This commentary appeared in International Herald Tribune on February 27, 2007.
WASHINGTON: Somehow, the United States has maneuvered itself into a position where most Shiite and most Sunni, most Arabs and most Persians alike seem to regard America as their enemy.
In fact, one of the few things the warring factions have in common is their opposition to the United States.
American forces in Iraq are being attacked on one side by Sunni insurgents, ex-Baathists and Al Qaeda operatives, and there is no sign their hostility to the U.S. is abating.
These groups are also hostile to Iran, which is backing the other side in the civil war — Shiite parties that dominate the current Iraqi government and their armed militias.
How has the United States managed to provoke opposition from all sides in this conflict?
And why does Washington embrace a Shiite dominated government in Baghdad while seeking to isolate, coerce and destabilize that government's only regional ally, Iran?
"My enemy's enemy is my friend" has been a staple of realist statecraft since time immemorial. During the Napoleonic wars, Britain subsidized any government that would oppose the Corsican upstart. In 1941, responding to criticism over his embrace of Stalin's Russia, Winston Churchill declared that "if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make positive reference to the devil in the House of Commons." At the height of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon sent National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to Beijing in order to forge an informal alliance with Mao's China against the Soviet Union.
This same maxim drove American policy toward the Middle East throughout the Cold War. In the 1950s, as left-leaning regimes like that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser veered toward the Soviet Union, the United States engineered a coup in Iran in order to install the conservative regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When the shah fell to revolutionary Islamist forces in 1979, the U.S. shifted its support to neighboring Iraq, ruled by the leftist but secular Baathist government of Saddam Hussein.
With the end of the Cold War, American leaders began to feel themselves no longer bound by the traditional constraints of realpolitik. As the world's only superpower, the United States dispensed with balancing strategies in the Middle East.
Emboldened, Washington felt able to confront both Iraq and Iran simultaneously. Dual containment, as this policy came to be called, was not a neoconservative invention. It was first enunciated by the Clinton administration, which sought to isolate and destabilize both Iran and Iraq.
Dual containment worked so long as the regimes in Iran and Iraq hated each other even more than they hated the United States. Each contained the other, requiring only a minimum of additional effort from the United States to sustain the process for more than a decade.
But by invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the United States removed the principal props from the dual containment strategy without changing the underlying policy.
The Bush administration first installed a pro-Iranian regime in Kabul and then another in Baghdad. Suddenly, there no were no regional counterweights to Iran.
Both the Northern Alliance elements in Afghanistan and the Shiite factions in Iraq had been recipients of Iranian support long before the United States interested itself in their causes.
Both regimes also recognize that they will have to depend upon neighboring Iran long after the United States departs the region.
As a result, neither the Afghan nor Iraqi government is going to collaborate in a U.S. effort to isolate Iran, to contain its influence, or destabilize its regime.
That does not mean that the governments in Kabul or Baghdad will become Iranian puppets, but simply that they will never ally themselves with the United States against their powerful and friendly neighbor.
At the moment, American efforts in Middle East are neither containing Iran nor stabilizing Iraq. It is unlikely that the United States can succeed in either task as long as it tries to do both at the same time. Sometimes, even the world's only superpower must chose.
If stabilizing Iraq is the top priority of the United States, as most Americans currently believe it should be, then some accommodation with Iran is needed. This is because Iran is the only potential source of regional support for the U.S.-backed regime in Baghdad.
Such an accommodation was the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that President George W. Bush chose to ignore.
But if destabilizing Iran is the top priority, then the United States will need to abandon the pro-Iranian regime it has created in Iraq.
As long as America fails to make this invidious choice, U.S. troops will remain in the crosshairs of both Sunni and Shiite militants in Iraq, Iran will remain in the ascendance, and the Middle East will become more violent and unstable.
The United States may still be influential enough to do almost anything, but it is not powerful enough to do everything. When it tries, it risks achieving nothing.
James Dobbins, former U.S. assistant secretary of state, is the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
Explore All Topics »