Eagle-eyed Columnist analyses global issues
When an official American report talks about collapse in Iraq and catastrophe sweeping through the region, its sheer novelty after years of denial gives it a certain credibility. Do not be fooled. The Iraq Study Groupâ€™s report is just as unrealistic as all the other plans for getting the United States out of Iraq without loss of face.
But do not assume that some disaster is going to shake the entire Middle East, either. It is just an American defeat, not the end of the world, and the wild talk about chaos spreading across the whole region is an almost exact parallel to the â€œdomino theoryâ€ that held sway in the US the last time it was losing a war in Vietnam. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once claimed â€œWe are the indispensable country,â€ but there are no indispensable countries.
There are some useful minor advances over previous Washington doctrine in the report, like the admission, finally, that almost all the resistance fighters in Iraq are local people â€” there are only 1,300 â€œforeign fightersâ€ in Iraq, according to the ISG, but there are no new ideas in it.
Fair enough; as the newly-appointed secretary of defence, Robert Gates, put it, â€œFrankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq.â€ But re-arranging the old ideas wonâ€™t work either.
Build up the Iraqi army and police? They are already divided into sectarian units that will not act against their own sect. Get Iran and Syria to help? Why on earth would they, after being painted as â€œrogue statesâ€ by Washington for the past six years? Broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal?
Sure, with a Bush administration that has never dared to put any pressure on Israel, Hamas rejectionists at the heart of the elected Palestinian administration, Lebanon trembling on the brink of a new civil war and a largely paralysed cabinet of discredited hawks clinging to power in Israel.
In any case, President George W. Bush, one of the worldâ€™s more stubborn individuals, will probably reject any recommendations that require abandoning his delusional optimism on the subject.
It is very unlikely that the bulk of the US troops will be out of Iraq before the next US election in November, 2008. However, it is very likely that they will be out of Iraq six months later, no matter whether the new president is a Democrat or a Republican. And what will happen then?
Iraq faces more slaughter, although nobody knows how much more. It might just break up into three parts, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, with only a few tens of thousands of extra deaths as the price of finally dissolving the state that was created almost 90 years ago.
The Shia Arabs might successfully subjugate the Sunni Arab minority, at a considerably larger cost in lives, and retain loose links with an entirely self-governing Kurdistan.
Or, most likely of all, the entire country might be dragged into a Lebanese-style civil war lasting for many years and killing hundreds of thousands more.
But the broader predictions of chaos spreading through the region borne by refugees and â€œIslamist terrorists,â€ of regimes toppling and Shia-Sunni conflicts erupting from Bahrain to Lebanon, are probably wrong. These dire predictions are about as credible as the old â€œdomino theory.â€ Just as the US administration exaggerated its power to effect change on the way in, so it overestimates the harm that it is likely to do by leaving.
And what if radical regimes do seize power in one or more of the major Arab states? Hard luck on the local people, of course, but even then the US doesnâ€™t pay a high price. Oil is the only thing the Middle East produces that is of real importance to the rest of the world, and it ultimately does not matter who runs these countries (except to their own people) because even the most radical regimes have to sell their oil.
Post-revolutionary Iran is one example; Gadaffiâ€™s Libya is another. They must have the oil income in order to feed their people.
Whatever Bush does now, it will all be over in another few years (except for the Iraqis, of course). And the interest level is already dropping in most capitals as people figure out that it will only be a small, local disaster (except for the Iraqis, of course.)
The writer is a London-based journalist
The Iraq study group report and reality