A Kissinger gambit in Iraq? Not yet

Henry Kissinger is first and foremost a historian of European Great Power politics. The first rule of that long history is to split one's most powerful opponents and play them against each other. All the Euro Powers tried it, century after century.

It does work. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger split the Sino-Soviet Bloc with their "opening to China" in 1969-77. They thereby weakened the Soviet Empire, allowing the US to retreat from Vietnam and still win the Cold War. The Kissinger gambit was a master stroke of power politics. It was the best option in a time of American retreat.

Today, a Kissinger gambit in Iraq would play off the two biggest forces there: The minority Sunnis against the majority Shiites. That idea is now being publicly pushed by the Saudi ruling family, who are Sunni fundamentalists and therefore lethally threatened by Shiite imperialism from Iran. (Got that, Congressman Reyes? This is important! Pretend it's WWE Team Wrestling.) 

To get us to support the Sunnis against Iran, the Saudis may even be willing to make peace with Israel. Israel's Prime Minister Olmert has just met with Prince Bandar in Jordan to explore the possibilities.

A Saudi official just wrote in the Washington Post that if the US leaves Iraq,
"...one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis. ... Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense.  ... To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks --- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse."
To hear the Saudi regime tell it, the majority Shiites in Iraq are already falling into the grip of Iran, and there's nothing we can do about it. They are probably overstating their case. But we know that two of the most dangerous Shiite militias are in fact in the pocket of Iran.

Pulling a Kissinger option in Iraq would mean a major shift in American policy.  An open split between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a would have immense moral, humanitarian and political consequences that need to be carefully weighed.

Unlike the cynical old European Powers, the US wants to believe it is acting morally as well as practically.  For Nixon and Kissinger there wasn't much of a moral choice between China and the Soviets. Similarly, in the 1980s the US did little to halt the war between Iraq and Iran. There seemed to be little moral difference between the two sides. But perhaps we were more willing to tolerate that sort of bloodletting during the Cold War, when even Democrats understood that our own existence was at stake.

I do not believe, in fact, that the US should take the Kissinger option in Iraq --- not yet. But the time may come when we may have to think about it.

Here are some arguments pro and con.

Arguments Pro

A strong case can be made that we are facing two threatening powers are arising in the Middle East. Both are totalitarian Islamists. Both are only a few years away from nuclear weapons. Both derive from centuries of fervently hating the West, Christians, atheists and Jews --- also Hindus and Buddhists, who are frequently bombed in places like India and Thailand by Islamist fanatics.

Islamic radicals on both sides are trying everything to export their supremacist ideology to the rest of the world. Iran-sponsored Hezbollah can now be found in South America, and Saudi-paid imams populate American mosques.  Both wings of fundamentalist Islam really intend to conquer the world.

To make things even worse, it is quite possible that the most extreme factions in Iran are willing to risk nuclear war -- against Israel, and perhaps against a long list of other enemies. They certainly talk that way, and they have a long history of martyrdom operations.


According to Pedro Escobar in the Asia Times,
"It's important to remember that Ahmadinejad, more than a politician, is fundamentally a believer in the Mahdi. (I.e., the return of the Shiite Messiah). Ahmadinejad even has his own roadmap for the return of the Mahdi; he drew it himself. ...

... the Ahmadinejad faction --- known as Isaargaraan ("the Self-Sacrificers") - maintains a huge, countrywide popular base in the military-security establishment, in the tens of millions, ranging from the Pasdaran - the Revolutionary Guard - to the Bassijis, the hardcore paramilitary, also known as "the army of 20 million", and expanding to the pious, apolitical, downtrodden masses ..."
As Ahmadinejad keeps saying, "Martyrdom is powerful." Tehran might risk a nuclear war and damn the consequences for its own people.

The Saudis are not our "friends," contrary to media hype. They are allied to us because of the West's thirst for oil, while we protect them with our massive naval presence around the Gulf. The Saudis seem to think that Iran can be contained by a "Sunni crescent" from Egypt to Baghdad  to oppose the "Shiite Crescent" that now runs from Lebanon to Tehran. 

Arguments against

There are compelling reasons why the time is not ripe now for switching to a pro-Sunni policy in Iraq. At the present time playing to a split is premature,  immoral and inhumane.

1. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is a secular fascist party modeled on Mussolini and Hitler. It found a way to control the Kurds, Shiites and all the rest --- through constant terror, torture, spying on the population, propaganda, and all the other instruments of tyranny. In effect, we would be taking the side of the tyrannical Saddamites, even if Saddam himself were hanged. George W. Bush didn't overthrow one tyrant to bring back another.

2. We have given our solemn commitment to nationalist Iraqis to support an elected government that could balance all factions in a peaceful way.  The current Parliamentary coalition is only six months old.  Twelve million Iraqis risked their lives to vote for it. The elected government is still trying to make that work.  While there are limits to our capacity to sustain that policy, we have not yet given the elected government enough time to see if it can survive.

The United States is morally and humanely obligated to see it through --- unless the situation deteriorates so greatly that the policy cannot be sustained. We are not there yet, but we could be, by 2008.

3. A full-scale Sunni-Shi'a civil war in Iraq would be a humanitarian catastrophe. We must help individual Iraqis escape whenever possible, and perhaps compensate them for damage inadvertently incurred through our actions. One way to do that might be to support a three-way division of Iraq with clearly defined sanctuaries for Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis. In return for such help, the United States can insist that the three provinces adhere to non-aggression against each other. Ideally, they would negotiate a share of oil revenues that would incentivize all sides to compromise. But we have been trying now for five years, and so far things are not settling down.

4. Over the long-term the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy makes historical sense. It has worked before: In Germany, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. It was how we won the Cold War and WW II. Democracy may yet work in Iraq, and democratic capitalism does lead to prosperity and a big reluctance to blow it all on war.

The trouble is that we have no idea how long such a peaceful  political evolution would take in the Middle East. The radicals in Iraq don't mind blowing up hundreds of civilians praying in their mosques as often as it takes to destroy the elected government. And America is impatient.

Over the next decade or two, therefore, we may have to settle for the Kissinger option in Iraq, and hope that Sunnis and Shiites slowly evolve in a more peaceful direction.

Bottom-line: Is it time for a Kissinger option in Iraq? Not until the democratic road is exhausted and past hope. We may know in two or three years.

James Lewis blogs at Dangerous Times.
Henry Kissinger is first and foremost a historian of European Great Power politics. The first rule of that long history is to split one's most powerful opponents and play them against each other. All the Euro Powers tried it, century after century.

It does work. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger split the Sino-Soviet Bloc with their "opening to China" in 1969-77. They thereby weakened the Soviet Empire, allowing the US to retreat from Vietnam and still win the Cold War. The Kissinger gambit was a master stroke of power politics. It was the best option in a time of American retreat.

Today, a Kissinger gambit in Iraq would play off the two biggest forces there: The minority Sunnis against the majority Shiites. That idea is now being publicly pushed by the Saudi ruling family, who are Sunni fundamentalists and therefore lethally threatened by Shiite imperialism from Iran. (Got that, Congressman Reyes? This is important! Pretend it's WWE Team Wrestling.) 

To get us to support the Sunnis against Iran, the Saudis may even be willing to make peace with Israel. Israel's Prime Minister Olmert has just met with Prince Bandar in Jordan to explore the possibilities.

A Saudi official just wrote in the Washington Post that if the US leaves Iraq,
"...one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis. ... Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense.  ... To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks --- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse."
To hear the Saudi regime tell it, the majority Shiites in Iraq are already falling into the grip of Iran, and there's nothing we can do about it. They are probably overstating their case. But we know that two of the most dangerous Shiite militias are in fact in the pocket of Iran.

Pulling a Kissinger option in Iraq would mean a major shift in American policy.  An open split between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a would have immense moral, humanitarian and political consequences that need to be carefully weighed.

Unlike the cynical old European Powers, the US wants to believe it is acting morally as well as practically.  For Nixon and Kissinger there wasn't much of a moral choice between China and the Soviets. Similarly, in the 1980s the US did little to halt the war between Iraq and Iran. There seemed to be little moral difference between the two sides. But perhaps we were more willing to tolerate that sort of bloodletting during the Cold War, when even Democrats understood that our own existence was at stake.

I do not believe, in fact, that the US should take the Kissinger option in Iraq --- not yet. But the time may come when we may have to think about it.

Here are some arguments pro and con.

Arguments Pro

A strong case can be made that we are facing two threatening powers are arising in the Middle East. Both are totalitarian Islamists. Both are only a few years away from nuclear weapons. Both derive from centuries of fervently hating the West, Christians, atheists and Jews --- also Hindus and Buddhists, who are frequently bombed in places like India and Thailand by Islamist fanatics.

Islamic radicals on both sides are trying everything to export their supremacist ideology to the rest of the world. Iran-sponsored Hezbollah can now be found in South America, and Saudi-paid imams populate American mosques.  Both wings of fundamentalist Islam really intend to conquer the world.

To make things even worse, it is quite possible that the most extreme factions in Iran are willing to risk nuclear war -- against Israel, and perhaps against a long list of other enemies. They certainly talk that way, and they have a long history of martyrdom operations.


According to Pedro Escobar in the Asia Times,
"It's important to remember that Ahmadinejad, more than a politician, is fundamentally a believer in the Mahdi. (I.e., the return of the Shiite Messiah). Ahmadinejad even has his own roadmap for the return of the Mahdi; he drew it himself. ...

... the Ahmadinejad faction --- known as Isaargaraan ("the Self-Sacrificers") - maintains a huge, countrywide popular base in the military-security establishment, in the tens of millions, ranging from the Pasdaran - the Revolutionary Guard - to the Bassijis, the hardcore paramilitary, also known as "the army of 20 million", and expanding to the pious, apolitical, downtrodden masses ..."
As Ahmadinejad keeps saying, "Martyrdom is powerful." Tehran might risk a nuclear war and damn the consequences for its own people.

The Saudis are not our "friends," contrary to media hype. They are allied to us because of the West's thirst for oil, while we protect them with our massive naval presence around the Gulf. The Saudis seem to think that Iran can be contained by a "Sunni crescent" from Egypt to Baghdad  to oppose the "Shiite Crescent" that now runs from Lebanon to Tehran. 

Arguments against

There are compelling reasons why the time is not ripe now for switching to a pro-Sunni policy in Iraq. At the present time playing to a split is premature,  immoral and inhumane.

1. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is a secular fascist party modeled on Mussolini and Hitler. It found a way to control the Kurds, Shiites and all the rest --- through constant terror, torture, spying on the population, propaganda, and all the other instruments of tyranny. In effect, we would be taking the side of the tyrannical Saddamites, even if Saddam himself were hanged. George W. Bush didn't overthrow one tyrant to bring back another.

2. We have given our solemn commitment to nationalist Iraqis to support an elected government that could balance all factions in a peaceful way.  The current Parliamentary coalition is only six months old.  Twelve million Iraqis risked their lives to vote for it. The elected government is still trying to make that work.  While there are limits to our capacity to sustain that policy, we have not yet given the elected government enough time to see if it can survive.

The United States is morally and humanely obligated to see it through --- unless the situation deteriorates so greatly that the policy cannot be sustained. We are not there yet, but we could be, by 2008.

3. A full-scale Sunni-Shi'a civil war in Iraq would be a humanitarian catastrophe. We must help individual Iraqis escape whenever possible, and perhaps compensate them for damage inadvertently incurred through our actions. One way to do that might be to support a three-way division of Iraq with clearly defined sanctuaries for Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis. In return for such help, the United States can insist that the three provinces adhere to non-aggression against each other. Ideally, they would negotiate a share of oil revenues that would incentivize all sides to compromise. But we have been trying now for five years, and so far things are not settling down.

4. Over the long-term the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy makes historical sense. It has worked before: In Germany, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. It was how we won the Cold War and WW II. Democracy may yet work in Iraq, and democratic capitalism does lead to prosperity and a big reluctance to blow it all on war.

The trouble is that we have no idea how long such a peaceful  political evolution would take in the Middle East. The radicals in Iraq don't mind blowing up hundreds of civilians praying in their mosques as often as it takes to destroy the elected government. And America is impatient.

Over the next decade or two, therefore, we may have to settle for the Kissinger option in Iraq, and hope that Sunnis and Shiites slowly evolve in a more peaceful direction.

Bottom-line: Is it time for a Kissinger option in Iraq? Not until the democratic road is exhausted and past hope. We may know in two or three years.

James Lewis blogs at Dangerous Times.