Some Lessons From the Iraqi Crisis

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The Iraqi crisis is not over. Ahead lie unexpected twists and turns, and unpleasant surprises for many of the parties involved. However, in essence, it has ended in victory for the military force and behind-the-scenes diplomacy of the United States, together with Britain and their allies.

We could continue ad infinitum the unproductive discussions about why the apparently organized Iraqi defense crumbled so soon, or the completely futile debates about why we dislike the United States and its actions in Iraq. But it makes much more sense to attempt to assess the new circumstances in which Russia finds itself, and to look at how Russian diplomacy has performed under these new conditions.

Sept. 11, 2001, did not give birth to a new reality, but simply opened people's eyes to the existing state of affairs. The Iraqi crisis likewise has not begotten a new reality, but now it will be harder to ignore things that we chose to ignore previously.

The epoch of national liberation movements and revolutions, and the socialist experiments between the 1940s and 1990s, gave rise to a vast number of states that demonstrated their inability to provide an adequate level of development and a decent standard of living for the majority of their people. The absence of development or worse, widespread corruption, ineffective despotic regimes beset by demographic and religious problems -- these are a growing threat not only for the states themselves and their populations, but also for the rest of mankind. It is precisely the regions where these states are clustered that are the major sources of instability, disease and terrorism.

And they constitute the most serious danger in terms of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drug-trafficking, etc. This area encompasses a large part of Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, possibly including some of the states of the former Soviet Union. Russia is perched on the edge of this area.

The United States has decided to proactively impose order and modernization (as it understands it) in a significant portion of this area -- in the Far East, Middle East and Central Asia --while at the same time strengthening its own position in those places. Africa is deemed less important and so has been left alone for the time being.

The first attempt to enforce order, from Washington's perspective, has been a complete success, despite the questionable legitimacy and the hamfisted propaganda campaign. Now it will no doubt undertake further such attempts, although not necessarily by resorting to direct military intervention. After the success in Iraq, just the threat of intervention should prove sufficient in the majority of cases.

The United States could get bogged down, but it could also get carried away and start acting with considerably less ceremony, including with regard to Russia's direct interests.

The United Nations Security Council can no longer operate purely on the basis of its 1945 mandate. And the organization itself, despite its usefulness, is becoming less effective while growing almost fourfold -- in large part due to the influx of the aforementioned states.

Turning to Russia's performance, I won't beat around the bush: It was not great, but thank God, we managed to avoid disaster.

First, our intelligence services misled us -- or we deluded ourselves -- about Iraq's ability and readiness to resist attack.

Second, Russia's policy did not give the impression of being very well coordinated. At times we were clearly improvising and on occasions were clearly acting at cross-purposes.

Third, we lacked a clear strategic objective: It was not clear whether we wanted to ensure that international law was observed, save the UN Security Council, befriend European states and play them off against the United States, or to remain on good terms with America. Any of these objectives could be justified as part of an overarching strategy. But there was no strategy. And the absence of a strategy is not unique to this crisis -- it is true of our foreign policy as a whole.

Fourth, out of slovenliness we simply did not look after our economic interests in Iraq. And this is not about selling out our principles, but about the kind of image we want to project to the world: that of a 19th-century state, playing the vainglorious geopolitical games that kings used to play, or that of a 21st-century state, concerned about upholding its real interests. Less important interests, including economic ones, can be sacrificed to more important ones. But I for one did not notice any attempt to prioritize interests. Moreover government agencies, above all the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, which was charged (as far as one can tell) with defending Russia's economic interests in Iraq, simply ignored its responsibilities -- there is no doubt about that.

And finally, one of our policy objectives has been and remains erroneous. It is counterproductive at the UN -- even for tactical purposes -- to attempt to play against its most powerful member. The UN ship is only barely afloat. It needs to be saved as a matter of urgency, but the crew is engaged in historical exercises. The ship needs to be rapidly repaired and modernized, and this should be done together with those whom we can sail on with. Unless the UN is reformed forthwith, it will soon go the way of NATO or, worse still, the OSCE.

However, in spite of the errors, we have scraped through this time -- largely thanks to the personal diplomacy of Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, and the mission of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to Iraq to urge Saddam Hussein to step down and save his nation.

However, we have scraped through not as a result of systematic and coherent actions, but rather thanks to a series of unconnected steps that proved to be successful.

In an increasingly complex and hazardous world, such an approach sooner or later will doom us to failure and at the very least to squandering potential advantages.

Sergei Karaganov is chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. This comment first appeared in Moskovskiye Novosti.