One of the weightiest decisions any elected leader can make is whether to let foreign troops occupy your country. For the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was agonizing because of heavy domestic opposition to any American troop presence. But consider the starkly different trajectories their countries now are following.
The specter of Iraqi chaos must have weighed on Afghan voters' minds as they went to the polls Sunday to elect their next president. Both runoff candidates made clear to voters that, no matter how unpopular it might be, they're committed to allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country.
In 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the opposite choice, yielding to popular demand and rejecting an agreement to allow some U.S. forces to remain for training and rapid-reaction purposes. The accord was proposed as a stopgap against the kind of crisis scenario that plagues Iraq today as radical Islamist marauders close in on Baghdad.
The United States, alarmed by the swift collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, is weighing emergency options that include possible military cooperation with Iran to avert Iraq's total disintegration. Secretary of State John Kerry says he won't rule it out, and Iran has not rejected the idea. The same scenario developed in Afghanistan right after the 9/11 attacks, when Iran offered -- and Washington accepted -- various forms of wartime cooperation.
The fact that military cooperation is even on the table today attests not to any kind of budding friendship between Tehran and Washington but to the dire situation both see in Iraq. While cooperation merits cautious exploration, Tehran's help is more urgently needed in the political realm, where al-Maliki, an Iran ally, has been unwilling to make the kinds of difficult sacrifices that might have averted disaster.
Iraq's potential disintegration poses such a severe threat to the entire region that neighboring governments like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot afford to stand by and watch. They must set aside their differences and help engineer a rapprochement between al-Maliki and the moderate Sunni opposition leadership that he has worked so hard to alienate and isolate.
Even before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, al-Maliki's record was rife with political blunders that placed Iraq on its current course. Knowing that parts of his country were under siege by Sunni Islamist radicals, al-Maliki's government proceeded not to court moderate Sunni leaders but to arrest some and assassinate others. He ordered the arrest of his own Sunni vice president.
Tehran is much better positioned to convince al-Maliki that his wayward course and extraordinarily bad decision-making patterns need to change. If cautious U.S. diplomacy can help achieve that outcome -- while steering away from Iranian boots on the ground in Iraq -- then it's an idea well worth discussing.
The Dallas Morning News