US Foreign Policy

Iraq: Hard Choices, Real Consequences

in Program

This commentary was also published in the Daily Star on December 29, 2006

The daily toll of events in Iraq and the intensity of media coverage from Baghdad, combined with the current political campaign, make it hard to allow ideas on the Iraq crisis to be considered with the sober and somber deliberation they deserve. The pressure to squeeze new policy options into political frames that are instantly interpreted as for or against the incumbent administration does a disservice to the ideas and the people working hard to prevent further calamity in Iraq.

The situation now increasingly appears to be on a downward spiral, with potentially tragic consequences for both Iraq and America. Given this judgment, many believe it is too late to salvage the original U.S. policy objectives, and thoughtful people of deep expertise across the political spectrum are shifting to the view that leaving Iraq is becoming the least bad option. They judge that the kinds of violence that are daily undermining the current Iraqi government and the entire American effort there are either made worse by the US presence, or are impermeable to US security measures.

By this thinking, the violence could ebb if we left, or, in a more pessimistic view, the Iraqis are now caught in a maelstrom that must play itself out before a new equilibrium can be found. This is the radical paradigm shift some are calling for: abandon the original goals and do what needs to be done to stop the hemorrhaging of American lives, treasure, credibility and leadership.

Others believe that the stakes for American interests, in Iraq and beyond, are too high if we leave defeated, and still seek a set of course changes that might produce better outcomes, preparing the Iraqi leadership and the region for a planned departure. This is a less radical shift, but still constitutes a significant change from the past rhetoric of the Administration, and would entail new policy guidance to Americans deployed in Iraq, in uniform and out. This view is premised on enduring strategic American interests in the Middle East, and weighs heavily the pain and cost that would accrue to the United States by an unambiguous defeat and humiliating withdrawal from Iraq. In this view, abandoning the new political class in Iraq, with all its shortcomings, and condemning it to deal alone with the consequences of a failed occupation, would have lasting repercussions for America’s soft power and influence. The world is an interdependent place, and one cannot imagine how American interests in energy security, in promoting Arab-Israeli peace, in engaging with Muslim publics would be advanced by a catastrophic abandonment of Iraq.

Thousands of Americans are on the ground in Iraq, trying to do useful things. This includes not only training security forces, but advising official and non-official Iraqis on matters big and small relating to the new constitution and restoring the country’s damaged infrastructure. At least as important, millions of Iraqis are trying to construct their lives in a new political era, and not all are yet paralyzed with hatred or fear.

There is another reality in Iraq, as hard as it is to see from the headlines and images available to Americans at home. We believe there is still a need for practical debate about policy options that might better serve this reality ¡s a need for ideas about how to change the dynamic, in order to secure some semblance of stability for Iraq in the medium to longer term.

Over the past year, we considered such practical steps in a working group comprised of many distinguished former practitioners with Iraq experience and academics who think about insurgencies and civil wars. Their recommendations do not fit neatly in the polarized discussion of Iraq that pushes simply for withdrawal or the increasingly surreal and recently discarded “stay the course”. They included :

  • A warning against pushing for too much centralization of political power in Iraq. Better to emphasize the importance of legal and political processes; if regionalism occurs through effective engagement among the parties, it may not mean the breakup of the state.
  • A recommendation to stand back from some of the choices the Iraqi government makes to focus on supporting real participation and fair processes more than specific outcomes.
  • In the security arena, proposals to recalibrate our military presence and place more emphasis on helping the Iraqis develop effective policies for disarming militias and working in areas of sectarian strife, including ambitious employment and reconciliation plans
  • A call to streamline and simplify US engagement in the Iraqi economy, making sure that more aid dollars reach the Iraqis and that US expertise is offered in discrete sectors where we can really make a difference.
  • Overall, and most centrally, a focus on the imperative of transferring more decision-making authority to the Iraqis, and bringing more international and regional participation into Iraq¡s’ state building effort.

These recommendations still carry the force of logic, even as events have moved the situation farther into evident crisis.

Below the radar screen of what has become a painful national political discussion in the U.S., there is a reality on the ground in Iraq that must be addressed. It seems clear at this point that only a series of intense and likely difficult negotiations  among Iraqis, between the U.S and the Iraqi government, and with other countries in the region and outside of it will have a chance of bringing about an acceptable outcome. This means, inevitably, an attitude of compromise and a willingness to engage openly with others over very different ways to help keep Iraq a viable state and over the question of how and when to decrease a military presence that seems increasingly less meaningful with each passing week.

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