Saturday 17 March 2007

US and Iraq: Post-Pottery Barn Rules

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 17 March 2007.


Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s ominous pre-war warning, "You break it, you've bought it", set the tone for the public debate on Iraq for years to come. How ever bad Iraq got, the US would have to deal with it, because the American-led invasion had released numerous unforeseen, though hardly unforeseeable, consequences.

If last week's New York Times interview with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is any indication of where the American public debate stands today, and the new guiding principle really is, as she says, "the American people are done with Iraq", then the era of the "Pottery Barn rules" has given way to something much worse.

Now, just to be clear, I am not trying to take sides in the American presidential race. The issue here is not which candidate said what, but how the campaign is revealing the underlying public mood -- the view people have of the Iraq saga and their country’s international responsibility more generally. For anyone concerned with international affairs and conflict resolution, there is a deeply worrying trend developing here.

What stands out most in the Clinton interview is the willingness to have America wash its hands of the whole Iraq debacle, even if things get substantially worse. Sentences like, "They are not done killing themselves" and "This is an Iraqi problem — we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves." are only the general flavour. It gets even more specific and more disturbing.

The interviewer asks about the limitations of this stand-off-and-pull-out approach, suggesting, "it would put American troops pretty much in the position of being bystanders if there was to be an escalation of the civil conflict of sectarian attack... sitting in their bases while civilians were being killed just outside the gates". Clinton responds, "That’s exactly right, and that may be inevitable."

Her justification is that this approach "certainly may be the only way to concentrate the attention of the [Iraqi] parties", continuing, "It may only be that kind of position that will get the Sunnis and the Shiites to finally say, 'They really might mean it. You know what? We might be left to our own devices. We’ll have nobody there to turn to. So maybe we ought to accelerate what we need to do on our own behalf.'"

Arguing that Baghdad needs a wake-up call today is one thing, but this kind of language is horrifying, because, in Iraq, it is more than likely that for many of the key actors behind the violence, "what we need to do on our own behalf", will mean massive "sectarian cleansing" and the deaths of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians. It is not something anyone can just walk away from. Indeed, the US and the rest of the world have pledged never to walk away from such situations.

At the UN World Summit in September 2005, the world's heads of state and government unanimously accepted the concept of "Responsibility to Protect", or R2P. The Security Council has also accepted the general principle, specifically referring to it in resolutions. Developed in the preceding years by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the R2P doctrine is based on a straightforward idea. It says that while the state itself has the primary responsibility to protect its own people from mass violence, atrocity crimes and other such man-made catastrophes, when a state fails to meet that responsibility, either through incapacity or ill-will, then the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community -- to be exercised by a variety of measures including, if absolutely necessary, military force.

Thus, even if the US had not invaded Iraq, it could not sit back in an extreme situation and do nothing in the face of mass violence and atrocity crimes. It would be obligated to stop the killing. The fact that the current mayhem in Iraq can, in large part, be placed at Washington's doorstep, only increases American responsibility in this matter.

The public may feel they are "done with Iraq", but the US cannot simply walk away from the mess it has made and pretend things will somehow sort them themselves out. A different way to address the spiraling sectarianism would be to try to forge a national compact among Iraqis, with Washington pressuring all sides across the political spectrum to reach the kind of broad compromise that the Constitution failed to deliver.

Given the dreadful situation in Iraq today, there is no guarantee this path would work, of course, but it might. Clinton is right to say "there are no good options" in Iraq, but there are less awful choices than sitting back and watching an even more deadly bloodbath unfold.

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