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The common wisdom in Washington these days is that the Americans will leave Iraq by the end of President George W. Bush's presidency regardless of the situation on the ground. This view is based on the proposition that Iraq is unwinnable and it has had a devastating impact on the administration's confidence that it can handle Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Monday's events brought that impact home starkly. On the one hand, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad came as the US wages a seemingly last-ditch attempt to defeat the insurgency in Iraq. On the other hand, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's performance at the Natanz nuclear installation where he said, "With great pride, I announce as of today our dear country is among the countries of the world that produces nuclear fuel on an industrial scale," indicated that he, for one, does not believe he has anything to worry about from America.
"Right-thinking" people these days claim that if the US and Britain hadn't invaded Iraq, everything today would have been perfect. The US would have been loved. The Europeans, Arabs and the UN would be standing on line to support the US in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As British commentator Simon Jenkins put it in The Guardian on Tuesday, "If ever [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair hoped to carry his 'Western values agenda' on a white charger to the gates of Teheran, that hope vanished in the mire of Iraq."
Yet this is untrue. The US's difficulties with confronting Iran have little to do with the decision to invade Iraq. Rather, America's feckless diplomacy toward Iran to date is the result of the administration's early misunderstanding of Iraq and of Iranian and Arab interests.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration identified certain basic guiding realities and missed others. First there was the issue of Arab tyranny. As Bush recalled last September, "For decades, American policy sought to achieve peace in the Middle East by pursuing stability at the expense of liberty. The lack of freedom in that region helped create conditions where anger and resentment grew, and radicalism thrived, and terrorists found willing recruits."
Yet recognizing this basic reality did not lead the administration to adopt appropriate policies. Rather than promote liberty, which at its core revolves around a certain foundational understanding of human dignity, the administration promoted elections - fast elections - in Iraq and throughout the region.
In so doing, the administration placed the cart before the horse, with predictable results. The legacy of tyranny is hatred and dependence. And the values of hatred and dependence were those that were expressed at the ballot boxes in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. In all jihadists, often allied with Iran, were empowered while those that were considered moderates modified their positions in opposition to the US.
The Americans pushed for elections in the hopes of finding a silver bullet that would instantly solve the problem of tyranny in the Arab world. But in their rush, the Americans trampled the very liberal democrats they sought to empower.
These forces, who receive no money from Iran and Saudi Arabia to buy votes, and have no private militias to intimidate voters, couldn't compete against the likes of the Dawa party in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.
In Iraq, the one openly liberal party, led by Mithal al-Alousi, won one seat. In the Palestinian elections, all political parties were either directly or indirectly tied to terrorist organizations. And in Egypt, the supposedly liberal Kifaya party one-upped dictator Hosni Mubarak when it demanded to nullify Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
By pushing fast elections, the US entrapped itself. It inadvertently empowered its enemies and so was unable to embrace the duly elected governments. In opposing the forces it expended so much energy getting elected, the US was perceived as weak, foolish and hypocritical.
AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, Bush explained that the attacks showed that the friend of your enemy is also your enemy. As he put it last September, "America makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror, and those that harbor and support them, because they're equally guilty of murder."
Yet what Bush failed to note is the converse of that reality: The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. Here the distinction generally relates to Sunnis and Shi'ites. The administration's failure to grasp that just because Shi'ites and Sunnis are rivals doesn't mean that they will join forces with the US to fight one another, or won't join forces with one another to fight the US, has caused the Americans no end of difficulty.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration did recognize this truth. In its handling of the Iran-Iraq War, the Reagan administration adopted a policy of dual containment. The Americans helped both sides enough to ensure they could keep fighting, but too little to enable either side to emerge the victor. Rather than believing the fiction that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," the Reagan administration advanced US interests by using their rivalry to weaken both.
Rather than follow its predecessor's example, the Bush administration clung to the delusion that Shi'ites and Sunnis would ally with the US against one another. This fantasy has confounded the administration in every one of its subsequent initiatives toward Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinians.
In Iraq, for three years the Americans treated Mugtada al-Sadr, Teheran's man in Baghdad, as a potential ally due to the fact that he too is an enemy of al-Qaida. The delusion only ended finally when Sadr moved to Iran in February ahead of the US surge operation in Baghdad.
The Americans' treatment of Sadr is similar to its treatment of his state sponsor. Since the fall of Saddam, the Americans have repeated the mantra that Iran and Syria share America's interest in bringing stability to Iraq because the current instability destabilizes them.
But while it is true that the chaos in Iraq breeds instability in Syria and Iran, it does not follow that the Iranians and Syrians are interested in ending it.
Since Iran and Syria view the US as their enemy, their ideal scenario is for the US to bleed in Iraq while propping up a weak Shi'ite government that has no inclination or ability to threaten them. That is, for Iran and Syria, the current situation in Iraq aligns perfectly with their interests (which explains why they are working so diligently to maintain it).
As for the Arab world, the administration believes that since the Arabs oppose Iran's quest to become a regional nuclear power, they will help the US both in stabilizing Iraq and in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Here too, the administration confuses common interests with common agendas. The fact that the Arabs share common interests with the US does not make them allies. As a young Saudi imam put it this week to The Wall Street Journal, "We are waiting for the time to attack [the US]. Youth feel happy when the Taliban takes a town or when a helicopter comes down, killing Americans in Iraq. It is a very dangerous situation for the US in the whole Muslim world."
The fruits of America's disorientation were revealed in last month's three Saudi summits: the Hamas-Fatah summit, the King Abdullah-Ahmadinejad summit and the Arab League-Iranian summit.
Since last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah and more intensively since the publication of the Baker-Hamilton Commission report on Iraq last November, the Bush administration has been advancing a vision of an anti-Iranian Arab coalition, which will join forces with America to confront and defeat Teheran.
There has been no rational basis for this view since the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians responded last year to Iran's nuclear advances by announcing that they will get their own nukes. But it took last month's diplomatic cavalcade in Saudi Arabia to finally destroy the fantasy.
First there was the Hamas-Fatah summit in Mecca where Abdullah undermined the US by promising to pay Hamas terrorists a billion dollars in exchange for their agreement to let Fatah terrorists be their junior partners in government.
If that wasn't sufficient proof that Abdullah is not a friend, there was his warm and fuzzy love-fest with Ahmadinejad.
Their meeting shocked Israeli, American and British intelligence services, who perceived it as the culmination of a progressive Saudi estrangement from the US. It was preceded by a massive expansion of Saudi ties with China and Russia.
Any notion that the US could expect assistance from the Arabs in contending with Iran disintegrated a week later when Abdullah and Mubarak enthusiastically signed onto the Arab League and Iranian statement referring to the US presence in Iraq as an "illegal occupation."
Yet for all their overt anti-Americanism and competition with Iran to see who can destroy Israel first, the Arabs have not become Iran's allies. They do not want Iran to win its war against America. They want to play Iran and the US against one another. That is, the Arabs are implementing the double containment strategy that the US should have adopted toward them.
THE FACT of the matter is that the Americans are capable of learning from their mistakes. This week, the commander of US forces in Iraq General David Petraeus published a letter to the Iraqi people ahead of the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall. In it, he discussed the anti-American rallies that Sadr organized from Iran.
As Petraeus put it, "On this April 9th, some Iraqis reportedly may demonstrate against the coalition force presence in Iraq. That is their right in the new Iraq. It would only be fair, however, to note that they will be able to exercise that right because coalition forces liberated them from a tyrannical, barbaric regime that never would have permitted such freedom of expression."
In the end, the protests were ill attended. Now Sadr is whining that he will pull his support for the government as US forces destroy his militia in Diwaniyah and daily release information about Iranian support for the insurgency.
The success the US is now experiencing in Iraq is the result of a process of identifying and correcting mistakes. If such learning could take place regarding the US's regional strategy, there is every reason to believe that it will contend successfully with Iran and the Arab world. But to correct mistakes it is first necessary to recognize them.
The US is not failing to contend with Iran because it went to war in Iraq. It is failing because it is implementing policies that prefer imaginary silver bullets to real solutions for real problems.
There are no shortcuts in this war. But victory is still waiting at the end of the long and difficult road.