The Big Pharaoh notices that Egypt is unhappy at how Iran supported Hamas's takeover of Gaza. Egypt is probably not alone. At the start of 2007 Richard Lugar argued that conflict in the Middle East was beginning to take on the character of a regional conflict. In the Washington Post article entitled "Beyond Baghdad" Lugar wrote:
At the center of this realignment is Iran, which is perceived to have emerged from our Iraq intervention as the big winner. We paved the way for a Shiite government in Iraq that is much friendlier to Iran than was Saddam Hussein. Bolstered by high oil revenue, Iran has meddled in Iraq, rigidly pursued a nuclear capability, and funded Hezbollah and Hamas.
But the pendulum of Middle East politics may be swinging back against Iranian assertiveness. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and others have become increasingly alarmed by Iran's behavior and by widening regional sectarian divisions. Because of this dynamic, U.S. bargaining power in the Middle East is growing. Moderate Arab states understand that the United States is an indispensable counterweight to Iran.
Today, Senator Lugar publicly announced that he no longer saw a reasonable possibility that a multiethnic Iraqi state could emerge from the current US strategy and counseled withdrawal. The Chicago Tribune reports:
Lugar said that sectarian strife in Iraq, stresses on the military and domestic divisions over the war "are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multisectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame."
In other words, Lugar now calculates that the US does not have the political will or the means to construct a unitary Iraq and had best seek other options. It is as close to an admission of defeat as possible without saying so openly. Lugar went on to say that some kind of plan of retreat should be agreed on now in order to avoid fracturing the nation. Later will be too late.
"A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq," Lugar said. "If the president waits until the presidential election campaign is in full swing, the intensity of confrontation on Iraq is likely to limit U.S. options."
And the way to craft a retreat would be to start with the Baker report recommendations. This, he probably believes, can serve as middle ground that both sides of the aisle can support.
Lugar cited the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker, as a "useful starting point for the development of a Plan B and a template for bipartisan cooperation."
The panel recommended a shift in focus to training Iraq troops, an intensified regional diplomacy effort and withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by March 2008.
Lugar suggested drawing down U.S. troops and redeploying remaining troops to Kuwait, Kurdish territories in northern Iraq or defensible positions outside urban areas of Iraq.
At heart, Senator Lugar's recommendations seem to be an attempt to reposition for what he believes to be a larger fight ahead. He does not want to quit so much as fight another day. Fight the Big One, which will require bipartisan support. Although the Senator doesn't say so openly, it is strongly hinted that what is at stake is the edifice of US alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The calculus runs thus: events in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza have suggested that Iran and its clients are gaining in strength vis a vis Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. If this trend is not reversed, it will eventually threaten America's position in the Middle East. Therefore Lugar is calculating that America must cut its losses and fall back.
But it is important to see what the position will be after the retreat. Having already determined that there will be no multiethnic successor state in Iraq, Lugar's endorsement of a plan to withdraw to Kurdistan and Kuwait essentially means abandoning Iraq to a monoethnic regime. And that can only be a Shi'ite regime. Whatever fig leaves of "troop training" and advisory missions are adopted for cover, this essential fact should not be obscured. It is simply a restatement of Lugar's key assumption: that America has lost the war. If so, we know who won it and that fact should be borne in mind at all times because it will be reflected in the subsequent position on the ground. Lugar is arguing is that America, not having the will to win in Iraq, must abandon it to a Shi'te regime and pull back to defensible positions to avoid dragging a vulnerable Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan into the maelstrom. Absent a bipartisan commitment to that "fight another day" strategy, the conservatives are likely to continue their fruitless attempt to win in Iraq, but absent liberal support will only make the failure more catastrophic, and in failing pull down the entire edifice of alliances in the Middle East. Reading between the lines it is probably safe to infer that Senator Lugar has been receiving many worried calls from American Sunni allies in the Middle East and probably from Israel, too.
That's Lugar's argument, near as I can make it out. It is not just Egypt that is watching the expansion of Iranian influence with increasing nervousness, it is Washington, too. My own belief is that the withdrawal which Senator Lugar proposes, however well intentioned, is now too late to effect. Given the national political division over the War on Terror, there is no obvious reason why a withdrawal into Kuwait or Kurdistan will slow down the forces of conflict which are in full cry. If anything they are likely to accelerate. The counterargument to Lugar's proposition has always been the assertion that however bad Iraq looks now it is nothing to what might follow upon a retreat. And if that means anything, it equates to a much greater stress on US Sunni allies, a greater load upon the military and a more fractured national consensus. The Big One is ceteris paribus going to be more stressful than its prequel.
Without American forces to moderate either al-Qaeda or the Shi'ite militias, all-out civil strife in Iraq is almost certain to follow. The Sunni states will be drawn into defending their bretheren, or watch them helplessly slaughtered. And that will probably occur by Sunni state support for al-Qaeda, which can break with any Iranian support and draw sustenance directly from its sectarian base. And the very same lack of a national consensus which handicapped winning the war which Senator Lugar now believes is lost will be sorely stressed in this subsequent conflict. A retreat is only useful if it improves a position. This proposed retreat confers no such benefit.
Yet Lugar's argument must be given its due. If the current strategy, soberly considered, is a losing one there is no sense continuing it. But there is equally no sensing exchanging a losing strategy for one that promises defeat at a greater rate, simply for the sake of change. Unless perhaps what Senator Lugar is really counting on is that once the liberals take ownership of policy, they will be obliged to ensure its victory and can count on conservatives, whose patriotism is likely to trump partisan feeling, to support it in any case. Then in some sense, what is being proposed is not so much a surrender in Iraq as a surrender in Washington. Let the liberals fight the war, because they will only consent to fight it under their banner and conservatives will support them with gritted teeth. Those are the terms of national victory. Surrender or lose.