By Joschka Fischer
Can politics learn from history? Or is it subject to a fatal compulsion to repeat the same mistakes, despite the disastrous lessons of the past? President Bush’s new strategy for Iraq has posed anew this age-old philosophical and historical question.
Ostensibly, the president has embarked on a new political and military strategy for war-torn Iraq. Bush’s new course can be summarized under three headings: more American troops, more Iraqi responsibility and more U.S. training for more Iraqi troops.
If you apply this new plan to Iraq alone, two things immediately catch the eye: Almost all the proposals of the Baker-Hamilton report have been ignored, and the plan itself – in the face of the chaos in Iraq – is quite simplistic. In light of the failure of all previous "new strategies" for stabilizing Iraq, there is little to suggest that the newest "new strategy" will succeed any better, despite the additional 21,000 U.S. soldiers.
What is interesting and really new in the U.S. administration’s recently announced policy is the way it reaches beyond Iraq, to deal with Iran, Syria and the Gulf states. Here, unexpected and genuinely new decisions have been announced: An additional U.S. aircraft carrier group will be moved to the Persian Gulf; Patriot anti-aircraft missiles will be stationed in the Gulf states; and the additional 21,000 soldiers far exceed what the American generals had asked for to deal with Iraq. So one wonders about the purpose of this military build-up. One might almost think that Saddam was still alive and in power, so his overthrow had to be prepared all over again.
The surprise of Bush’s new policy is its shift of political focus from Iraq to its two immediate neighbors. Bush accuses Syria and Iran of interfering in Iraq, threatening its territorial integrity and endangering American troops, and, more generally, of seeking to undermine America’s allies in the region. If you add to this the seizure, on President Bush’s orders, of Iranian "diplomats" by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil, a completely new picture of the president’s plan comes to the fore: The "new strategy" does not follow the advice of the Baker-Hamilton report, but harks back to the disastrous strategy of the neocons. Iran is now in the superpower’s sights, and the U.S. approach brings to mind the preparatory phase of the Iraq war – down to the last detail.
Where does all this lead? Basically, there are two possibilities, one positive and one negative. Unfortunately, the positive outcome appears to be the less likely one.
If the threat of force – a force that the U.S. is quite obviously building – aims at preparing the ground for serious negotiations with Iran, there can and should be no objection. If, on the other hand, it represents an attempt to prepare the American public for a war against Iran, and a genuine intention to unleash such a war when the opportunity arises, the outcome would be an unmitigated disaster.
Unfortunately, this danger is all too real. Since the Bush administration views Iran’s nuclear program and hegemonic aspirations as the major threat to the region, its new strategy is based on a newly formed, undeclared anti-Iranian alliance with moderate Sunni Arab states and Israel. The nuclear program is the dynamic factor here, because it will set a timeline for action.
But air strikes on Iran, which America may see as a military solution, would not make Iraq safer; they would achieve exactly the opposite. Nor would the region as a whole be stabilized; on the contrary, it would be plunged into an abyss. And the dream of "regime change" in Tehran would not come true, either; rather, Iran’s democratic opposition would pay a high price, and the theocratic regime would only become stronger.
The political options for stabilizing Iraq, and the whole region, as well as for securing a long-term freeze of Iran’s nuclear program, have not yet been exhausted. The current state of Iran’s nuclear program does not call for immediate military action. Instead, the focus should be on diplomatic efforts to detach Syria from Iran and isolate the Tehran regime. But this presupposes American willingness to return to diplomacy and to talking to all the parties involved. Tehran is afraid of regional and international isolation. Moreover, the recent municipal elections in Iran have shown that betting on diplomacy and a transformation of Iran from within is a realistic option. So why the current threats against Iran?
The debacle in Iraq was foreseeable from the beginning, and America’s numerous partners and friends predicted it quite clearly in their warnings to the Bush administration. The mistake that the U.S. may be about to make is equally predictable: A war that is wrong will not be made right by extending it – that is the lesson of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The ideologically driven strategy of regime change by means of military force led the U.S. into the Iraq war disaster. Getting into Iraq and defeating Saddam was easy. But today, America is stuck there and knows neither how to win, nor how to get out. A mistake is not corrected by repeating it over and over again. Perseverance in error does not correct the error; it merely exacerbates it.
Following the launch of the new American policy, the old question of whether politics can learn from history will be answered again in the Middle East. Whatever the answer, the consequences – whether good or bad – will be far-reaching.
-Joschka Fischer was Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998-2005. A veteran leader in the Green Party, he is now a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. (Haaretz.com by arrangement with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org)