Beyond Iraq and the End of the US Monopoly


Feb 17, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on February 17, 2004.

What did they know and when did they know it? This paraphrase of a famous line from the 1973 Watergate hearings is now convulsing both Washington and London in regard to reasons for the Iraq war. But whether leaders in both capitals sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is beside the point. The war has taken place, Iraq is occupied and the old system of regional security -- however imperfect -- is gone.

America, Britain and the other European allies now have no choice but to manage the future, not just of Iraq but also of the greater Middle East. They need a comprehensive joint strategy for a vocation that will last for a generation or more.

Trying to pacify, rebuild and reorientate Iraq in the direction of representative government is only one element in a series of efforts that must now be pursued to success. At least as germane to the war on terrorism, and hence regional "stability", is making sense of Afghanistan, with its legacy of fostering terror and resistance to the influence of outsiders. Meanwhile, Iran must be deflected from acquiring nuclear weapons. Political and economic development must be pursued throughout the region, both to tackle causes of support for terrorism and to reduce the spillover of social corrosion to Europe's Muslim populations. And the Arab-Israeli conflict must finally be brought to an end.

The US could do much of this on its own or with a limited coalition of the willing. But it is becoming clear that the American people will not stand for bearing the overwhelming part of a burden they believe should be shared throughout the west. Whether allies were needed for the making of war, they are certainly wanted to help with the making of peace. It is also becoming clear that there is little popular support in the US for a further application of the Bush administration's doc trine of pre-emptive military action, for example against Iran or Syria.

Nato is now in charge of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and will gradually advance its mandate beyond Kabul. Following a recent meeting of its defence ministers in Munich, the Alliance is also on the verge of taking over those Iraq duties now under the leadership of a Polish division.

Support is rising on both sides of the Atlantic for Nato to succeed the US-led occupation force on an enduring basis. Meanwhile, the US is beginning to understand that working directly with the European Union in Iraq - and perhaps beyond - would be sensible for a variety of reasons, including resources, skills and political cover. This could - and should - become a comprehensive US-EU strategic partnership throughout the greater Middle East.

For any of this to happen, the US must be willing to give up its monopoly on decision-making. This entails risks. Dilution of authority can lead to a dispersal of effort and undercut a central message of the Iraq war: that the US superpower can and will act on its own in defending its interests. But as Washington contemplates the rising costs of Iraq and Afghanistan and falling tolerance among the American people, it is a trade-off worth making.

The US must also be willing to accept some sensible and constructive European views - for example, that Iran should not be kept in pariah status, subjected to regime change or simply eliminated as a political operator in the Gulf.

Notably, Europe has taken the lead in getting the Iranians to be more forthcoming on their nuclear programmes, and the US is beginning to show more flexibility. More challenging is the European requirement that the US resume active prosecution of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But this has also become a strategic imperative for the US, both to succeed in Iraq and to deny al-Qaeda one of its most potent symbols - the alleged lack of US will to temper Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza.

The challenge of fashioning such a shared western strategy for the greater Middle East is far more important than squabbling over how the US and its allies got themselves into the current imbroglio - other than to ensure it does not happen again. This strategy must produce a comprehensive, multilateral security system for the area that will, in time, provide a place for all countries in the region. This is an ambition worthy of both the needs of and the possibilities for a new transatlantic compact.

The writer was US ambassador to Nato 1993-98 and is now a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation and president of the Atlantic Treaty Association.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.