Dickey: Iraq's Next Five Years

In the early days of the Cold War, as the occupation of a defeated and divided Germany dragged on and questions were raised about the U.S. role on the far side of the Atlantic, the blunt British head of NATO cut through the diplomatic niceties. The goal, said Lord Ismay, was "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down."

It's still a useful formulation, in its way, for understanding the present and future in the Middle East. Washington's clear intent for decades has been to establish a large permanent American military presence in the region, and that is not likely to change no matter who is elected president in January. The main enemy the United States hopes to contain is revolutionary Iran. And one of the explicit reasons for invading Iraq was to make sure that Baghdad could never again threaten its neighbors—especially Israel and the oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf. Cutting through the diplomatic niceties, the legacy of Bush administration policy will remain: keep the Americans in, the Iranians out and the Iraqis down.

By those lights, eventually you might even be able to call the last five years a success, and some historians doubtless will. If, for instance, the United States manages to keep de facto dominance over the second-largest proven oil reserves in the Middle East, that could look very smart indeed. The old rank and file of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was never a large organization, will continue to be dislodged and decimated. A few years from now the last remnants of the original Al Qaeda in Afghanistan may have been captured, killed or expired from old age. (The evil geniuses behind 9/11 and most other major Al Qaeda attacks were hunted down in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates by March 2003. Others were caught in Southeast Asia. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with any of them.)

The occupation of Iraq might well settle into a rhythm where people there see their lives improving, even if it's a little like banging your head with a hammer because it feels good when you stop. Right now many Americans are rejoicing because the death toll in Iraq is back down to the levels of three years ago, but those numbers horrified us back then and they remain hard for the Iraqis to live with now.

If the violence continues to subside, ironically, so will pressure from the American public to withdraw the troops. Already it's lost count of the U.S. soldiers killed there (almost 4,000) and according to the latest "Political Knowledge Update" from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the American media have for the most part quit paying attention. In January the percentage who followed news of the Iraq war was half the number who followed stories about the death of "Brokeback Mountain" actor Heath Ledger.

If casualties are down and headlines fade, why pull out at all? Yet Iraqi resentment of the occupiers is going to fester even if the insurgency goes quiet for a while. The situation in that sense is a little like Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where everything seemed pretty peaceful; the Palestinians were quite passive from 1967 to 1987, and then they weren't.

To put the best face on the new Middle East, you'd have to use a magic mirror that would hide the oceans of blood spilled and the vast mountains of money spent by this administration. You'd have to ignore that old talk about making Iraq a beacon of hope and democracy for the region. You would need to forget the false premises presented to the public as justification for the invasion: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was in league with Al Qaeda. But that's not so hard. Selective amnesia often presents itself as the judgment of history. If Russian revisionists can rehabilitate Stalin, as they have, then Republican revisionists will no doubt work wonders with the legacy of George W. Bush. Creative minds, like Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's quintessential black comedy of the Cold War, can turn apocalypse into opportunity. Victory is theirs.

In the real world of the present, however, things are not so neat. U.S. military power is spread thin, and much of the hugely expensive American arsenal is irrelevant to modern warfare. Our economic power has been greatly weakened, our diplomacy is in disarray, and our loose ideology—what President Bush used to call his "freedom agenda"—has been disrespected by authoritarian allies like Egypt and discredited by Washington's refusal to recognize the elected Hamas government in the Palestinian territories.

All of the tools of statecraft belonging to the last great superpower, in fact, have been diminished and devalued over the last five years, and not only in the Middle East. As a result, almost two decades after the end of the old uppercase Cold War, there's a proliferation of lowercase cold wars, like the unstable stalemates with North Korea, Venezuela, Sudan—and the most challenging of all, the U.S. vs. Iran.

Here's how that particular cold war is likely to shape up:

Keep the Americans In. A massive U.S. military presence in the Middle East will continue indefinitely, and at least some of that force will be based in Iraq. When the United States took out Saddam Hussein, it essentially gave up any notion that the existing states in the region might balance Iran's power. The United States moved into the neighborhood to do that job itself. U.S. troops, planes and warships serve as a deterrent to any major aggression against Israel. They hope to deter any effort to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Inside Iraq, American forces will work to prop up more or less pliant governments (see below) while continuing to hunt for the Al Qaeda cells that cropped up there after Saddam Hussein's regime was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Keep the Iranians Out. That job is actually much harder now than it was five years ago. When the United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, it eliminated the mullahs' two most dangerous enemies in the region. Then the Bush administration helped install a government in Baghdad that is full of people with much longer and stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. So while American military force can keep Iran's army and its uniformed Revolutionary Guards at bay, the United States is fighting an uphill battle against diplomatic, economic, religious and economic incursions—not to mention dirty tricks and terrorism.

Nor is Iran's action limited to Iraq. Iran's supporters are increasingly restive in the Arab states of the gulf. The political and military forces of Iranian-backed Hizbullah are pushing slowly but persistently to take control of Lebanon. Hamas in Gaza, meanwhile, has become ever more reliant on Iran as it has been ever more isolated by the West. Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally, no longer has full confidence in the American ability to meet the Iranian challenge and is trying to pursue a more independent diplomatic course, alternating tough talk with reluctant conciliation.

And then there's the question of nukes. The United States continues to signal that some sort of military action against Iran could be launched, perhaps in concert with Israel, if the mullahs do not give up their uranium enrichment program. But unlike Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor, which the Israelis blew up in 1981, the Iranian nuclear program is widely dispersed. As a consequence, any bombing would likely be more generalized and punitive, and the results of such campaigns in the Middle East have a long history of unintended consequences. Libya greatly increased its anti-American terrorist activities after the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986; Saddam Hussein refused to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return after "Operation Desert Fox" pounded his capital in 1998. Israel tried to crush Hizbullah from the air in 2006 and failed.

Will the Bush administration launch air strikes against Iran anyway? The early retirement of the top American Middle East commander, CENTCOM's Adm. William J. Fallon, has added to speculation that it will. Fallon was an outspoken opponent of such operations. But one source close to the admiral, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggests the administration's real frustration is that it wants to seem crazy enough to do just about anything. This is very Cold War. It's Dr. Strangelove stuff. Back in 1969, President Richard Nixon called it "my madman theory": he hoped to convince the enemy he was so nuts he'd do just about anything, maybe even punch that nuclear button.

The mullahs, who play that game themselves, aren't impressed. Most likely Iran will become what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls a "virtual nuclear weapons state" in the next few years. It will have the ability to build a bomb but will keep the world guessing about whether it actually has one—much as Israel has tried to do for many years. The stalemate will continue, with the Iranian regime now protected by nuclear deterrence.

Keep the Iraqis Down. Even if Saddam Hussein had not been a tyrant, the nation-state he ruled would have frightened its neighbors. It was blessed with huge supplies of oil, rivers full of water, ample farmland and a population that was known as educated, industrious, tough and determined. Put those factors together with a powerful army and you had a regional superpower.

But that Iraq exists no more. Before, this nation-state was a battered heavyweight; now it's a quadriplegic on life support. The population is divided by sectarian strife and ethnic cleansing. The old national army was defeated and then dissolved by the Americans. The one that's been created since cannot function without them. In a world where a sophisticated air force is a nation's primary defense against foreign aggression, Iraq has a few secondhand helicopters and propeller-driven surveillance planes. Its land forces have little or no armor. Its logistics are handled by the United States. Indeed, without the Americans, Iraq would be defenseless, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. Which brings us full circle. Because the Iraqis are kept down, the Americans have to stay in to keep Iran out.

Postscript: One of the most depressing aspects of the Iraq fiasco has been its predictability. Anyone who doubts this should read NEWSWEEK's Feb. 3, 2003, article: "Perils of Victory: No One Doubts That America Will Win a War With Iraq. But Many Wonder If It Will Win the Peace."