Center for American Progress

Think Local, Act Regional: Iraq’s Conflicts Require Forceful but Targeted Diplomacy

Think Local, Act Regional: Iraq’s Conflicts Require Forceful but Targeted Diplomacy

Talking is a step in the right direction, but more tailored diplomatic efforts to resolve Iraq’s different conflicts are required, writes Brian Katulis.

U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s point man on Iraq, will spend this weekend at a table with representatives from almost every country in the Middle East with a stake in preventing Iraq’s multiple conflicts from spilling over the border. That’s a welcome first step, providing the meeting does not dissolve into name-calling and bullying, but it is at best only a first step.

Rice is certainly wise to (finally) agree to the United States attending a conference where all of Iraq’s neighbors can discuss how they can act more responsibly to advance their common interest in not seeing Iraq’s conflicts spread beyond its borders. These discussions can help the United States implement a realistic strategy to redeploy its troops in the region without further exacerbating internal divisions within Iraq. But real working solutions will require forceful but tailored diplomacy involving key players with direct stakes in each of Iraq’s conflicts.

The United States must take a more targeted approach to diplomacy. A single, multilateral negotiating forum is simply too unwieldy to deal with the multiple, and often unconnected, roots of Iraq’s multiple conflicts. Case in point: Tensions in northern Iraq between Arabs and Kurds have great potential for spilling over Iraq’s borders in the short run, threatening to pull Turkey, Syria, and Iran into the resulting chaos. Cross-border raids by the Kurdish terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers Party have raised tensions with Turkey and Iran during the past year. There is a serious short-term danger these tensions could explode into all-out war.

That’s why a smaller contact group involving Syria, Iran, and Iraq—with the participation of others, such as the United States—might be more effective in addressing the growing security challenges in northern Iraq. Similarly, discussions involving the emerging Shi’a leaders in southern Iraq and its neighbors along the Gulf coast might head off any unnecessary cross-border tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. .

The Shi’a-Sunni civil war raging in central and western Iraq will require even more localized approaches, with the involvement of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Instead of setting the bar too high with a grand, all-inclusive diplomatic approach like this weekend’s Baghdad security conference, a more common-sense and pragmatic approach would focus on specific problems involving specific local and regional leaders.

In addition, the United States must prepare for a national government in Iraq that remains split by ethnic and political factionalism and is incapable of uniting the country. The United States must act on this fact by supporting those local and regional leaders who can help us fight our real enemies in Iraq—foreign terrorist fighters inspired by and in some cases affiliated with Al Qaeda—and who can help contain the multiple ethnic cleansing campaigns now engulfing the country.

Redeploying our troops in support of such a strategy is as necessary and prudent as the Bush administration’s “surge” is misguided and rash. But we also recognize that other plans put forth that include the concept of strategic redeployment or phased redeployment alongside more regional diplomacy have been overtaken by events on the ground. Today, a negotiated national political settlement among Iraq’s warring political factions may be unobtainable. Equally problematic would be the creation of a loose confederation comprised of Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish mini-states; it is probably too late to divide the nation along defined ethnic and religious lines without horrendous humanitarian costs.

That’s why the United States must enlist those countries surrounding Iraq or with a stake in preventing wider ethnic or religious warfare in the region to help us in ways that play to their own national self-interest. Instead of a “one size fits all” Iraq policy, or attempts to partition or segment the country, the United States should segment its Iraq policy—tailoring it to the fundamentally different challenges that exist in the different corners of Iraq.

Arab countries or predominantly Muslim countries are not going to help America cope with the chaos the Bush administration created in Iraq through some grand bargain. Yet all of these nations individually have a clear self-interest in helping the United States manage the mistakes of the Bush administration that threaten to spill over into their own territories. Those series of diplomatic initiatives—in league with the redeployment of U.S. troops—are a sustainable set of strategies that could, in time, rebuild American influence and power in the region and the world.

None of this can happen, however, until the Bush administration’s current escalation in Iraq is stopped and then reversed over the next 18 months. Congress holds the power of the purse and boasts authority to ensure that the president is properly addressing the real security threats our country faces. This coming week Congress may well exercise those powers. In tandem with multiple diplomatic efforts involving Iraq’s neighbors in serious negotiations, the United States just might be able to extricate itself from the Bush administration’s war of choice in Iraq with our national security interests intact.

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Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who is responsible for examining U.S. national security policy in the Middle East.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Former Senior Fellow