The National Catholic Review
The Editors
When the Bush administration took the nation to war in Iraq, like the mythical Pandora it set loose a host of ills upon the world. The invasion opened the way for sectarian strife and civil war in Iraq; it assisted the advance of Shiite Islam across the Middle East; and it increased Israel’s vulnerability to hostile neighbors. It degraded U.S. military capacity; it lost the sympathy we had enjoyed after the 9/11 attacks; and it squandered our diplomatic capital. In the past, presidents or the Congress have established blue-ribbon committees to help governments escape problems of their own making. But in its apparent determination to ignore the Iraq Study Group and to continue to set its own, essentially military, policy in Iraq, the administration threatens to worsen the situation immeasurably.

The Iraq Study Group report is a serious accomplishment. It is a bipartisan document addressing an issue that has divided the country. It is also fearlessly honest, noting, for example, that the number of Iraqi casualties on a given day was more than 10 times what the military reported. Furthermore, it offers an integrated approach, encouraging diplomatic engagement and resolution of the other great regional issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a comprehensive settlement coupled with a phased military withdrawal aimed at forcing the Iraqis to stand on their own. In addition, the study group recommends increased spending on reconstruction and development for the Iraqi people, an effort encouraged by the outgoing operational commander in Iraq, Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s leading advocate of counterinsurgency strategy.

By contrast, the solution the administration appears to be preparing to announce seems to rely solely on military means. It may involve a temporary surge of troops into Iraq to tamp down the insurgency or a redeployment of U.S. troops that would allow the Iraqis to shoulder more of the burden of policing the insurgency, or both. The military option by itself, however, offers neither the victory some in the administration still seek, nor tools to contain the conflict and stabilize the region. The most additional troops the United States can muster is 40,000 to 50,000. According to standard military doctrine for dealing with counterinsurgencies, however, another quarter million troops would be needed to defeat the insurgency. Thus, the probable military options are likely only to prolong the dying as the United States prepares to withdraw.

The integrated approach recommended by the study group, by contrast, offers some hope of containing the conflict. It would reduce outside interference, curtail the spread of Shiite influence from Iran to Lebanon and curb growing hostility to Israel. It could also help prevent a regional war, whether among the Muslim nations of the region or between an Arab-Iranian alliance and Israel. By refusing to engage Iran and Syria and rejecting the importance of resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, the administration increases the risk of an escalating crisis across the Middle East too big for any nation or alliance to contain.

A less noted feature of the report consists of proposals to facilitate reconciliation in Iraq. Internal reconciliation is the sine qua non of any settlement. Five of the report’s 79 recommendations deal with the topic. The report urges that all parties, with the exception of Al Qaeda, become part of the process. As in northern Ireland, a major feature must be the disarmament of militias and their integration into society. The group also proposes that the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Arab League join in fostering the process, and it asks the United States to be open to any amnesty the Iraqis arrange. Progress toward reconciliation is all the more necessary now that Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not acquiesce in the domination of its fellow Sunnis by the more numerous Iraqi Shiites. The Saudi threat increases the risk both of a protracted war in Iraq and of regional conflict.

With the influence of moderate religious leaders in eclipse, it appears that any rapprochement between Shiite and Sunni Muslims must come between militarized factions of the two groups, making reconciliation all the harder to reach. So, while U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran by itself will not yield a way out of the Iraqi quagmire, it has the potential to augment the pressure for reconciliation. For if recognition by the United States bestows some measure of dignity on the two neighboring regimes, it may permit a chorus of voices to form urging moderation on the contending parties. Likewise, it may help reduce outside support to the insurgents, curb the infiltration of foreign militants and limit outside meddling. Like hope, the last item in Pandora’s box, the Iraq Study Group’s report offers the promise of one day calming the sea of troubles we now face.

Comments

Rick Duda | 12/29/2006 - 2:09pm
America Magazine,

I would like to start out by saying that I enjoy reading America Magazine very much. In fact, it is one of my primary sources for analysis of events in the world and in the church. Thank you.

Having said that, I was a little bit puzzled by your two references to "Shiite Islam" in "Shutting Pandora's Box." In the first paragraph you cite the "advance of Shiite Islam" as one of the deleterious effects of the war in Iraq and in fourth paragraph you cite "curtail[ment] of the spread of Shiite Islam" as a benefit of the integrated approach advanced by the Iraq Study Group.

I believe "Iranian influence" would have been a more apt phrase. I am not an expert on Islam nor on Middle East politics but it seems to me that the war's facilitation of the spread of Iranian influence (a religious state with nuclear ambitions and an anti-American agenda) is more to the point. While it is true that Iran is dominated by Shiite clerics, I do not believe that Iran's agenda is synonymous with "Shiite Islam."

If I were a Shiite Muslim, I would wonder whether the editors of America saw my religion itself as an evil whose spread should be resisted.

On the whole I agree with America Magazine's position on the war and on President Bush's apparent reaction to the Iraq Study Group's report. I think my question about this editorial is the result of an uncharacteristic lack of precision with language.

Rick Duda

Rick Duda | 12/29/2006 - 2:09pm
America Magazine,

I would like to start out by saying that I enjoy reading America Magazine very much. In fact, it is one of my primary sources for analysis of events in the world and in the church. Thank you.

Having said that, I was a little bit puzzled by your two references to "Shiite Islam" in "Shutting Pandora's Box." In the first paragraph you cite the "advance of Shiite Islam" as one of the deleterious effects of the war in Iraq and in fourth paragraph you cite "curtail[ment] of the spread of Shiite Islam" as a benefit of the integrated approach advanced by the Iraq Study Group.

I believe "Iranian influence" would have been a more apt phrase. I am not an expert on Islam nor on Middle East politics but it seems to me that the war's facilitation of the spread of Iranian influence (a religious state with nuclear ambitions and an anti-American agenda) is more to the point. While it is true that Iran is dominated by Shiite clerics, I do not believe that Iran's agenda is synonymous with "Shiite Islam."

If I were a Shiite Muslim, I would wonder whether the editors of America saw my religion itself as an evil whose spread should be resisted.

On the whole I agree with America Magazine's position on the war and on President Bush's apparent reaction to the Iraq Study Group's report. I think my question about this editorial is the result of an uncharacteristic lack of precision with language.

Rick Duda

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