European Affairs

We have proposed that Iraqis create three more regions—three or more regions— consistent with what their constitution calls for, and we call for oil to be shared equitably with a guaranteed share going to Sunnis enshrined in their constitution.

We also call for aggressive diplomacy and the creation of a contact group…bringing in—Iraq’s neighbors and the other major powers necessary for a political settlement.

Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State: The fundamental issue in the region is not the tactical issue that has received so much attention, namely the specific [U.S. troop surge] involving deployment inside Baghdad. The fundamental issue is…the long-term role of the United States in the region and the basic challenges that it faces.


[In the region after World War I] the borders were artificially drawn, and indeed, this is one of the dilemmas of Iraq, that Iraq was created out of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire in order to provide a strategic buffer between French and British zones, that themselves were artificially created. So the disintegration of that system is one of the factors of the region.

One of the attributes of such a disintegration is that ideologies trump traditional loyalties, and so the Islamic religion and the radical aspect of the Islamic religion goes across borders. One result is the existence on the territory of what we consider sovereign states and what international law has considered sovereign states, of units that have the character of states but are not really states, like the Hezbollah, like the Hamas, like the Mahdi Army in Baghdad—organizations that on the one hand participate in the government but on the other are tied to loyalties that go beyond the national borders and [pursue a wider regional] outcome. [This outcome] cannot be defined by national interest as it has been heretofore conceived.

So we are dealing with an upheaval that goes across the whole region, and given the fact that much of it receives its impetus from the Islamic religion and from the attempt to restore the significance of the Islamic message, the impact of what occurs in that region will not be confined to the region. It will go from Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim state; to Malaysia; to India, which is the second largest Muslim state, even though its 160 million Muslims are a minority; to the suburbs of Paris, where there are large Islamic populations. So this is what is at stake in that region.

Now, the United States has been attempting for 50 years to contribute to stability and progress and peace in the region by leading negotiations, by intervening militarily, and it’s in this context that I look at what we are now facing in Iraq. Major mistakes have been made. We have reached a very difficult situation because we have not found it easy to bring the traditional American premises in line with cultural and regional realities.

Today, in Iraq, we face a number of only partially connected problems. [There is] the impact of neighbors from across the border: Iran with respect to the Shi’a south; Turkey indirectly with respect to the Kurdish north; Syria with respect to the Sunni west, and others that have an interest, partly because Iraq is also the tipping point for Shi’a-Sunni confrontation that it’s taking its most acute form precisely on the territory of Iraq.

Secondly, we have the insurrection of the Sunni population against the shift in power from its traditional dominance to a democratic principle of majority rule, which empowers the Shi’ites and, to some extent, the Kurds.

Third, we have the al Qaeda influence that is a cross-border assault, but not on a national basis but an ideological basis.

And then we have the Shi’a-Sunni conflict, and they’re all merging together in a sort of amorphous explosion of violence.

The American interest is in preventing the radical Islamic element from achieving a domination that will then infect the other regions that I have already discussed. America has no interest in the outcome of a Sunni-Shi’a rivalry as long as it is not achieved by ethnic cleansing and genocidal practices.

So I would say that, if we are talking about long-term strategy, we should move into a position from which our forces can intervene against the threats to the regional security that I have identified and become a lesser and lesser element in the purely Shi’a-Sunni struggle.

The principal relevance of the current debate about Baghdad is the judgment [as to] whether suppressing the militias in Baghdad can make a contribution to this process. And this is where opinions divide.

I lean towards the fact that they did something that should be attempted. Therewill be two possible outcomes: that it succeeds, in which case the government could pursue preferred policies of reconciliation if it is able to and [we’re willing to] concentrate on the strategic issues that I have mentioned before. If it fails, our strategic mission will still be the same, except we will then have to take care to separate ourselves from the sectarian civil war that will emerge.

Now all this needs to be conducted within the framework of a diplomacy that permits other nations to participate increasingly in the political future of the region. . . . [Any] political actions require some understanding of the military element [and] the military element has to be geared to a possible political outcome.


There has been much discussion about whether to negotiate with Iran and Syria. I would separate those two countries. The Syrian concern is primarily one of national interest [regarding] Lebanon and the Golan Heights and its influence in Iraq is relatively marginal.

The Iranian problem is one that will beset us for many administrations because it is not only the strongest country in the region, but it is also developing nuclear weapons in defiance of the Security Council plus Germany. And if an outcome emerges in which Iran has nuclear weapons and vacuum in front of it in Iraq, that would be a potentially disastrous outcome for the peace in the region.

I have always had the view that the issue of whether one should negotiate should not be a central issue. We should always be prepared to negotiate. The fundamental issue is what to negotiate about, and what the purpose of the negotiation should be.

I see little incentive Iran has to help us solve the Iraqi problem unless it occurs in a constellation in which they can also—in which they cannot achieve their maximum objectives by themselves. And therefore, diplomacy has to include… creation of a group of states that have their own interests in preventing Iranian domination.


I don’t think Iran will help us in Iraq, as such. And therefore, we cannot avoid creating conditions in Iraq that make it unattractive for them. But the challenge that Iranian leaders will have to face at some point is that we have no quarrel with Iran as a nation. We can respect Iran as a major player in the region, with a significant role in the region.

What we cannot accept is an Iran that seeks to dominate the region on the basis of a religious ideology and using the Shi’a base in other countries to undermine stability in the region, on which the economic well-being of such a large part of the world depends. Under the previous Iranian government [of the Shah], the United States had excellent relations with Iran. And they were not tied to the personality of the ruler but to the importance of the country....

If what I’ve said is correct, or most of it is correct, then the United States must be present in the region for a foreseeable future. It cannot be ended in one administration because even total withdrawal will have consequences that the next administration will have to live with.


Biden: … You point out that in Iraq… the greatest concern is an explosion that could result in radical domination—a radical notion dominating the region and spreading… you have said, and I don’t necessarily disagree, that military force is necessary but not sufficient to solve this, and we’re going to have to be in the region a long time… In non-traditional states infected by this ideology and this competition, one of two things works: You either have a strong man, or an imperial power dominating or you have federation, where in order to keep this country intact, although it was an artificial construct, you have to give breathing room to those elements that you’ve outlined—Sunni, Shi’a et cetera —to prevent explosion.

So why does it not make sense, consistent with our military presence, to be accommodating what history seems to dictate, as well as what their constitution calls for? And that is, allowing more local control over the physical security and safety of their ideologically defined and/or tribal-defined areas, while at the same time promoting a central government that has broad responsibilities—instead of insisting on a strong central government, which seems to me to be, to use a slang expression, like pushing a rope?

Kissinger: I’m sympathetic to an outcome that permits large regional autonomy. In fact, I think it is very likely that this will emerge out of the conflict that we are now witnessing.

Now the conventional wisdom of many experts in the region is that we must not be perceived as bringing that about, because doing so would inflame the Shi’a community and enhance Iranian influence, and also because of the danger of Turkish intervention in the Kurdish area. And I think that’s an opinion we should take seriously.

I neglected to mention one thought [which is central]: Somewhere along this process in which we’re now engaged there is the need for an international conference on Iraq, because Iraq has to be reintegrated into the international system and because other nations have to be brought in to assuming the responsibility for the political future of the region.

It may be premature at this moment, but in the process that we foresee—over, say, the rest of this year—there should be some such concept. And in my view, that should include the neighbors, the Security Council, and countries like Indonesia, India, possibly Pakistan. That would be a rather large and unwieldy party, which could then form subgroups for certain regional issues. But the importance is that only in such a framework can you really deal with the issue of autonomy because you have then to create a wider legitimacy for what is emerging and against intervention from outside countries.

Biden: I would argue it’s the only thing that will lead the bordering countries to conclude that intervention is not in their interest. But I fully agree with you.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.