Friday, May 21, 2010

A foolish quest in Hezbollahland

A Lebanese Hezbollah militant speaks to students on a "Jihadist tour" in the area of Iqlim al-Touffah in southern Lebanon earlier this month. (AFP photo/STR)

Two news items on Hezbollah caught my eye in the past few days, showing why lucidity about the party can sometimes be a luxury.

The first is a report informing us that John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, recently told a conference in Washington that the United States sought to strengthen “moderates” within Hezbollah.

“There are certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us [in] what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan declared.

The second is an AFP news story reporting that around 500 St. Joseph University students were offered a field trip in the South by Hezbollah last weekend. The students were shown around by party guides, taken to the scenes of battles past and future, and even given an oral examination about Hezbollah lore (Who was the first Hezbollah martyr? What Israeli airport did Hassan Nasrallah promise to bomb in a new war? That sort of thing).

One guide, Muhammad Taleb, explained the purpose of the visit this way: “We want to familiarize young people with the achievements of the Resistance and show them how unjust the Israeli occupation was and how glorious the liberation by the Islamic Resistance.”

A bouquet of quotes helps us capture the mood that day. “It is overwhelming to be here. You feel invincible, and you feel ready to sacrifice yourself for your country,” declared Rim, a pharmaceutical studies student. Lama, a business major, admitted, “They have won me over. I learned a lot of interesting things about the south and Hezbollah’s weapons. It’s cool.” A French student added, “This is surreal, it’s like Disneyland. I never expected to see this.”

Perhaps John Brennan should take the tour as well. After all, if Hezbollah can recreate Disneyland, there must be grounds for cultural understanding between the party and the United States.

I’m reminded of a story told to me once by a remarkable gentleman, now deceased, a refugee from Germany who later moved to the United States. It may have been in the 1960s that he decided to bring his mother to visit. They went to the American Embassy in London to apply for a visa. The employee asked the mother three questions: “Have you ever been arrested?” She replied no. “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” This was standard fare during the Cold War, so she again said no. He then looked at his sheet and asked – this of a woman in her late 70s – “Are you a prostitute?” She turned to her son and inquired, “Hans, is this young man serious?”

There is indeed a mulish formalism to the thinking of some Americans that makes you wonder if they are serious. For Brennan the world possibly really is divided into “extremists” and “moderates,” and if an organization or country appears uncompromising, then that must simply be because the moderates haven’t yet been discovered.

But what a self-centered way of looking at politics, since it assesses the actions of others entirely from the perspective of the interpreter. Brennan assumes that Hezbollah’s thinking, rhetoric, conceptual universe and so on, is perfectly comprehensible within American categories, his categories, which is just another way of saying that the party is not as serious about its own ideas as we assume.

A few years ago, the British government came out with an equally amusing sleight of hand, when it opened a dialogue with what it referred to as Hezbollah’s political wing, which it differentiated from the party’s military wing. This was rank hypocrisy, of course. The British knew enough about Hezbollah to realize that it is a highly centralized organization, in fact a Leninist organization in many ways, so that all the loose references to “wings” were just excuses to talk to party officials without being accused by the United States of chatting up what Washington officially labels a “terrorist organization.”

But Brennan’s proposal doesn’t even have the saving grace of cynicism. When asked how he proposed to reach the moderates, the presidential advisor offered no answer. That’s because his scheme is thoroughly idiotic. One thing about Hezbollah, its militants generally believe what they say, and when they say that Washington is their enemy, they mean that too. The party’s structure and worldview leave no room for “moderates” or “extremists.” What they allow are debates over tactics, but within well-defined strategic parameters, usually set by Iran, of which opposition to America and Israel is essential.

That lesson the St. Joseph University students understood instinctively. You might wonder, justifiably, how young people sent to an institution of higher learning where humanistic values are taught could so readily fall for Hezbollah’s catechism of violence and self-sacrifice. But at least they were not on an illusory quest for “moderates.” Their trip was about guns and war and death, and even if it was cool, they knew it was about guns and war and death.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Washington is getting sidetracked again

Political Washington has a gift for getting sidetracked into marginal disputes. The latest example is the decision of 12 Republican senators to block approval of Robert Ford, who was recently named the US ambassador in Damascus, because of reports that the Syrians have sent Scud missiles to Hizbullah.

The State Department has a different perspective. It believes an ambassador in Damascus is necessary to better relay the Obama administration’s messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad. This is partly due to the fact that Assad’s man in Washington, Imad Mustapha, is mistrusted by his American counterparts.

The senators, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, responded that Ford’s appointment would be a concession, even a reward, “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group.” The Republicans want new sanctions to be imposed on Syria, or a deadline from the administration to determine whether engagement is working before new sanctions are put in place.

The points of view on both sides conceal a far more significant problem. Undue focus on whether an ambassador should be sent to Damascus or not is secondary to the fact that the Obama administration is not really clear about how to bring about a change in Syrian behavior where it has demanded such change – namely Syria’s ending its destabilization of Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hizbullah, and its efforts to reassert its hegemony over Lebanon.

Naming an ambassador should only be a means of advancing policy. But because the policy is unclear, the appointment process has taken center stage. For the State Department to defend an ambassador as necessary to get Assad’s ear is ridiculous. In itself, the transmission of messages is not, and should not be, what justifies a significant political reversal, especially when the previous ambassador was pulled because the US assumed that Syria had ordered the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

On the other hand, the Republicans, by making Ford the issue, have also confused matters. The sanctions they are demanding may be justified, but sanctions, like the dispatching of an ambassador, do not in themselves constitute policy; they are instruments of policy. What the Republicans (and Democrats) should be asking of the Obama administration is whether its engagement strategy with Syria has any chance of succeeding – and if not what must be done to ensure it succeeds – and whether American strategy is cohesive, so that a dialogue with Syria does not actually give it wider latitude to pursue those very aims that Washington is seeking to undermine.

If the dispute over an ambassador is a red herring, oddly enough so too is the discussion over Scuds. If or when a war occurs between Hizbullah and Israel, it is probably fair to say that Syrian Scuds will not be a major part of it. Assad will continue to push against the red lines in his relationship with Israel, but not to the extent of supplying significant quantities of powerful missiles that may invite massive Israeli retaliation against Syria. Moreover, fueling and firing a Scud takes time, so that Hizbullah would doubtless do so far away from the southern border, in areas under its control. Most of those areas happen to be located too close to Syrian territory for comfort.

Syrian weapons to Hizbullah appear to be there to serve a more complex purpose. I continue to believe that the primary Syrian objective is to create the proper conditions for a Syrian military return to Lebanon. This is not an easy venture, or one guaranteed of success. However, reversing what happened in 2005 has been very much on Assad’s mind since he lost the Lebanon that his father bequeathed to him and that Hafez Assad had spent two and a half decades fighting hard over in order to consolidate Syrian rule. That loss was a bitter one for Bashar, striking at the very heart of his political self-esteem.

But there are more pragmatic reasons as well. Only a military presence allows the Syrian regime to control Lebanon’s Sunni community, with the implications this has domestically for Assad. It also allows Syria to stifle its old bugbear, the Maronite community, where Samir Geagea has made headway at a time when the Aounist movement is losing steam. But perhaps most important, only if Syria is physically present in Lebanon can it turn the “Hizbullah card” to its advantage by projecting itself as the sole actor able to contain the party – which it would nevertheless allow to pursue a “resistance’ agenda, since Syria could use this as leverage whenever it needs to bargain with the Arab states, the US, Israel, even Iran.

If Syria can guarantee that the next war between Hizbullah and Israel is particularly vicious and that Hizbullah can hold its own (Syria’s passing of game-changing weaponry, for example more effective anti-aircraft missiles, would help do so), this could open up numerous possibilities. Israeli retaliation would be ferocious, the Lebanese state and government would emerge from the maelstrom discredited and weak, United Nations resolutions on Lebanon would effectively collapse, and Hizbullah would be perceived by Arab states and Israel as a major regional menace, which Assad could then use as a wedge to facilitate acceptance of a Syrian military comeback.

The absence of a credible UN-sponsored post-conflict framework would be Syria’s opening. No one, least of all the Israelis, would take seriously a new international force in southern Lebanon. That conviction could swing the Americans. Subcontract Lebanon to Syria once again and everyone is happy, the rationale might go.

That’s where the hard questioning should come in Washington. If Syria’s energies are primarily geared toward reestablishing a military presence in Lebanon, then American engagement of Damascus will not change much in Bashar Assad’s plans. Washington needs to move beyond Robert Ford to address the real issue: Syria’s intention to again use Lebanon as the platform from which to become a dominant Arab state.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Israel prefers a Syrian address in Lebanon

On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu declared while on a visit to northern Israel that “Iran is trying to stir up war between Israel and Syria in order to cause tension in the region.” The Israeli prime minister went on to say, “We want stability and peace… We have no intention of attacking our neighbors, contrary to false rumors.”

It’s never a good idea to read too much into a single phrase, but Netanyahu’s comments uncovered an old train of thought in Israeli thinking. The Israelis have never seen any strategic contradiction between their aims and Syria’s aims in Lebanon, and this for over three decades, even after the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers in 2005.

For Israel, Lebanon was more predictable when the Syrians were around. Syrian and Israeli interests only rarely came into conflict. One of the times they did was in 1982, when Israel tried to break the Lebanese status quo to its advantage by expelling the Palestinians and bringing to power Bachir Gemayel. That scheme ended in success, when Yasser Arafat was expelled from Beirut, and failure when Gemayel was assassinated and Lebanon’s parliament failed later to ratify the May 17 Accord. The Israelis opted to return to the old ways, withdrawing in 1985 to a so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon and allowing Syria to impose its hegemony everywhere else.

After 1990, when the cycle of Lebanese wars ended, the Israelis continued to accept a Pax Syriana in Lebanon, even though during that period Syria encouraged Hezbollah to arm and grow.

After their withdrawal in 2000, the Israelis went on believing that the Syrian presence was a stabilizing factor. Hezbollah’s sporadic attacks in the Shebaa Farms area were deemed tolerable, even if an alleged Palestinian base in Syria was the target of Israeli air attack in October 2003. However, any crossing of the “red lines,” whether by Israel or Syria, remained part of a subtle balancing game both sides accepted.

Then came 2005 and the Independence Intifada that led Syria to remove its army from Lebanon. While the Israelis never took a public stance on what had happened, from their subsequent statements and behavior it is probably fair to say that they didn’t like the fact that Hezbollah emerged as the most powerful military force in the country, with no Syrian tutelage to control the party. Israel always found it preferable to have a Syrian address in Lebanon.

In other words, Syria was not only the party with which Israel could conclude unwritten understandings over Lebanon, it was the party that could be held accountable if these understandings were transgressed. Netanyahu’s warning that Israel did not want to involve itself in a war with Syria on Iran’s behalf reaffirmed that principle and the rationale underlining it: Better Syria in Lebanon than Iran.

Syria never accepted its Lebanese military withdrawal. I’ve argued that for its president, Bashar al-Assad, the prime objective in the coming years is to reverse what happened in 2005 and return his tanks to Lebanon. But several conditions are needed for him to do so: Arab acceptance, Israeli approval and an American green light.

Arab acquiescence, given the ongoing fear of Iran in the region and its extensions such as Hezbollah, may be a foregone conclusion. Israeli consent, if the proper conditions are met, may be easier than we imagine, hence the importance of statements like Netanyahu’s. That would leave the United States, which initially would resist a Syrian redeployment in Lebanon. But before going too far along that path, consider a scenario that might dilute American disapproval.

Imagine if there is a new war between Lebanon and Israel, and this time Hezbollah manages to put up a tough fight for longer than it did in 2006. Having been armed with more advanced Syrian weapons, including effective anti-aircraft missiles and longer range rockets, the party might be able to turn a new war into a serious brawl. Israel’s reaction would be to destroy Lebanon far more extensively than it did four years ago, including its economic infrastructure.

In that case, the Lebanese state and government would be discredited, impoverished, humiliated, and would have to face the inevitable angry public backlash head on. United Nations resolutions, particularly Resolution 1701, would effectively be rendered null and void. Regionally, the Arabs, but also Israel, would regard Hezbollah as a major menace (thanks to Syrian efforts to strengthen the party militarily and ensure it remained a menace). Washington, its attentions elsewhere, could be less inclined to say no if there is a regional consensus, one that the Lebanese support either by conviction or through intimidation, in favor of a Syrian comeback.

Damascus would, of course, market this as a means of stabilizing Lebanon and keeping an eye on Hezbollah, to which it would, nonetheless, give a wide margin of maneuver, since only a Hezbollah perceived as dangerous justifies a Syrian presence in Lebanon.

It’s time to think outside the box on Syrian intentions, and Netanyahu’s remarks help us to do just that. Bashar al-Assad may or may not succeed in bringing his army this side of our border with Syria. But if obstacles there are to such an endeavor, they almost certainly do not lie in Arab capitals or, for that matter, in Tel Aviv.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The end for America in the Middle East?

Overstatement in the service of truth is no vice, some might say. But where is truth, or indeed overstatement, in the observation that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of America’s 60-year domination of the Middle East, unless the Obama administration reverses its policies? Alarmingly, no one has any answers.

The notion sounds absurd. America lose the power that it has managed to retain for as long as most of us have been alive? Perhaps it is absurd. But consider this: given President Barack Obama’s lack of a coherent strategy for the region, everywhere we see deepening vulnerabilities, when not a conscious decision by Washington to downgrade its ambitions in the face of more dynamic regional actors. These actors have shortcomings of their own, but they appear to be better prepared to deal with the consequences than the United States.

And let’s add one more item to the bleak mix: Washington’s listlessness actually increases the chances that it will enter into a war with Iran, which Obama has been so understandably keen to avoid.

The Arab state system may well be caught up in a phase of terminal deterioration. Most Arab regimes are old and have lost much legitimacy by consolidating their authoritarianism while offering their younger, expanding populations little in the way of consensual social contracts, useful educational opportunities, and better living conditions. Stalemate prevails, and the onetime sway of leading Arab states has devolved to non-Arab states on the region’s periphery: Turkey, Israel and Iran.

This has had negative consequences for the United States, whose political preeminence in the region rested on the old Arab order. Longstanding American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are weaker than ever before. At the same time, the Obama administration is in the throes of psychological retrenchment over the Middle East, the result of myriad factors, above all a sense that the US cannot financially afford the vast empire it once controlled.

Looking at American policy, what do we see today? For starters, we see an Iran actively challenging America in the region. This may look like hubris, but the Iranians see little that is worrisome. Take Iraq, which the US fought long and hard over and ultimately stabilized after the spectacular blunders of the immediate postwar years in 2003-2005. Today, Obama’s stubborn priority is to withdraw, effectively denying Washington the primary terrain needed to contain Iran, but also to exercise its power over Syria and to an extent Saudi Arabia.

Iraq’s election results provided an opportunity for the Obama administration. Iran’s closest allies lost ground, in contrast to the blocs led by Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki. Instead of trying to impose some compromise between the two men that could have created the basis of a more stable Sunni-Shiite order, therefore of a new strategic relationship between Washington and Baghdad, Obama did nothing. Iran saw an opening and is now helping establish a Shiite-led government that will doubtless favor Iranian interests.

Washington’s refusal to develop a strategic relationship with Iraq to hold back Iran, means the US will have to rely, instead, on the frail Gulf states to push back against the Islamic Republic. Not surprisingly, Iran sees very few serious obstacles coming from its Gulf Arab neighbors. And these would dissipate completely if Tehran were to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has the added ability in places such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, but also in Yemen, of being able to mobilize members of disgruntled Shiite minorities.

The impact of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the Gulf and Iraq, the critical playing field in the American-Iranian rivalry, would be relatively limited. The Palestinians have been a tool used by Iran, as has Lebanon, to protect its core objective: building up its supremacy in the Gulf. Iran’s priority is to progressively undermine America in the Middle East, with other regional tensions, in themselves of less immediate importance to Tehran, feeding into this. Hizbullah and Hamas act as useful shock absorbers for Iran while it develops a nuclear capability, the cornerstone of its bid for regional hegemony.

Which brings us to the shipwreck that is Afghanistan. Obama has locked himself into an impossible situation there. The president has set a deadline for the start of a withdrawal from the country in July 2011, and if he fails to win the midterm elections next November, which is probable, we can be sure that he will begin implementing his pullout before the next presidential election, unless there is a dramatic improvement in American fortunes. Until now the signs are not good. Washington finds itself fighting the Taliban while striving to find common ground between the conflicting objectives of its two major (and mistrusted) allies in the Afghan war, President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan. Add to that that Pakistan has no real desire to see the US succeed, preferring to reassert its own authority in Kabul.

This is excellent news for Iran. An Obama administration trapped in the tentacles of Afghanistan makes more likely American retreats in the Middle East. And if Barack Obama decides next year that it is time to wind down his Afghan adventure, the implications for America’s view of itself, and the world’s view of America, could be dramatic, particularly if Iran uses that opening to finalize a nuclear weapon. Obama will have presided over two major military withdrawals while allowing Iran to become a major adversary in the Middle East.

But there is another possible scenario. Obama may realize that he’s been cornered by Tehran, and resort to the one thing he can still call upon with some sense of superiority, military power. Having stood down in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in all probability on the Palestinian track; having seen his major allies becoming steadily more marginal; having seen all this, the president may finally decide that enough is enough, and go to war. Whatever happens, Obama’s bad choices today are pushing him in the direction he most dreads.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Let’s stop kicking a dead horse

There was much celebration, even satisfied ululations, that Michel Aoun was defeated in several significant municipalities in Mount Lebanon, and will probably not be a factor in Beirut. The general’s bad choices have been a curse to us all over the years, but it’s really time to say “enough.” Aoun is no longer the real issue in Lebanon, and delighting in his defeats is equivalent to kicking a dead horse.

Having dispensed industrial quantities of ink denouncing Aoun, I’m perhaps not one to talk. However, over the years I have been struck by the extent to which the general has become a red herring – a false lead attracting the public’s (particularly in his case, the Christian public’s) attention away from what matters. And what matters today is that Syria and Hezbollah are reinforcing their already-tight control over a country that, five years ago, sought to regain its sovereignty.

Aoun has sanctioned this, covered this, even promoted this in his vindictive way, since rare are the Lebanese politicians who will not bring the temple down over everyone’s head out of spite for their domestic rivals. But the reality is that Aoun has offered his partisans diminishing marginal returns. His losses mean less and less.

The parliamentary elections last year showed how wrong things have gone for Aoun. That the general won in several constituencies thanks to the Shia vote in no way diminished his successes. However, it did highlight that Aoun had hemorrhaged Christian support, which in our sectarian system means something. We shouldn’t confuse parliamentary and municipal elections, given how the latter are based on family solidarities and animosities. Yet the results this past weekend tell us something deeper about Aoun’s shortcomings.

In one way or another, Aoun has been a part of the power structure for five years, and while he was not represented in the government that emerged from the 2005 elections, since then he has had access to other offices, support from Syria’s allies, and considerable funds. Many interpreted Aoun’s successive setbacks as the result of Christian rejection of his political choices. That’s part of it, even a major part; however, Aoun also lost ground because he failed to consolidate his gains in the system. This required commonplace patronage, and Aoun’s ministers have played the game like everyone else. But it also required another form of patronage, which Aoun never provided.

This other form of patronage was a viable, profitable project for the long term. When Aoun returned in 2005, quite a few people were willing to tie their fortunes to the general. There were officers in the army who had risen with Aoun during the 1980s, before his exile, politicians who had found no room in March 14 election lists in 2005, businessmen and professionals who liked Aoun and who awaited the day when his influence would bring about the state they desired, one in which they might be offered choice roles, as well as others.

In other words, aside from the general’s more amorphous base of support, there were not a few people who had attached their personal interests to Aoun’s. There was nothing improper here. Which politician does not attract the ambitious to his side? Indeed that is the essence of political power. Where Aoun went wrong, however, is that he systematically lost the valuable cards he had accumulated, and therefore frustrated those who had wagered on his achievement.

The general won a large share of the Christian vote in 2005, which should have set him on the path toward the presidency. Had Aoun remained neutral between March 8 and March 14, he would have been uncircumventable as president when Emile Lahoud’s extended term ended. Instead, he allied himself against the majority, which is just about the silliest thing one can do in a system where it is the parliamentary majority that elects the president.

This was a blow to the Aounist faithful, one they tried to absorb by insisting that they had no dislike for Michel Sleiman, who became president instead. Except that Aoun began relentlessly criticizing Sleiman, in fact seldom avoided an opportunity to do so, so that his claims to defend the authority of the Maronite presidency sounded terribly hollow; a hollowness that turned into an abyss when Aoun also continued criticizing the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir.

Then Aoun invested heavily in the parliamentary elections of 2009 – persuaded, I believe, that he would be able to use an opposition victory to leverage himself into the presidency, or at least become, in a circuitous way, the effective leader of the Christians. And yet the general came up short once again, as he was unable to win the opposition a majority – his larger bloc of parliamentarians now more a reminder of his thwarted endeavors than a source of satisfaction.

In the aftermath, the Aounists began fraying, as the general’s primary objective centered around ensuring that his son-in-law would inherit his movement. The older Aounists protested: they had not fought long and hard to hand the house keys over to Gebran Bassil. That’s where we are today, the Aounists neither here nor there, having lost all momentum, their leader essentially behaving like any other Lebanese leader in wanting to hand off to the son he never had.

Aoun has become a sideshow. We should give him the importance he merits, which is certainly not negligible, but not more than that. He lost in the municipal elections, but so what? Lebanon has lost a great deal more in the past six months, since the “reconciliation” with Syrian began and the country formally started adopting Hezbollah’s rhetoric. Don’t confuse the plot of the story with a footnote.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

For America, it's really all about Iraq

Washington seems listless these days when it comes to the Middle East. The Obama administration is in power but doesn’t have very clear ideas about how to deal with the region’s multiplying difficulties. Those who served under George W. Bush have clearer ideas, but that’s a luxury that comes from being out of power.

The American capital maneuvers within the confines of what is politically achievable. Whether you’re for or against Barack Obama, you engage him through the agenda set by his administration. That’s why one idea remains a blip on Washington’s radar screen, precisely because it would represent a radical overhaul of American thinking in the Middle East. The idea is simple: The United States must build a strategic partnership with Iraq, the Arab world’s Germany.

Why Germany? Because Iraq sits at the heart of the region, its borders touching three major states that, in one way or another, have caused the US grief in recent years: Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia (albeit for different reasons in Riyadh’s case). If you want to contain Iran and retain leverage over Syria, you need to control the Iraqi space. The Gulf states are too weak to stand up to Tehran, too vulnerable to its manipulation. It is pointless for the US to place the burden of an alliance to constrain Iran on their shoulders. Iraq is what American influence in the Gulf is about, but few in Washington will agree.

The Iranians certainly grasped that logic. They have spent years building up networks of relations in Iraq, under the very eyes of the Americans. But there are limits. Ultimately, Iraq’s Arab anchor will regain the upper hand, and the recent elections showed this. The Sunnis voted en masse, indicating that they sought to reintegrate into the Iraqi state, while Iran’s closest allies did relatively poorly. Tehran has reversed the situation thanks to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s desire to stay in office at all costs, pushing him to fall back on Shiite sectarian solidarity. But all that really tells us is that the US missed an opportunity to press ahead with its own agenda in Iraq.

When Obama looks at Iraq, he sees George W. Bush’s war, then calculates domestically. That narrow, parochial assessment is astonishingly petty. Had the president stuck to Bush’s 2011 deadline for an Iraqi pullout, he would not have lost much support at home, where Iraq is not an issue anymore. And by avoiding an interim departure this year, Obama would have earned the US more flexibility to shape Iraq’s post-election environment in its favor.

Instead, US officials took great pride in saying that they had not interfered in the election process. What, precisely, was the thinking here? That America would be rewarded by some cosmic moral supreme court? That Iran and Syria would gasp at American uprightness and refrain from exploiting Iraq for their own purposes? Does the administration imagine that international politics unfolds like a Frank Capra film, so that like Mr. Smith in Washington the world would dissolve into tears of affection for Mr. Obama in Iraq?

Once the Iraqi elections ended, it was plain what the US should have done, or tried to do. A coalition government between Maliki and the front-runner Ayad Allawi was the right way to go. It would have helped return the Sunnis to Iraqi political life, while profiting from the Shiite split, to Iran’s disadvantage. The priority should have been to keep Maliki away from the Iranians, whom the prime minister was never very close to anyway. A shotgun wedding between Maliki and Allawi might have failed, their conflicting ambitions making this difficult. Yet both could have eventually seen an interest in following through, since they would have thus marginalized their communal rivals. Here was a moment when Barack Obama’s personal involvement was essential. But what did the US do? Nothing.

Then there is Syria. As the US watches Syria destabilize Iraq (with the silent acquiescence of Saudi Arabia), reimpose its writ in Lebanon while arming Hizbullah, and block any progress on the Palestinian front, it is discovering that it has few means to alter Syrian behavior. But would that have been true had the US been more willing to use its Iraqi allies and its own soldiers in Iraq to remind Syria of its limitations? An Iraq granted a strategic partnership with Washington would not hesitate to play hardball with Syria, particularly when Syria allows Al-Qaeda militants through its borders into Iraq and continues to support Baathists undermining normalization in Baghdad.

The US could turn this situation to its advantage. Instead, last year when Maliki blamed Syria and Baathists for a string of bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital, American officials, fearful that Iraqi-Syrian tension might complicate the American military withdrawal, began leaking that Al-Qaeda had been responsible. This discredited Maliki, but it also failed to answer an obvious question: through which countries has Al-Qaeda financed and replenished its militants in Iraq? Syria has played a preeminent role in that effort.

There are those in Washington who argue, laudably, that the US doesn’t do empire – in the Middle East or elsewhere. Iraq was conquered and now the Iraqis must be set free. No one is suggesting the contrary. An American strategic partnership with Iraq would not represent hegemony by Washington. The aim would be to tie America’s regional interests to a country that is likely to become the Arab world’s future – with its pluralism, its vast oil potential that could serve Iraqi development well, and its desire to function as a normal state, not serve as a playing field for its neighbors.

After having lost over 3,000 soldiers in Iraq; after having presided over an infernal period in the country’s history leading to the death of countless more Iraqis, mainly at the hands of groups hostile to Iraq’s stabilization; after all this, Washington should be more imaginative about defending its stakes in the region, and Iraq’s role in that endeavor. Yet all we see is a race to the exits. This makes you wonder whether the US really seeks to retain its power in the Middle East.