It is time for a new policy in Iraq, to recalibrate America’s equities and engagement there. The current administration is tied to its policy, knowing that the president’s historic legacy will be based on the outcome in Iraq, and hoping that current positive trends can be turned into more permanent conditions. But the American people and their political leaders need to be thinking more boldly about a new horizon: Where do we want U.S.-Iraq relations to be in five years? Can the United States and Iraq enjoy a friendly relationship without such a deep commitment of American forces and resources? Where does Iraq fit in America’s strategic interests and agenda?
Many believe that such an exercise is difficult because it depends too much on what the Iraqis do, and their behavior seems increasingly to be beyond American control or influence. Iraq’s profound uncertainties, according to this view, make it too hard to conduct such a policy-planning exercise. But this report argues that the United States has to set its strategic goals in the region independently of how Iraq’s political dramas play out. The time for social engineering is over; events in Iraq will be determined by powerful currents within Iraqi society and politics that are less and less susceptible to outside manipulation or influence. So the United States needs to set its own course, and no longer pin its policy on the ability of the Iraqis to play a part Americans have written for them.
Iraq remains of great significance for the Middle East region and for America’s interests there. Iraq is intrinsically important, because of its location as a bridge between Iran and the Arab world, its oil wealth, and the potential of its people to be powerful regional players. The United States will continue to care about Iraq’s fortunes, its ability to achieve greater stability and prosperity for its people, and its relations with its neighbors. But the time is right for fresh thinking about a transition from a period of exceptional engagement to a new state of affairs.
The New Yorker is hardly the optimal vehicle for reaching the conservative intelligentsia. But, last year, Barack Obama cooperated with a profile for that magazine where he seemed to be speaking directly to the right. Because he paid obeisance to the virtues of stability and continuity, his interlocutor, Larissa MacFarquhar, came away with the impression that the Illinois senator was an adherent of Edmund Burke: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”
As The New Yorker‘s assessment shot across blogs, many conservatives listened eagerly. A broad swath of the movement has been in open revolt against George W. Bush–and the Republican Party establishment–for some time. They don’t much care for the Iraq war or the federal government’s vast expansion over the last seven-and-a-half years. And, in the eyes of these discontents, the nomination of John McCain only confirmed the continuation of the worst of the Bush-era deviations from first principles.
I always knew that the 2008 election would become another battle in the culture wars; the only mystery was the particular form the conflict would take this time around.
The answer surprises even cynical me: Barack Obama’s neighborhood. Republicans are preparing to court the blue-collar vote by casting the election as a referendum on Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, which Mr. Obama represented in the Illinois Senate and where the prestigious University of Chicago is situated.
The news came in last Friday’s Washington Post, in which it was announced that “Republicans plan to describe Obama as an elitist” – mmm, novel word, that – “from the Hyde Park section of Chicago, where liberal professors mingle in an academic world that is alien to most working-class voters.” Then, like clockwork, out slid the new issue of The Weekly Standard, which lambastes Mr. Obama’s neighborhood as an island of upper-class daffiness – a neat trick, considering that Hyde Park’s median household income is substantially lower than both the national and the Chicago median.
The Arabs have historically failed at selling their case to American policymakers and public opinion. Blaming America for every wrong has become an integral part of the Arab collective culture. What we haven’t done is make any meaningful effort at communicating with the US, despite the enormous impact its policy decisions have had here. It is as if the assumption is that “we are right” and America has to see that on its own. Such passive attitude did not work in the past. It will not work now.
The sad reality is that there are no indications the Arabs have learnt much from the lessons of the past decades. America is probably second only to Israel in the amount of bashing it receives, in the Arabic press and public discussions. But it has not been the target of any substantial communication from Arab governments or non governmental organisations. Consequently, America’s perceptions of the region and its positions on it have been formed with little or no influence from Arabs (except for terrorist attacks by peripheral groups that enforce negative stereotypes).
Nothing on the horizon justifies any hope that Arab apathy towards engaging American public opinion will end. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that an Obama White House will not meet the unrealistic expectations of many in the Arab world.
Which means that the Obama “myth” that has developed here will not take long to collapse. The change he is expected to bring to American politics will not be in the direction the Arabs want. And soon after he assumes office, if he does, things will be back to square one: the US will follow policies the Arabs see, and often rightly so, as detrimental to their interests. Yet Obama will not be the only one to blame. Arab inactivism and failure to state its case must also carry a great deal of the blame.
What is the status today of the reform movement in Iran? Are you optimistic about its prospects?
The confrontation between Iran and the Unites States over nuclear power, terrorism, politics in the Middle East, and Iran’s increasing influence in the region, has greatly overshadowed internal opposition activity. The specter of war, together with the regime’s repressiveness, has pushed aside the struggle for democracy and human rights. Moreover, the regime in Iran uses the pretext of an “impending war” to crack down more severely on its opponents. Resistance under such circumstances is very difficult.
In this way the government of the United States has harmed reformist forces in Iran. When President Bush says that Iranian reformists do not have a better friend than he, his words are both factually inaccurate and practically useless to the reform movement. But they provide a convenient excuse to Iran’s fundamentalist rulers to paint their opponents as “American agents,” and, under the pretext of fighting American intervention, proceed to crush them.
Given such circumstances, many of the reformist groups have placed their hopes on formal periodic elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran. What these reformists do not realize is that democracy and human rights will never emerge from the ballot box of the Islamic Republic. Other political activists have shifted their focus to civil society. This is the only way forward for us. Discontent is widespread, but people are not organized, and an effective leadership supported by a broad consensus does not exist at the moment.