iran in the hopes that the economic stress eventually would bring about a more moderate leadership in Tehran.

Bolstering Israel

In any case, if Washington is not comfortable with letting Israeli leaders decide how to respond to this Iranian threat – such as a preemptive attack on their own – the  Bush administration (if forced by events to withdraw from Iraq) might come to see an advantage in proposing to Tel Aviv that substantial American ground troops and aircraft be relocated from Iraq to Israel itself.

The objective (again if Iraq descends into a full-blown civil war prompting an American withdrawal) would be to bolster the Israeli army on the borders. These U.S. troops also would provide a nuclear trip wire which, in effect, would signal to Tehran that an attack on Israel would be an attack on America.

An irrevocable amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in theory, could be arranged to give the Israelis full assurance, an iron-clad guarantee that America will never withdraw their ground troops unless requested.

In return, America would be able to project significant power, especially with air bases inside Israel, throughout the Middle East. This was one of the major geo-strategic objectives of the neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and others who developed the controversial Defense Planning Group guidelines in 1992.

Why should Tel Aviv accept such an arrangement that many Israelis would complain strips their nation of its sovereignty by reducing it to America’s 51st state? Well it would, but so what? Many would argue that for decades Israel has been a de facto component or extension of the American empire. And what are the alternatives over the long term?

With the end of the influx of Russian Jews to Israel, this tiny Jewish nation faces a ticking demographic time bomb – the much greater fertility of Muslims living inside Israel’s current borders. It is not clear that the Jewish state is a viable nation state over the long term. 

Making Israel more formally into an American protectorate enjoying the full benefit of the U.S. nuclear umbrella seems the only sensible course of action if Washington has to pull out of Iraq. This arrangement would not preclude a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians in the context of a two-state solution.

This issue is hard to exclude from any broader regional security settlement for the Middle East. For their part, the Iranians would have no ability to thwart a new American-Israeli security pact. Tehran is also not in a strong position to use oil as a weapon. The Saudis have given hints that they could (if Iran tries to threaten Sunni states within the region) flood the international petroleum market with cheap oil to undermine the fragile Iranian economy which is far more dependent on petrodollars than Saudi Arabia with its much smaller population.

Tehran could still pursue its nuclear weapons option but the nuclear trip wire would impress upon the Iranians that they would face nuclear annihilation if they ever launched a nuclear attack on Israel. Finally, the neoconservatives would have less reason to be paranoid about Israel’s fate which was one of the factors that drove them to hype the Iraqi threat and to push for a preemptive war that has turned quite sour.

Peter W. Dickson served more than twenty year as a political-military analyst on European affairs and nuclear proliferation issues at the Central Intelligence Agency. Contact Information: pwdbard@aol.com

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