Now that the "realists" have ridden into town gleefully consigning the Bush doctrine to the ash heap of history, everyone has discovered the notion of interests, as if it were some new idea thought up by James Baker and the Iraq Study Group.
What do people think we've been doing for the past five years? True, the president's rhetoric has a tendency to go soaringly Wilsonian, e.g. the banishing-tyranny stuff in his second inaugural address. But our policies of democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon have been deeply rooted in the most concrete of American interests.
If we really had been in the grip of "idealism," we'd be deep in Chad and Burma and Darfur. We are not. We are instead trying to sustain fragile democracies in three strategically important countries Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon that form the geographic parentheses around the principal threat to Western interests in the region, the Syria-Iran axis.
We are trying to bring democracy to Iraq in particular because a pro-Western government enjoying legitimacy and popular support would have been the most enduring means of securing our interests there. Deposing Saddam & Sons was essential because they posed a permanent strategic threat to the region and to U.S. interests. But their successor the popularly elected Maliki government has failed.
The cause of that failure is rooted in an Iraqi political culture that makes it as yet impossible for enough of the political leadership to act with a sense of national consciousness. We should nonetheless make a last effort to change the composition of the government and assemble a new one composed of those Kurds, moderate Sunnis, secular Shiites and some of the religious Shiites who might be capable of reaching a grand political settlement.
Everyone now says that the key to stopping the fighting in Iraq is political again, as if this were another great discovery. It's been clear for at least a year that a military solution to the insurgency was out of our reach. The military price would have been prohibitive and the victory ephemeral without a political compromise. And that kind of compromise vesting the Sunnis with proportionate political and financial (i.e. oil) power is something the Shiites, at least those now comprising the Maliki government, seem incapable of doing.
The United States should be giving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a clear ultimatum: If he does not come up with a political solution in two months or cede power to a new coalition that will, the United States will abandon the Green Zone; retire to its bases; move much of its personnel to Kurdistan, where we are welcome and safe; and let the civil war take its course. Let the current Green Zone-protected Iraqi politicians who take their cue from Moqtada al-Sadr face the insurgency alone. That might concentrate their minds on either making a generous offer to the Sunnis or stepping aside for a coalition that would.
The key to progress is political change within Iraq. The newest fashion, however, is to go "regional," engaging Iran and Syria in order to have them pull our chestnuts out of the fire. This idea rests on the notion that both Iran and Syria have an interest in stability in Iraq.
Very hardheaded realist terms: interest, stability, regional powers. But stringing them together to suggest that Iran and Syria share our interests in stability is the height of fantasy. In fact, Iran and Syria have an overriding interest in chaos in Iraq which is precisely why they each have been abetting the insurgency and fanning civil war.
Perhaps in some long-term future they will want a stable Iraq as a tame client state of the Syria-Iran axis. For now they want chaos. What in G-d's name will a negotiation with them yield?
At best they might give us a few months to withdraw. But why do we need their help to do that? We can do our withdrawing very well without them. And in return for non-help in a non-solution that is essentially a surrender, Syria would demand to be given a free hand once again in Lebanon just as, when the United States needed help in Iraq before the Persian Gulf War, then-Secretary of State James Baker gave Lebanon over to Syria as a quid pro quo.
And Iran will demand a free hand with its nuclear weapons project, which will turn it into the regional superpower dominating the Gulf Arabs and their oil.
If that would save Iraq for us, there might at least be an argument for such a swap. But just to cover an American retreat? This is sacrificing one interest without even securing another. It's enough to give realism a bad name.