November 30, 2005
Iraq and Ping-Pong DiplomacyBy Tom Milstein
To get out of Iraq, first we must first know why we are in Iraq.
We did not invade Iraq to find Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction.
We did not invade Iraq to establish democracy in the Middle East.
Of course, nobody in a position of power will say so, but we invaded Iraq mainly to deter the predominant source of money and manpower used to attack us on 9/11: Saudi Arabia and its client, Islamic Fascism.
We invaded Iraq because Iraq shares a border with Saudi Arabia, and has a history of military antagonism to the United States. We are in Iraq for much the same reason we remained in West Germany during the Cold War: to establish a base of operations for the maintenance of deterrence against a perceived threat to the security of the United States. The scope and scale of the Saudi threat are of a different order than that of the Soviets. But the strategic principle is the same.
Of course deterrence only works when it can be sustained. We sustained deterrence against the Soviets not just by declaring the doctrine of 'massive retaliation,' but also by maintaining a stable and supportive base of operations in Western Europe. The Germans — as well as the French, the British, and the rest of Western Europe — might have detested their subordinate status to the American superpower, but the prospect of Soviet domination was a sobering antidote to all such 'Yankee go home' emotions.
We have no such stable base of support in Iraq. The Middle East is not about to flower into civil society, enlightenment, and free enterprise — not even with a new Marshall Plan. The Middle East is not Europe, and democracy is not a charismatic idea in the Middle East. Jihad is.
The invasion of Iraq has deterred further 9/11s, but it has not succeeded in institutionalizing itself the way America's presence in Europe institutionalized itself through NATO, as a permanent and legitimate form of deterrence called 'containment.' We have for the time being deterred Islamic Fascism from launching another attack on the U.S., by threatening the Saudi border, but we have not truly contained the Saudi menace the way we successfully contained Soviet menace to Europe in the Cold War, and the whole world can see why — we cannot 'NATO—ize' our mission because the gap between what America represents and Islamic political culture is too great.
America has a wolf by the ears in Iraq. We cannot let go without risking future 9/11s, and we may not be able to hold on in the face of declining support both domestically and internationally.
So a different means of sustaining deterrence must be found — a model not based on the Eurocentric Cold War against the Soviets, but rather on the Sino—American rapprochement, which split the Communist bloc and led the way forward from deterrence, through and beyond containment, to eventual victory over Communist totalitarianism.
The Sino—American rapprochement also grew out of a divisive war — the war in Vietnam. That war too was rooted in noble, but contradictory, objectives. On the one hand, we wished to promote a Western—oriented, democratic South Vietnam against the totalitarian depredations of the Communist North. On the other, we sought to extend the deterrence and containment model from Europe to Southeast Asia, establishing a balance of power against the threat of Communist expansion into and throughout the region. Based on our European NATO model, we thought that each of these aims depended on the other.
Out of this consideration came the decision to realign international politics by pursuing rapprochement with China, a policy which had been verboten for American policy—makers since the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. Maoist China was conventionally perceived to be the more ideologically radical and dangerous of the two rival Communist states, the more anti—American and internally the more totalitarian. But it was also much the weaker of the two, and President Nixon calculated that China's extremism was actually rooted in its isolated and disadvantaged position internationally relative to its Soviet rival.
The truth of this calculation yielded a diplomacy whose success shocked the world and effectively neutralized the negative geopolitical consequences of defeat in the Vietnamese War. Starting with the small gesture of an American table tennis team's visit to China, so—called "Ping—Pong Diplomacy" opened a new era of Sino—American relations. Indeed, the new US—China relationship brought real peace to Southeast Asia and ushered in an amazing burst of economic and social development. On the political front, the end of the Cold War and the downfall of the Soviet Union can be traced directly to this courageous initiative by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.
The Middle Eastern equivalent to Nixon and Kissinger's master stroke may already be underway. American policy seems to be reaching out to the long—repressed Shi'a branch of Islam in Iraq in order to create a majority government in Iraq that has real popular support. Such a government will, by the force of circumstance, have strong ties to Iran, the world center of Shi'a Islam. So empowered, Iraq's new government will need correspondingly less support from the U.S. Further attempts by the Saudi—sponsored al Qaeda—based insurgency to disrupt Iraq will become Iran's problem, not America's.
America's role in the Middle East can then recede from active military engagement to one of managing the balance between Islam's two great branches, just as in an earlier era it did between the Chinese and Russian Communist states. The threat of future 9/11's from the Saudis can be countered by the deterrent prospect of a Shiite conquest of Mecca and Medina, instead of requiring the U.S. Army on the Saudi border.
Wahhabi—dominated Sunni Islam, instead of enjoying the luxury of being able to single—mindedly indulge its passion against America and modernity, will find more pressing problems to occupy its attention. The oil—producing areas of Saudi Arabia itself are heavily Shiite, after all. Who knows? Perhaps out of this stalemate within Islam can come the Middle East equivalent of Europe's great compromise between the formerly warring Protestant and Catholic princes — a second Treaty of Westphalia.
America's exit strategy from Iraq needs to rooted in America's exit strategy from Vietnam: ping—pong diplomacy leading to rapprochement with Mao's China. Perhaps it already is.
Tom Milstein is executive director of a New York property management firm.