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US Ambassador to Iraq Admits We've Opened Up a Pandora's Box

It's ugly but true. We need to set the local Sunnis against the foreign Sunnis, instead of uniting them against a common enemy -- us.
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United States Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad recently had a very frank conversation with Newsweek's Michael Hirsh. In this conversation, he admitted the United States has opened up a Pandora's Box in Iraq which might create a world with far more problems. He is also the first administration official to acknowledge the Iraq war might lead to a bigger and more dangerous regional war in the Middle East. And finally, the ambassador seems to concede that the US had no plan in Iraq until four months ago.

This kind of honesty makes you wonder how the ambassador got a job at the administration. But there is a reason behind this frank talk. The ambassador recognizes that if the government doesn't own up to some of the mistakes they've made, they'll have no credibility left -- this is a realization his bosses in the administration still have not come around to. So, he stands a fair chance of being punished for this transgression. No truth slips out of this White House without a price to pay.

Keep in mind, Khalilzad has gone on this campaign to make sure we salvage the mess we made in Iraq. The reason he is speaking out now is because he's afraid that if we leave Iraq now, we will have permanently botched the job. I share his concern, though we might not agree on strategy.

First, the ambassador points out that we might have started an enormous problem we can't keep a lid on if we leave Iraq soon:

"A Pandora's box has been opened. The future of the world is at stake here because this region, Iraq, is the defining challenge of our time ... We need to close this in a way that does not produce huge problems down the road, that ultimately produces isolationism at home and a world with far more security problems than at present."

Remember, there was no Pandora's Box in Iraq before we invaded. The US ambassador says it has been opened. Who opened it? Obviously, we did.

He says at the end that we could have a world with "far more security problems" than the present. Why? Because we unleashed sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites and allowed al-Qaeda into the country to set up a base of operations. Now that these forces have been put into motion, they will be exceedingly difficult to stop.

The ambassador agrees:

"People need to be clear what the stakes are here. If we were to do a premature withdrawal, there could be a Shia-Sunni war here that could spread beyond Iraq. And you could have Iran backing the Shias and Sunni Arab states backing the Sunnis. You could have a regional war that could go on for a very long time, and affect the security of oil supplies. Terrorists could take over part of this country and expand from here. And given the resources of Iraq, given the technical expertise of its people, it will make Afghanistan look like child's play."

Why did we not consider this possibility before we invaded? It makes you despair of democracy. We couldn't muster up 51 senators -- or just one president -- who were smart enough to realize this might happen. Ambassador Khalilzad paints this as a possible outcome if we leave Iraq prematurely. But the reality is that it is an outcome that is very likely no matter when we leave Iraq.

If we stay longer, are we really going to be able to resolve the Sunni-Shiite conflict? How does training the Shiite army -- because that is what we are doing right now when we train the "Iraqi" army -- help to resolve this conflict? It doesn't. It makes a Sunni bloodbath more likely. Are we under the delusion that when we strengthen the Shiite majority and then leave the country, that the Shiites will be munificent with their new found power?

By the way, I also love the way the ambassador is not abashed about letting you know this is about the oil. It is clearly not his only concern, but it is the first thing he mentions in his parade of horribles. After all, we must secure the oil.

If we stay, we get caught in the middle of a civil war and attract foreign terrorists who come to fight us. If we leave, the war breaks out immediately, possibly devolves into a region wide conflict and terrorists might have a base that makes Afghanistan look like child's play. In other words the ambassador is saying, if we stay there will be trouble, if we leave it might be double.

He's not alone. Professor Juan Cole, perhaps the preeminent expert on Iraq in the country, has said the same thing to us on The Young Turks. The professor says a complete withdrawal would lead to a disastrous region wide conflict. But that staying only exacerbates some of the problems in the country.

How did we get into this mess? You have your president and vice president to thank. But Ambassador Khalilzad says we shouldn't worry, they now have a plan.

"There is an idea that there is no plan, and we believe we do have a plan. We've worked very hard in the last four months to come up with a plan, and we're talking about how to communicate that more effectively to the Congress."

In the last four months?! My God man, what have you people been doing for the last two and a half years? You stumble into a war that opens up a Pandora's Box that could lead to a war that engulfs the Middle East and make Afghanistan look like child's play and you just came up with a plan four months ago?

The negligence of this administration is literally overwhelming. It takes my breath away. When I think of what we have in store for us and the world because of this war, it is hard not to be overwhelmed. The ambassador seems to at least have a grasp on the scale and nature of the problem. It is one of the very few positive signs we have seen out of this government. But now he asks us to trust this same administration to get it right in Iraq.

It's hard to get your credibility back when it is at flat zero. If they had done the ambassador's plan from the first day, we might have mitigated some of the damage. But after two and a half years of continually making the situation worse rather than better, it is hard to believe that all of a sudden we have got the right strategy to make it all better.

I think the reality is that it is too late. The Sunnis and the Shiites will fight -- they already are -- read the stories on death squads in the LA Times. I think we need to stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the future. We have to start strategizing for how we can make this conflict as painless as possible. Wishing it away will do no good. Standing in the middle of it might not do much good for the two sides either and will certainly do us a lot of harm.

I think the best way to resolve it is to separate the two sides (let alone the Kurds). Don't just give aid and comfort to the Shiites under the guise of a fictitious democracy. Every ounce of aid we give to the current Iraqi government is aid we give to just the Shiites, because they are not going to share it with the Sunnis in the name of good sportsmanship. Besides which, when will all the arms and training we're giving to this Shiite army turn around and be used against us? The minute the Iraqi Shiites sign a deal with the Iranian Shiites. We're raising an army against us. This is a terrible idea.

Instead, we need to give incentives to both sides to not fight -- against each other or us. But we can't do this until we stop pretending it's one happy democracy.

We can't encourage the Sunnis to fight against the foreign terrorists inside their territory right now because they are working together against us and the Shiites. But if we assured the local Sunnis that they would have control over that land, then they would have an incentive to root out the foreigners who would challenge that rule.

It's ugly but true. We need to set the local Sunnis against the foreign Sunnis, instead of uniting them against a common enemy -- us.

And on the other side, we can't just keep giving money and weapons to the Shiites and hope it all works out. This pipedream about a liberal democracy where the Iraqi interests will line up exactly with our own is nonsense. Far more likely is that their interests will line up with Iran. So, we need to make our aid conditional. We'll give you the money, but only if you do what we tell you.

By this, I don't mean, we'll give you weapons if you give us the oil. I mean, the gravy train stops if we think you are working against our interests in league with Iran. I mean, the weapons stop if you start killing Sunnis. I mean, the money stops if you establish a theocracy.

We have to get real and we have to do it quickly. We can't be having a conversation two years from now about how we just came up with a new plan. The question isn't when we withdraw, it's what we do in the meanwhile. If we stay on this wrong course in Iraq, we could stay for twenty years and it wouldn't do us a bit of good.

We have to figure out the right strategy first and then implement it in whatever time frame makes sense. Immediate withdrawal with no plan to clean up the mess is unacceptable and dangerous. Indefinite occupation is even worse. These things are clear and should already be accepted facts in the national conversation.

For my part, I think we should find a way to split Iraq as amicably as possible. You can call it the former Yugoslavia model. The Serbs, Croatians and the Bosnians were not going to be able stay together. So we mitigated the damage by separating them as best as we could. There were a lot of pitfalls along the way and left to their own devices, they would have had more ethnic cleansings and more civil wars. But the world worked together to find a solution that was not ideal, but the best we could do.

If we could do the same in Iraq, we would be a thousand times better off than we are now. If we don't change course, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia is going to look like a picnic compared to what happens in Iraq.

It's perfectly legitimate to think this solution is not the best one available. But what is not legitimate is to think our current strategy is working. We need to have a national debate on this issue and we need to do it right now.

More stay the course speeches like the one President Bush gave this morning will lead us further down the rabbit hole. We need to get out of the hole and figure out what direction we're going. Then we could move on to what should be the second part of the discussion -- in what time frame will we carry out our plan for Iraq?

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