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August 05, 2008

Not Good Enough
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Stephen Biddle, Mike O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack have an interesting piece in Foreign Affairs that is drawing a lot of attention.  They argue that if things keep going as they are in Iraq we might be able to reduce to about half the current troop levels by the middle of 2011.  Needless to say, I have some concerns.  And I just don't think they lay out a very compelling or clear case to leave large numbers of troops in Iraq for that long.

First, I'm not sure I agree with this important observation about the political process, which inevitably becomes a justification for a prolonged American troop presence:

Reconciliation will require all the major Iraqi factions to accept painful compromises simultaneously. If any major party holds out and decides to fight rather than accept risky sacrifices for the larger good, then its rivals will find it very hard to hold their own followers to the terms of a cease-fire -- likely plunging Iraq back into open warfare. If reconciliation can be done slowly, via small steps, then each stage of compromise is likely to be tolerable, with the risk of one holdout party exploiting the others kept to a manageable level. In contrast, if reconciliation must be done quickly, with a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal, the necessary compromises will be great -- making them extremely risky for all parties.

Maybe this is right.  But it could be just the opposite.  It could be that what is necessary is a grand bargain right now and that this is what we should be working for.  The argument that Pollack, O'Hanlon and Biddle make is the same one that was made about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993.  But in retrospect what was needed there was a quicker process, while the facts on the ground looked good and both Israeli and Palestinian leaders were politically strong and in a position to make major concessions.  Now, it could be that things will only get better in Iraq.  But I think it's just as likely that we are right now at a fragile and remarkable moment that needs to be taken advantage of.  It could be that we should be trying to facilitate a grand bargain, instead of sitting back and trying to put together a piecemeal negotiation that really has no overall direction and where the various bargaining points and key issues are not strung together to create larger choices for the various parties.  Negotiating Kirkuk separately from a national oil law separately from SOIs integration separately from provincial elections only creates a more muddled and complicated situation and might make a positive outcome less likely.  If it's too slow some of the groups may also lose patience and decide to go back to violence to achieve their objectives.  This is most likely in the case of the SOIs, who still have the capacity to cause serious damage and might not wait forever to be integrated.

Second, if the authors truly believe that political compromise is the way to lock in longtime stability. And if their justification for maintaining such a large troop presence in Iraq is to provide security so that political progress can take place, they need to do a better job of outlining some proposals on how political progress can actually occur.  Instead their proposals on the political front read almost like an afterthought.  There isn't much meat on the bone.

On the SOIs:

Some mix of security-sector and civilian employment must be found for the Sons of Iraq to satisfy their economic needs -- and their security concerns vis-à-vis Iraq's Shiite majority. As with other needed intersectarian compromises in Iraq, this will require hard bargaining. But the increasing stability, along with the security that the improving ISF give to the Maliki regime, offers a reason to believe that such bargaining can eventually succeed if the United States stands firm.

In other words.  Hold firm and hope or the best.

On refugees:

There need to be large-scale resettlement programs for the displaced. One solution would be a government voucher program to help people build new houses, perhaps in their original provinces but not necessarily their original cities or neighborhoods. Iraq should fund most of any such program, but American and international advisers can help design the program -- and then help in the critical tasks of implementing it fairly across sectarian lines and protecting the populations trying to relocate.

Not a bad recommendation.   But thus far the Iraqi Government has shown zero inclination to do this. 

On Kirkuk:

Preventing Kirkuk from becoming a flashpoint will require compromises on a range of difficult issues. The city and its environs, once heavily Kurdish, were "Arabized" by Saddam in an effort to weaken the Kurdish hold on Iraq's northern oil-producing region. Many Kurds were displaced by the influx of Arabs, and now, in much of the city, two different families claim every house. A solution might involve giving most Kurds their homes back or creating a voucher system to enable them to build new ones. Ensuring that all of Iraq's major groups are comfortable with a settlement on oil-revenue sharing and oil exploration will also be critical for Kirkuk. A fair resolution on oil requires making future oil wealth a national asset to be shared equally by all Iraqis. Resolving the problem of Kirkuk is likely to take considerable time, especially since any rapid resolution might produce considerable bloodshed.

Again.  Outside of waiting.  This doesn't actually get to the core of how you solve the problem or provide any detail. 

Finally, there is the question of Iraq-centrism, which dominates so many of these proposals.  There is very little mention of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, pressure on the military.   The arguments are not framed in America's broader strategic interests and the opportunity cost of staying.  That is just taken as a given.

Overall, if you are going to propose leaving this many American troops in Iraq for this long you'd think there would be more details.  A political plan.  Dare I say...  A roadmap.  Something that lends strategic clarity.  And you'd also have a better justification for how Iraq fits into overall American strategy.  But Biddle, O'Hanlon and Pollack fail to do that.  Instead the argument essentially amount to:  "Regardless of our other interests around the world, we have to stay so the Iraqis can work it out.  But outside of a very vague conception, we really have no idea how they are going to do that."  Not good enough.


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I personally believe that Pollack, O'Hanlon, and Biddle really don't want the Americans to withdraw from Iraq. They probably support American soldiers staying in Iraq forever because it would leave some American ground presence in the Middle East. But what they do not seem to realize is that the American presence in Iraq is actually detrimennal to the US strategy in the region due to the fact that it aids extremists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. If the Israels attack Iran it also puts American forces in the crosshairs of a potential Iranian-Israeli conflict. As a I have stated before the American presence in Iraq impedes any type of political reconciliaton since the Sunnis or the Shiites assume that the Americans are on their side and thereby can ignore any political compromise.

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Not a bad recommendation. But thus far the Iraqi Government has shown zero inclination to do this.

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