In a speech Thursday afternoon about the challenges facing U.S. foreign policy, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering called the decision to invade Iraq irresponsible but said the United States must remain in Iraq until the country achieves stability.
"A premature evacuation would lead to a factional civil war," Pickering said. "A civil war would also almost certainly become internationalized as countries like Turkey and Iran would be unlikely to stand aside."
According to Pickering, Americans should not view the beginnings of the electoral process and the creation of a constitution as the only benchmarks of progress in Iraq. The country's fundamental problem is not governance but security, an issue the United States still must address, he said.
The former advisor to President Bill Clinton proposed internationalizing the stabilization of Iraq by creating a contact group of the United States' closest allies to share responsibility in the decision-making process. He said that greater international support would have a psychological effect on those opposing the efforts by debunking the simplistic anti-American sentiment that the United States is an occupying force.
"This is an opportunity because we have a chance to develop a democratic government and a prosperous economy for the Iraqi people," Pickering said. "If we stay the course it is possible to create a strong central government in Iraq."
But according to Pickering, it is unlikely that Iraq will ever work out the way the Bush administration had hoped.
"That Iraq will go off into the Hollywood sunset is about as fatuous as the belief that we would be there for three months and turn it over and go home," Pickering said.
Pickering also addressed the issue of Iran and its supposed desire to attain nuclear weapons. The Bush administration's current policy of not engaging in diplomatic discussions with Iran limits its options to either doing nothing or removing Iran's current regime with force, he said.
"If you are in a deep hole, you should stop digging," Pickering said. "It is time for talks and time to engage Iran on bilateral issues as well as regional problems."
Pickering said that he supports the creation of an international fuel support project that would guarantee nuclear fuel to Iran, as well as regulate how Iran uses those materials. This project would ensure that Iran used nuclear products for energy rather than for weapons.
Pickering, however, was not optimistic that such a solution would materialize.
"If one or two more rounds of negotiations prove fruitless, sanctions and even military action could become very likely," he said.
Pickering also addressed the issue of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. He praised the recent move by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull out of settlements in the west bank as representative of a legitimate desire for peace.
"The ideas of peace are in the minds of both sides and they are closer than ever to a peace between two independent states," Pickering said. "I never thought I would say that from a public platform."
According to the former diplomat, the true test will be whether this first step by Israel leads to further steps toward peace.
"In all my years working, Israel is the most volatile political society I have ever seen," he said. "The issues of borders and the internationalization of Jerusalem might become obstacles as well."
Pickering emphasized that a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, although still tenuous, would greatly improve the United States' other efforts in the Middle East.
In addition to serving as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Pickering has been the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as well as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan. He currently works as senior vice president of international relations for The Boeing Company.
Pickering spoke to an overwhelmingly elderly audience at Dartmouth Hall.