September 17, 2007

Something To Talk About

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As I was walking to dinner the other night, I was bombarded with flyers for different organizations and people yelling slogans at me. One of the comments I heard was: “Don’t support the war, bring our troops home.” This has become a common catchphrase, but this policy is as misguided as that of leaving over 100,000 troops in Iraq for an indefinite amount of time. Supporting or disagreeing with the war is no longer the issue. The real foreign policy issue that so many people seem to overlook is that a stable Iraq depends on how we handle the other nations in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iran.
We cannot look at Iraq in isolation. In fact, Iraq has become somewhat of a proxy war between the Sunnis and the Shias. Throughout history, the Sunnis and the Shias have been hostile toward each other. Historically, the seat of Sunni power has been Saudi Arabia and the center of Shia power has been Iran. The Sunnis comprise a majority in most nations in the Middle East except for Iran, Iraq and a few other countries. Nevertheless, the Sunni minority of Iraq has ruled the country for most of its history. Therefore, Iran has a vested interest in seeing Iraq become a Shia-led country.
Iran and the United States actually have some common interests. Iran supported the rebuilding of Afghanistan because it saw a new, freely elected government, as a welcomed departure from the Sunni Taliban. You probably just fainted, but it is true. America and Iran worked together in the not-so-distant past. There is a window of opportunity to get this type of support in Iraq. However, we have not shown any willingness to do so. Instead, we have given billions of dollars of weaponry to the Saudis and have included Iran in the “axis of evil.” The Shias are a minority in the Arab world. The way for them to get ahead is not via terrorism, but with elections and politics. The Iranians have been supportive of elections in Iraq and want a stable government to exist there, albeit without U.S. involvement. With Iran being the center of Shia power, we need to start a discourse with the Iranians if we ever want to see a secure and stable Iraq.
In conjunction with opening diplomacy with the Iranians, we need to be firm with our Sunni allies. Historically, America has supported and helped Sunni regimes and nations. We may see it as helping the Middle East, but many living in that part of the world see it as helping the Sunnis. Saudi Arabia has been one of, if not the biggest, sponsor of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, we continue to give it money, weapons, and other forms of support. When we engage in this type of support for Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Shias see it as a threat. We need to be smarter about deciding whom to support. As much as Iran supports a freely elected Shia government in Iraq, Saudi Arabia opposes it. Logic would tell us to support Iran, but we don’t and we shouldn’t. However, a happy medium needs to be reached.
Nobody has the answer to the question of Iraq and our role in the Middle East. If we leave our soldiers there, we risk the deaths of countless more Americans. If we withdraw, radical forces will probably take over and Iraq will become a battleground for sectarian armies. Whatever policy we choose, the way to mitigate the consequences is by engaging Iran and being tougher with Saudi Arabia. Certainly this is easier than it sounds. However, the Middle East will not go away and we need to deal with it now.