Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 December 2007

A Mini Marshall Plan for Shiite Iraq


As I’ve noted in two recent posts (1 and 2), developments in Shiite Iraq augur a sea change for the better. We now have the chance—if only we seize it adroitly—of realizing our most important goals in Iraq and the region.

The key to understanding how much things have changed became public Sunday. David Satterfield, our State-Department coordinator for Iraq, thinks that Iran has reduced deadly IED attacks on our troops using shaped charges, which only Iran can make. That’s why our own casualties in Iraq are down so dramatically. Satterfield believes that orders to reduce the violence came from the highest levels of Iran’s government.

The Satterfield announcement solves a riddle that our recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran posed. The NIE reported that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 and never resumed its program. By releasing that report, our intelligence agencies undermined the Bush Administration’s diplomatic push for sanctions on Iran, making Dubya and Cheney look like the fools that they are. Why?

The answer is now clear. Apparently our diplomats and intelligence professionals agree that something has changed dramatically in Iran’s attitude. Their consensus must have been unusually strong to justify a “palace revolt” so damaging to the Bush Administration’s credibility.

What happened was a coup by our professionals—the people who really know what is going on—against the neocons’ ideological blindness. The neocons’ rout is now complete. Cooler heads appear to have prevailed in both Tehran and Washington.

As Satterfield admitted, we cannot know the real motives for Iran’s change of heart. Dubya’s saber rattling and tries for sanctions may have had some effect. As the NIE suggested, Iran’s leaders are not the crazies that Cheney has tried to portray. They are not immune to cost-benefit analysis.

But there is also another possible explanation. A request, perhaps a demand, for Iran to stop fomenting violence may have come from Shiite Iraq itself. Satterfield noted the counterproductive effects of Iran’s support for the firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr: a deadly shootout between rival Shiite militias in one of Shiite Iraq’s holiest shrines. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who apparently believes in peace and moderation above all else, could hardly have approved of such internecine warfare.

Iran made a strategic blunder by fostering violence (including attacks on our troops) when Iraqi Shiites wanted peace. Its blunder was much like our own blunder of excessive force. Remember how badly things were going for us when our troops attacked with devastating force from the relative safety of tanks and aircraft, rather than showing their faces in the streets? Now that General Petraeus has corrected that blunder, we are one-for-one with Iran on strategic blunders in Iraq.

Yet Iran’s blunder is more recent. Augmented by longstanding enmity between Iraq and Iran, it gives us an chance to seal our alliance with Shiite Iraq and spread our values there by example.

Whatever Iran’s motives may be, the struggle between the U.S. and Iran for the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shiites has now moved from the battlefield to the blueprint. The center is Najaf, which may become the capital city of a Shiite Iraqi mini-state. Iran is helping to build a new airport and an electricity generating plant there. We have refurbished a local hospital to international standards.

We must do more, much more. Reconstruction is a battle we can win, and win decisively. No one can build better, quicker and cheaper than we Americans.

If we want to democratize Iran, the best way to do so is to finish democratizing and rebuilding Shiite Iraq. Even today, a million Shiite pilgrims per year visit Najaf’s and Karbala’s Shiite shrines. The Iraqis want to increase that number to three to four million. Most of those pilgrims are Iranians.

Imagine what might happen in Iran if—year upon year—pilgrims returned with glowing reports of Iraq’s beautiful shrines, solid infrastructure, upscale accommodations, religious and political freedom, and lucrative commercial ties with the West. We have a golden opportunity to change Iran’s regime, gradually and peacefully, by osmosis. All we need is patience and a little cash.

But if we are to have a mini-Marshall plan for Shiite Iraq, we must do it right this time. No more venal American contractors skimming the cream, doing shoddy work, and taking flight at the first signs of violence. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who know the people and the culture, should pick the projects and oversee their completion. The Army Corps of Engineers should create the designs, using local materials and resources, and supervise construction. Local Iraqis should provide the labor. They can earn decent wages for something besides mayhem, and they can receive valuable training in the process.

I know, I know. There’s only so much money, and we have crying needs here at home. But we need not foot the entire bill. We can pass the hat internationally. Surely our NATO allies, many of whom balked at supporting the war, will help finance reconstruction for peace. We can always remind them of the original Marshall Plan, which rebuilt them from rubble after World War II.

In our Iraqi Marshall Plan, we should not forget Sunni Iraq. But the Sunnis should require only one-third the resources, as their population is only one-third the Shiites’. Iraq’s Sunni neighbors—especially Saudi Arabia, with all its oil wealth—should bear the lion’s share of that cost.

Whatever the motives and reasons, we now have a lull in violence. Long-term strategy has shifted the competition between us and Iran from the battlefield to politics and civil engineering. We can win that competition if we put our minds to it. In the process, me might even regain the world’s respect.

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