Iraq shrine 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Like Shakespeare's hero Hamlet, the American administration now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma: to go or not to go, this is the question.
Most Iraqis, including the Sunnis, would like the Americans to stay. The same is true for many of Iraq's neighbors. For them, America's prolonged stay may serve two main goals: draw fire that could otherwise target them and do the policing that none of the players seems capable of or willing to take upon itself.
But the real question is whether or not it is in the interest of the Iraqis, the Americans and Iraq's neighbors that a modern-day "mandate" be established in Iraq - and at what price such a mandate would come. To answer this, one should evaluate the achievements and failures of the last four years and examine how they can contribute to a road map for future policy.
Generally speaking, the US and its allies were successful in their unilateral actions - the blitzkrieg war, dismantling the army and the Ba'ath party, promulgating a constitution and holding more or less democratic elections. However, all the long-term processes which should have resulted from these moves, such as national reconciliation, democratization, regime consolidation and stabilization, have all failed. Of the two main causes of the failure - Iraq's structural problems and bad management of post-Saddam Iraq - the first is more significant.
The dilemmas of exit strategy have to do with five envisaged dangers: civil war and chaos; dismemberment of Iraq; refugee flight; penetration of Iraq by the surrounding countries; and spillover effects on pro-American regimes in the surrounding countries.
Looking at today's Iraq, it is axiomatic to state that all these dangers have become real and that the longer the Americans stay, the more intricate they are likely to become. One of the reasons for the brutal struggle for power between various Iraqi factions is that they are preparing for America's exit. The US has shown itself time and again unable to arbitrate between warring parties. The sectarian war has deteriorated into a civil war, with no end in sight.
As for "dismemberment," there are already two Iraqs: a Kurdish one and an Arab one, which are very loosely joined by a weak center. The argument for dividing Iraq into three parts seems untenable because the disenfranchised Sunnis will not allow a split of the Arab area. The fact that some of them describe the ascendance of Shi'a to power in Iraq as another nakba (disaster), proves how far they might go to fight it. But if domestic dynamics dictate that Iraq be divided, neither force of arms nor foreigners will stop it from doing so.
Regarding the refugee problem, there are already millions of them in neighboring countries and throughout the world. This, in spite of the fact that some 130,000 allied troops are still stationed in Iraq with the express goal of ensuring the population's security. The fears of an Iranian encroachment are certainly justified, but this, too, is taking place under the very watchful eyes of the Americans. In fact, all of Iraq's neighbors have formed spheres of influence inside Iraq or allied themselves with one Iraqi faction or another, so as to prevent further spillover of the Iraqi conflict into their countries and prepare themselves for post-American Iraq.
Thus, for example, Iran's main sphere of influence is the "Shi'iland;" Turkey, Kurdistan; Syria, the "Sunniland," etc.
What are the pros of an early withdrawal? The longer the US stays, the stronger the friction with Iraqi society and the alienation from individuals and groups grows. Thus, in the Shi'ite camp, the relatively moderate Shi'ite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani is losing ground to the fiery anti-American activist Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers. As for the militant Sunnis, who claim that theirs is a not a civil war but a patriotic one waged against foreigners, let them prove it upon the American withdrawal.
Alternatively, the American withdrawal might force the Sunni resistance to shift its attention from the Americans to another "intruder" - namely, al-Qaida, which is based in the Sunni areas. It might also prompt certain Shi'ite groups to try to stop the Iranian penetration into Iraq. And, Iraq's neighbors might be forced to cooperate against al-Qaida.
No doubt, America's withdrawal might cause chaos in Iraq in the short term. But in the long term, it remains for the Iraqis to sort out their problems among themselves and reach a new balance of power.
American policymakers find themselves in a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation. But it seems that withdrawal is the lesser of two evils.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University.