Saturday, December 02, 2006

Chessboard Endgame

December 2, 2006

For the past few years, the dictators and terrorists have been gaining ground, and with good reason. The deepening catastrophe in Iraq has distracted the world's sole superpower from its true goals, and weakened the U.S. politically as well as militarily. With new congressional leadership threatening to make the same mistake -- failing to see Iraq as only one piece of a greater puzzle -- it is time to return to the basics of strategic planning.

Thirty years as a chess player ingrained in me the importance of never losing sight of the big picture. Paying too much attention to one area of the chessboard can quickly lead to the collapse of your entire position. America and its allies are so focused on Iraq they are ceding territory all over the map. Even the vague goals of President Bush's ambiguous war on terror have been pushed aside by the crisis in Baghdad.

The U.S. must refocus and recognize the failure of its post-9/11 foreign policy. Pre-emptive strikes and deposing dictators may or may not have been a good plan, but at least it was a plan. However, if you attack Iraq, the potential to go after Iran and Syria must also be on the table. Instead, the U.S. finds itself supervising a civil war while helplessly making concessions elsewhere.

This dire situation is a result of the only thing worse than a failed strategy: the inability to recognize, or to admit, that a strategy has failed. Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon. Iran is openly boasting of its uranium enrichment program while pouring money into Hezbollah and Hamas. A resurgent Taliban is on the rise in Afghanistan. Nearly off the radar, Somalia is becoming an al Qaeda haven. Worst of all is the answer to the question that ties all of these burning fuses together: No, we are not safer now than we were before.

The seeds for this situation were sown in the one real success the West has had. The attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan went so well that the U.S. and its allies did not appreciate all the reasons for the success. Almost every player on the world stage benefited from the attack on Afghanistan. The rout of the Sunni Taliban delighted Iran. Russia and China have no love for religious extremism near their borders. India was happy to see the U.S. launch a direct attack on Muslim terrorists.

Only Pakistan was put under uncomfortable pressure, although even there, Pervez Musharraf has been able to play both sides well enough to appear to be an essential ally to the West, while terrorists and weapons cross his borders freely. Gen. Musharraf has perfected the formula of holding himself up as the last defense against the extremists in order to gain immunity for his dictatorship. Not only was there a confluence of world opinion aided by sympathy for the U.S. after 9/11, but the proverbial bad guys were undoubtedly bad, and we knew where they were. As subsequent events have shown, effectively bombing terrorists is a rare opportunity.

Learning from our defeats is obvious, but too often we fail to appreciate the reasons for our successes; we take them for granted. The U.S. charged into Iraq without appreciating the far greater difficulty of the postwar task there, and how it would be complicated by the increasingly hostile global opinion of America's military adventures.

America's role as "bad cop" has been a flop on the global stage. Without the American presence in Iraq as a target and scapegoat, Iraqis would be forced to make the hard political decisions they are currently avoiding. We won't know if Iraq can stand on its own until the U.S. forces leave. Meanwhile, South Korea and China refuse to take action on North Korea while accusing the U.S. of provocative behavior. How quickly would their attitudes change if the U.S. pulled its troops out of the Korean Peninsula? Or if Japan -- not to mention Taiwan -- announced nuclear weapon plans?

From Caracas to Moscow to Pyongyang, everyone follows their own agenda while ignoring President Bush and the U.N. Here in Russia, for example, Vladimir Putin gets Mr. Bush's endorsement for membership to the World Trade Organization while selling advanced air defense missile systems to Iran and imposing sanctions on Georgia, itself a WTO member. WTO membership is not going to benefit ordinary Russians, but it will provide more cover for Mr. Putin and his gang of oligarchs to continue to loot the country and launder the money abroad with no resistance from a distracted, discredited and enfeebled West.

We might not know what works, but we have many fine examples of what doesn't work and we cannot continue to ignore them. As the world's sole superpower, the U.S. has become a lightening rod. Any intervention causes resentment and even many traditional allies oppose U.S. plans almost out of hand. America's overly proactive foreign policy has also allowed other nations to avoid responsibility for their own safety, and to avoid making the tough decisions that come with that responsibility.

At the same time, the U.N. has become a perfect example of a broken institution. When leaders are afraid to take real action they go to the U.N., where they know nothing tangible will be achieved. Resolutions are routinely ignored without consequences and, in fact, are openly flouted. Hezbollah proudly waved weapons as the Israeli army left Lebanon and the kidnapped Israeli soldiers have yet to be released.

So what then, to do? "Mission accomplished" jokes aside, the original goals in Iraq -- deposing Saddam Hussein and holding elections -- have been achieved. Nation-building was never on the agenda and it should not be added now. All the allied troops in the world aren't going to stop the Iraqi people from continuing their civil war if this is their choice. As long as Muslim leaders in Iraq and elsewhere are unwilling to confront their own radical elements, outsiders will be spectators in the line of fire.

As for stability, if allied troops leave Iraq:What stability? I won't say things can't get worse -- if we've learned anything, it's that things in the Middle East can always get worse;but at least the current deadly dynamic would be changed. And with change there is always hope for improvement. Without change, we are expecting a different result from the same behavior, something once defined as insanity.

Mr. Kasparov, a former world chess champion, is chairman of the United Civil Front in Russia.

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