Thomas Friedman: Time for Plan B

Time to face facts: Staying the course is insanity. How many more people have to die for our mistake? The best we can do is try to minimize the calamity while getting out as fast as we can.

Time for Plan B
Published: August 4, 2006

It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.

When our top commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, tells a Senate Committee, as he did yesterday, that ‘the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it,’ it means that three years of efforts to democratize Iraq are not working. That means ‘staying the course’ is pointless, and it’s time to start thinking about Plan B – how we might disengage with the least damage possible.

It seemed to me over the last three years that, even with all the Bush team’s missteps, we had to give our Iraqi partners a chance to produce a transitional government, then write a constitution, then hold an election and then, finally, put together their first elected cabinet. But now they have done all of that – and the situation has only worsened.

The Sunni jihadists and Baathists are as dedicated as ever to making this U.S.-Iraqi democracy initiative fail. That, and the runaway sectarian violence resulting from having too few U.S. troops and allowing a militia culture to become embedded, have made Iraq a lawless mess.

Yes, I believe it was and remains hugely important to try to partner with Iraqis to create one good example in the heart of the Arab world of a decent, progressive state, where the politics of fear and tribalism do not reign – the politics that has produced all the pathologies of unemployment, religious intolerance and repression that make the Middle East so dangerous to itself and others.

But the administration now has to admit what anyone – including myself – who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.

Since the Bush team never gave us a Plan A for Iraq, it at least owes us a Plan B. It’s not easy. Here are my first thoughts about a Plan B and some of the implications.

I think we need to try a last-ditch Bosnia-like peace conference that would bring together all of Iraq’s factions and neighbors. Just as Bosnia could be solved only by an international peace force and the Dayton conference – involving Russia, Europe and the U.S., the powers most affected by Bosnia’s implosion – the civil war in Iraq can be quelled only by a coalition of those most affected by Iraq’s implosion: the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan, India, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Jordan. As in Bosnia, any solution will have to be some form of federalism, a division of oil wealth and policing by an international force, where needed.

For such a conference to come about, though, the U.S. would probably need to declare its intention to leave. Iraqis, other Arabs, Europeans and Chinese will get serious about helping to salvage Iraq only if they believe we are leaving and it will damage their interests.

What would be the consequences of leaving without such a last-ditch peace effort, or if it just fails? Iraq could erupt into a much wider civil war, drawing in its neighbors. Or, Iraqis might stare into this abyss and actually come to terms with each other on their own. Our presence may be part of the problem. It’s hard to know.

If Iraq opts for all-out civil war, its two million barrels a day will be off the market and oil could go above $100 a barrel. (That would, however, spur more investment in alternative fuels that could one day make us independent of this volatile region.)

Some fear that Iran will be the winner. But will it? Once we are out of Iraq, Iran will have to manage the boiling pot next door. That will be a huge problem for Iran. The historical enmity toward Iran by Iraqi Arabs – enmity temporarily focused on us – will re-emerge. And Iran will also have to compete with its ally Syria for influence in Iraq.

Yes, the best way to contain Iran would have been to produce a real Shiite-led democracy in Iraq, exposing the phony one in Tehran. But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option – the one Iran loves – is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes.

Finally, the war in Iraq has so divided us at home and abroad that leaving, while bringing other problems, might also make it easier to build coalitions to deal with post-U.S. Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. All these problems are connected. We need to deal with Iran and Syria, but from a position of strength – and that requires a broad coalition.

The longer we maintain a unilateral failing strategy in Iraq, the harder it will be to build such a coalition, and the stronger the enemies of freedom will become.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

Sorry, but Friedman has been such an asshat about this war from the very beginning that he should just apologize and shut the fuck up.

August 4, 2006 @ 3:38 am | Comment

Now he gets it! After 3 years, Tom decides to read TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and gets to the parts where Lawrence describes what good fighters the Arabs are. If he had only read that book as a student, he would never have been such an cheerleader for a policy doomed to failure.

August 4, 2006 @ 5:12 am | Comment

President Bush has indicated that this problem will be passed on to the next president, and I don’t see that statement being changed or spun by anyone in the administration. In my opinion, Bush is running out the clock so he doesn’t have to eat crow on this. If we do pull out, it will be in 2009 — the “last man to die for a mistake” may not even be 16 years old yet.

Given that the UK is now striking deals with individual states and US cities are signing treaties on emissions with other parts of the world, it appears that other countries have already written this administration off and are looking for ways to make America relevant in the world — and ways to get America to participate. Truly a remarkable event considering there are 30 months left in this presidency.

Oh, and about Saudi Arabia, largest producer of oil in the world and close neighbor of Iran, the country that they don’t get along with and are very worried about — you don’t suppose they have a say in this, do you? Let me tell you, they have no interest whatsoever in the US pulling out of Iran. If they come to a summit, they are going to stonewall forever, and for good reason. Personally I think they’re shrewder than that. I think they’ll continue to make George W. Bush hold their hand in public, and continute to make George W. Bush do their bidding in private.

Mr Friedman doesn’t seem to consider that maybe Saudi Arabia is pretty much happy with the current situation?

August 4, 2006 @ 10:50 am | Comment

My friend… miss a very important element of this whole dilemma in your dissertation. You say that we should hold a peace conference. Unfortunately, that overlooks a crucial variable in most liberal?s myopic thinking.

There are tens of thousands, no millions, of Islamic extremists who want to kill us. They don’t want peace. They wanted to kill us when Bill Clinton was president, they wanted to kill us when G Bush senior was President, they wanted us dead when Ronald Reagan was President, and most certainly when Jimmy Carter was president. This we know. So what makes you think that we can roll over and play nice and not all end up dead?

Liberals either want us to practice isolationism or to go out and sip wine with the French and make nice with everyone. None of this addresses the fact that there is a large part of the world?s population, who through indoctrination from childhood, are trained to kill Americans, and anyone else who loves democracy. It doesn’t matter if you have some left wing president in the White House. It’s not going to stop them in their tracks.

You can respond about how I’m wrong for a myriad of reasons, but none of them will address the reality of the world today. George Bush understands that reality. He also understands that democracies don’t make war with each other, and the only time that there will be total peace in the Middle East is when there are democratic nations living in harmony with their fellow democracies. Sorry, but this is the only true solution.

If you think that means the U.S. forcing their worldview on others, then so be it. If you want to see an end to the perpetual violence in the Middle East and northern Africa, then this is the only viable solution.

August 5, 2006 @ 1:07 am | Comment

The situation in Iraq represents the biggest foreign policy tragedy in recent US history, and Friedman outlines the only strategy that stands a chance of salvaging something positive out of this extremely complex debacle. The United States should announce to the entire world that it has made a gigantic miscalculation with respect to Iraq, and it should quietly and humbly adopt Plan B. Too much is at stake if it tries to do otherwise.

August 6, 2006 @ 4:24 am | Comment

Yeah, and it works so well to force democracy on people at gunpoint…

And please don’t bring up Germany and Japan after WW2. That comparison has been rebutted time and time again.

Look at reality, “truthteller.” Bush’s actions have inflamed the Middle East. The only measure by which he has succeeded is that he’s done a heckuva job creating new terrorists.

If you look at the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, there was much less violence. Why? Because the Clinton administration was actively engaged in the diplomatic process. Which is what Bush should have been doing as well. But he and his PNACers had their grandiose plan to remake the ME, and as soon as 9/11 gave them political cover, they embarked upon it. Now that the plan is in flames around them, what’s their solution? Broaden the war! It’s utter insanity, and we are all going to pay dearly for it.

And Paul, I wouldn’t be holding your breath for that humble acknowledgment of their monumental f**k-up. It will never happen. They are like gamblers on the verge of loosing everything, whose solution is to go double or nothing and bet the mortgage and their childrens’ college fun.

August 6, 2006 @ 11:18 am | Comment

I can’t help but to agree on the point of Tom Friedman finally shuttering his word-hole. But I don’t think that will happen.

“[an Iraqi Civil War] would, however, spur more investment in alternative fuels that could one day make us independent of this volatile region.” So he wants to let our fragile little fantasy world to collapse around us while some private sector nitwits figure out how they can gouge us for an alternate energy? Thanks Tom, your really standing up for everyone on this one. We wouldn’t want to figure out how to fill our tanks with alternative fuel before Tom and his friends can figure out how to fill their pockets with our cash.

Seesh. What a jerk.

August 7, 2006 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

I am surprised how ignorant many of us are about the war. War only creates more enemies and poor economy for long term. Have we forgotten the good old Clinton times when everyone was occupied and had a nice job! When our country was aming for the stars (research, technology and a trillion dollar surplus).
Why do these conservatives have to keep bringing Cinton or other presidents into this picture? The mess has been created by W and no one else. And the only side-effect of a civil war in Iraq is not all hybrid cars back home but guarding your own backyard day and night.
BTW, before we attacked Iraq there was not a single Iraqi terrorist who had harmed any American anywhere in the world– W just created 1000’s of them. Infact Iraqi muslims are more liberal and do not hate the western world.
Instead of bombing Iraq we should be selling American stuff to them and creating more jobs back home for us. A disrupted liberal country like Iraq, Lebanon etc. also means a depleted market for our technology and new products.
We can “hail” Bush as much as we want until everything percolates into our backyard and then there is no escape. We are spending more money protecting ourselves from faceless enemies– who created them? Be at least honest while answering the question.
When Jesus said “love thy enemy” he probably meant “Don’t kill them” ! Why is the simple notion so hard to get?

August 9, 2006 @ 12:32 am | Comment

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