The Magazine

A New Middle East, After All

What George W. Bush hath wrought.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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George W. Bush staked his presidency on his response to 9/11: on the proposition that the United States had to defeat the virulent forces loose in the Muslim world directly and militarily. In his last State of the Union address, delivered shortly after his first and only grand tour of the Middle East, Bush reaffirmed his intention to continue the fight everywhere he has committed American arms. It is way too soon to give the president a final grade, and it is surely tempting to flunk him, given the high-wire act the country has endured in Iraq. The denizens of the Middle East, however, will remember Bush as the most momentous American leader since an angry Thomas Jefferson sent men-of-war in pursuit of the Barbary pirates. His successor will not be able to walk away from what he has wrought. Let us consider the issues one by one--leaving aside for another day Iran and the menace of a Persian bomb.


The surge's success has put the administration more or less on autopilot: Neither Bush, nor his general, David Petraeus, nor a chastened Democratic Congress is going to abandon the surge through hasty troop reductions before Bush leaves office. Although the White House often seems bedeviled by the task of defining "victory" in Iraq, it really isn't that hard. Flawed and ugly as it is, Iraqi democracy stumbles forward. The Shiite and Sunni Arabs are slowly establishing representative political arrangements within their own communities that allow some diversity of opinion. With America's indispensable oversight, Iraq's Arabs and Kurds are gradually and painfully checking their worst passions and ambitions. As each community conquers its own demons, Iraqis develop the sentiments and patience to work across the sectarian divides. Given the totalitarian hell that was Saddam's Iraq, the violence that came with his fall, American negligence from 2003 to 2007, and the hostility of Tehran and the nearby Arab rulers to an American-midwifed democratic Iraq, this is an amazing achievement. The court intellectuals in Cairo, Riyadh, and Damascus usually treat the new Iraq with contempt and distortion, but they know that a democratic Iraq, even one born of the sin of American occupation, defies autocracy throughout the region.

Although the success of the counterinsurgency has opened up many avenues for political progress, the challenges remain large.

The still unscheduled referendum in which the people of Kirkuk and its environs are to vote on the status of that multiethnic city could possibly throw the north of the country into chaos. The Kurds will be tenacious about their "Jerusalem." Although they are somewhat disingenuous in their intentions, the Kurds want unchallenged control over Kirkuk's oil and would strongly prefer to have fewer Arabs living among them, especially Arabs who moved into Kurdish homes emptied by Saddam Hussein. Underestimating the passion of ethnically based nationalism has a bloody history, and Iraq's Kurds are a passionate, much-abused people. They will not allow Tamim province, which has Kirkuk's oil, to slip from their control to the central government's.

Yet odds are the Kurdish political elite, who have done very well since the invasion and are acutely aware of Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi Arab sensitivities about Kurdish nationalism, will continue to be sufficiently measured in their drive for independence to keep all hell from breaking loose. Right now, Kirkuk is a back-burner issue in the increasingly vibrant Iraqi political discussions. (Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds who would not have spoken to each other six months ago for fear of being murdered if caught in late-evening chats in "enemy" territory are now having civil exchanges all over Baghdad.) The Kurds know they could lose a referendum on Kirkuk at this time; Kurdish efforts to drive out and silence the potential "no" vote have not yet been sufficiently successful. Nonetheless, the Bush administration would be wise to have a rapid-reaction force ready to preempt Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen animosities in the north.

Since the surge has now reached the city of Mosul, just south of Kurdistan, it's a good time for the administration to suggest to the Kurds that the United States takes a dim view of land grabs not effected legally under the Iraqi constitution. Any Kurdish ethnic cleansing should be countered forcefully. The Kurds have no desire to confront U.S. troops, so a clear threat of force should keep the peace. And as long as Kurdish acquisitiveness is kept in check, a powerful Sunni-Shiite Arab alliance against the Kurds is unlikely. One of the surge's successes is that it has allowed for Kurdish-Arab problems to be worked out peacefully. In the process, a functioning, decentralized Iraq has started to take shape.