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Ally with the Sunnis

Iraq: What Next?

The war in Iraq is lost--at least the original one, which was to make the place and then all of Arabia safe through democracy.

The "democratic peace"--the idea that only despots make war while democracies are basically pacific--is as old as the republic itself. But not even Woodrow Wilson, the most fervent believer in the idea, went to war against Wilhelmine Germany in 1917 for the sake of democracy. That was the ideological icing on a power-political cake. The Kaiser's U-boats were sinking U.S. ships, and his armies were threatening to devour all of Europe--the pivot of the global balance at the time. Power came first, pedagogy second--never mind the florid rhetoric of transcendence.

Yet Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed no such threat, and this mismeasure of the power realities--the most grievous mistake of statecraft--is the source of all our troubles. In truth, America's hardcore interests were menaced not by Iraq, but by its far more fearsome neighbor to the east, Iran. It is Iran that has sponsored terrorism from Berlin to Beirut, from Hamas to Hezbollah; Iran that has a viable nuclear program; and Iran that boasts the most powerful army east of Israel.

And now, the worst irony: By rushing into Iraq, the United States acted as unwitting handmaiden of Iran. First, by toppling Saddam and dissolving his army, the United States demolished the single-most important barrier to Iranian ambitions. Second, by dismantling the "republic of fear," the United States liberated the Shia majority from Sunni oppression, opening the way for a natural alliance between Qom (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq), the two ecclesiastical centers of Shiism. Third, by threatening Syria, the United States forced both of Iraq's flanking powers--Damascus and Tehran--into a marriage of convenience, which played out nicely in last summer's war in Lebanon. Finally, the United States embroiled itself in an endless insurgency that Iran can manipulate at will.

So the lesson for the future is this: Forget idealpolitik and think realpolitik. If you have to go to war, think security and stability first and democratic transcendence second. The imperative is to contain Iranian ambitions and to prevent a breakup of Iraq that will invite--nay, incite--Syria, Turkey, and Iran to carve up the place. To regain minimal stability, the United States must engineer at least a standoff between the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. If you can't beat them, join the weakest to hold off the strongest. This requires a painful change of paradigm: a U.S. deal with the Sunnis, who are the smallest player in this murderous game.

What? With those Baathist thugs? Think again. The Sunnis are fighting for their survival and a chunk of power that will assure them a voice in post-insurgency Iraq. Offer them protection and clout, and so begin to separate the indigenous militias from the foreign jihadists who care not one whit about Iraq but want to humiliate and expel the United States. Think even about reconstituting the Saddamite army--on the simple theory that the "national" forcethe United States is betting on is a contradiction in terms. Why would Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds--deadly enemies all--add up to a single army just because they wear the same uniforms?

Since the Sunni states in the neighborhood share America's interest in the containment of Iran and its Shia brethren, the United States could count on some useful allies in the background. (No, the Saudis and Jordanians, who have made a living on timidity, won't wade into the fray, but they can help discreetly.)

While masterminding an internal balance, the United States also must take care of external business. The point is not to salvage the Iraqi nation-state--a fiction if ever there was one--but to save Iraq's national space from neighboring predators. The tool here is deterrence, and the method is regrouping.Position U.S. forces athwart the most likely invasion routes from Syria and Iran and so signal to both that they would have to attack the United States if they attack Iraq.

The benefits are obvious. "Tripwire" or deterrent forces require fewer troops than the current order of battle. And, if fight they must, they can do so far from urban settings and play out their natural advantages: mobility, precision, and airpower. Fight them on your terms, not in densely populated Falluja.

What's wrong with this prescription? Alas, the United States, unlike imperial Great Britain, is not cut out for such a game. It demands too much dexterity and cynicism. It requires ditching lofty principles and acting in strictly strategic terms. Support whomever is weakest so as to maintain a balance of power onthe inside, but not too much lest your favorite du jour goes on a killing spree against the other two.

Scratch the rhetoric of regime change in Iran and Syria, but draw a line in the sand and threaten them with every B-2 and B-52 in the U.S. arsenal if they cross it. And then, with minimal exposure of your own (reduced) forces, dig in for the long haul. The message to friends and foes must be: We will be here forever because we can't afford to tuck tail--not in the world's most critical strategic arena.


Josef Joffe is visiting professor of political science at Stanford University and fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Stanford Institute for International Studies. He recently published ÜBERPOWER: AMERICA'S IMPERIAL TEMPTATION.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.