November 12, 2005
The Arab League to the Rescue
By MILTON VIORST
COULD the answer be the Arab League?
The question, of course, is how do we get out of Iraq? President Bush is
increasingly isolated in claiming we are on our way to victory or
democracy or human rights or even the restoration of Baghdad's electric
grid. Even before Iraqi violence began spilling over into Jordan,
American forces have clearly failed at maintaining order. It is time for
a different approach, one that may lie with the Arab League.
In Lebanon 16 years ago, the Arab League ended a seemingly intractable
civil war. The Lebanese - Christians, Druzes, Shiites, Sunnis, even
Palestinians - had been killing one another since 1975. Interventions by
Syria, Israel and the United States made matters only worse. President
Ronald Reagan withdrew a contingent of marines after a suicide bombing
killed 241 servicemen. Throughout the 1980's, private militias fought
pitched battles and imprisoned civilian hostages, many of them
Americans. The only way to end the bloodshed seemed to be to divide
Lebanon along religious lines. But none of the factions, not even the
Christians, wanted the country split. Exhausted as the Lebanese were by
the fighting, the vision of a unified nation remained intact. That is
when the Arab League stepped in.
The Arab League was always known as a weakling. But the fractious Arab
states agreed at last that Lebanon's civil war and the prospect of
partition threatened them all. Pulling Lebanon together was an incentive
that superseded their divisions.
In January 1989, the Arab foreign ministers met and set up a Committee
of Six - Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab
Emirates - to devise a peace proposal. At a subsequent Arab League
summit, a troika of the Saudi and Moroccan kings and the Algerian
president was given six months to come up with an agreement. Lakhdar
Ibrahimi, then a highly regarded adviser to Algeria's president, was
named the project's chief diplomat. Though Mr. Ibrahimi had no army
behind him, he spoke as an Arab to Arabs, with the full moral authority
of the Arab community. The Lebanese listened.
In September of that year, after Mr. Ibrahimi had negotiated a
cease-fire in Lebanon, the troika invited Lebanon's Parliament to meet
in Taif, a mountain town in Saudi Arabia, to discuss an Arab League
draft of a new charter. After three weeks of bargaining, the
parliamentarians signed an accord based on the draft, with all the
Lebanese factions conceding more than they ever imagined they would. To
be sure, the time was right: Lebanon was fed up with war. But crucial to
Taif was the absence of foreign involvement. It was an Arab triumph.
The Taif agreement did not produce a perfect ending. Given Lebanon's
inherent volatility, that would have been too much to ask. For years,
Syrian and Israeli forces continued to intrude in Lebanese affairs. And
Taif did not stop the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and
other officials. But parliamentary rule has been working, and life has
become more or less normal That is far more than anyone expected before
Is there a lesson for President Bush? Even more than Lebanon's
combatants, Iraq's factions agree on one thing: they want no more
Western intrusions. Although Iraqis recently ratified a new
constitution, the insurgency goes on. In contrast to the Arab League in
Lebanon, the United States has a huge army in Iraq - and no moral force
to stop the killing.
Since failing to head off the invasion of Iraq, the Arab League has been
waiting in the wings. It has made clear that it considers the regional
autonomy contained in the constitution a bad precedent, divided as many
Arab countries are by sectarianism. And with insurgents attacking their
diplomats, Arab nations have been slow to send representatives to Baghdad.
But given the chance, the Arab League might well pull together, as it
did in Lebanon, to settle what looks increasingly like a hopeless war.
The Arab League can be America's best exit strategy. True, we would be
asking Arabs to clean up our mess. But the Arab states have an interest
both in America's leaving and in Iraq's cohesion. At the very least, the
Taif model suggests that Arabs are likely to do better than America at
getting Iraqis to rebuild their society together. The alternative, as it
was in Lebanon, is more bloodshed.
Milton Viorst is the author of the forthcoming "Storm from the East: The
Arab World in the 20th Century."
* Copyright 2005
New York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>