Monday, October 24, 2011

Two Sorts of Mideast Extrication

In a single week, the US' prospective global participation level dropped by a couple of messy Middle Eastern affairs. Former Libyan dictator Qadhafi was captured and killed near his home in Libya, effectively ending our military involvement there, and President Obama announced that the US will withdraw its military forces completely from Iraq by the end of the year.

At least for the time being, the events in Libya should mean an end to hostilities in the civil conflict. The NATO alliance had its most successful military engagement there, achieving its objectives with a minimum of fuss and casualties to the alliance's member forces. The future for the country is far from assured, but the result gives it a chance for self-government, and, after it reactivates its oil economy, it could gain a degree of prosperity.

In the case of Iraq, we didn't really have a choice in the outcome, though Obama was quick to accept the Iraqis' decision to request our military's complete departure, which allowed him to claim fulfillment of one of his campaign promises. There were discussions to change the 2008 agreement between the Iraqis' government at the time, more or less the same they have now, and the Bush Administration, which required this departure by year-end. The negotiations broke down on the issue of whether US military would be given immunity against prosecution for crimes against Iraqis. It's a very likely premise to wreck any such discussion, basically a fundamental requirement for us to occupy another country and an unthinkable notion for any self-respecting nation which has not just suffered the indignity of being conquered.

In other words, the only terms Iraq under which it could have kept significant US forces would have been a surrender of its sovereignty. Not surprisingly, getting our forces out was one thing all of Iraq's factions could agree upon. There are still real potential problems going forward, besides a clear possibility of a reopening of internal conflict: We will have a substantial number of CIA operatives and Blackwater-type consultants operating in the country, with risks both to those individuals and possibly to Iraqis, and the largest embassy in the world is an attractive target for terrorists. The powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has threatened the embassy already, and there may still need to be a reckoning with him and his forces, if they destabilize the government or try to bring it too close to Iran's orbit of influence.

Although the circumstances and recent history are quite divergent, I'm struck by some of the similarities between Iraq's case and Libya's. Both countries' dictators were found hiding in holes and were rather brutally disposed of by their countrymen. Both countries are riven by tribal loyalties and breakaway tendencies from regions remote from the capital. Their national futures are cloudy but hopeful due to the potential oil revenues.

I'm beginning be to think there may some sort of Mideast multi-national political initiative in the offing, involving the nations recently liberated from their dictators (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) and such possible partners as Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, and (if it can shake its bonds) Syria. Such an alliance could be a powerful counter-force against an intransigent Israel and could even pose a challenge to Europe, which has rather clearly chosen to draw a clear line to keep its predominantly Muslim neighbors at a distance. As always, the trick for the US is to provide influence in a positive direction to these nations, helping to lead them toward what they should want to do for themselves, without being seen too clearly as directing their behavior.


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