A New Course on Iraq

Rarely in U.S. history has a political party diagnosed a major failure in the country’s approach to a crucial issue of the day, led a national referendum on the failing policy, forced a change in that policy that led to major substantive benefits for the nation — and then categorically refused to take any credit whatsoever for doing so.

This is, of course, the story of the Democrats and the Iraq war over the past 13 months. Without a Democratic takeover of the Congress in 2006, there is little chance that President Bush would have acknowledged his Iraq policy to be failing, and that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker would have been accorded the resources and the policy latitude needed to radically improve the situation on the ground.

Democrats were not the authors of the surge and in fact generally opposed it. But without their pressure, it probably never would have happened. We now have a realistic chance, not of victory, but of what my fellow Brookings scholar Ken Pollack and I call sustainable stability. Violence rates have dropped by half to two-thirds in the course of 2007, the lowest level in years. Iraq is still very unstable, but it has a chance.

Despite this progress, many Democrats are inclined to provide Bush the roughly $12 billion a month he requests for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 only if the money is devoted narrowly to counterterrorism and bringing home U.S. troops. This is a mistake.

Going positive

On strategic grounds, it appears that we now have an opportunity to salvage something significant in Iraq. Given sectarian tensions and brittle Iraqi institutions, this almost surely requires us to execute a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces there rather than an abrupt departure. In political terms, it would be rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory to mandate an end to an operation, however unpopular, just when it is showing its first signs of progress.

Democrats should change course. Rather than demand an end to the operation no matter what, they should continue to keep up the pressure for positive results in Iraq. They can retain their anti-war stance, emphasizing that their default position is that U.S. troops should soon come home absent continued major progress. The surge was never designed as just a military operation; it was intended to create political space for Iraqis to forge reconciliation with each other across sectarian lines. Since that is for the most part not yet happening, it is perfectly reasonable for the Democrats to demand more as a condition for continued funding.

The way to do this is to tie funding for Iraq operations to further progress by Iraqi leaders on their nation’s political front. Release of our money should be partly contingent on progress on the so-called benchmarks in this year’s funding bill — reforming the de-Baathification process to allow amnesty for lower-level former Baathists, expunging extremist and militia leaders from key government jobs and the security forces, passing a hydrocarbon law, moving to provincial elections and creating a provincial powers act. But we should add other stipulations to the list as well, some already raised by the Iraq Study Group in 2006.

A considerable to-do list

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government should:

  • Ensure that oil revenue keeps flowing from Baghdad to the provinces and that it increases in amount each year.
  • Guarantee that Sunni volunteers are, once properly screened, brought into Iraqi security forces. As Gen. Petraeus points out, hiring Sunnis is in effect a form of de facto amnesty or reformed de-Baathification. It is happening, but it is often too slow, especially in mixed Sunni-Shiite regions.
  • Make sure that adequate numbers of Sunnis are hired for government jobs in non-security sectors.
  • Continue to improve the legal system, including training more judges and establishing an appeals process, partly to correct for sectarian influences in the system.
  • Try to improve the situation in Kirkuk, where Arabs and Kurds contest the same land and oil fields — not by rushing to a referendum but by figuring out what should be contained in any eventual referendum and focusing on how to compensate losers in any such process.
  • More generally, create programs to help people displaced from their homes by the violence, especially if they have to settle elsewhere in Iraq. 
  • Agree to be disbanded if progress is not made on these matters soon, with new elections or a regional peace conference held to replace the government.

Who should decide whether enough has been done in these areas to justify release of Washington funds?

One straightforward option would be to reform the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. It could then issue two reports this upcoming year evaluating progress in each key area and determining whether that progress was non-existent, poor, mediocre, good, or excellent. Iraqis would need to average at least “mediocre” progress across all areas to gain continued U.S. funding. There would need to be some wiggle room in meeting these criteria, since nation-building is more art than science.

Iraq will not be a stellar success for U.S. foreign policy in any event, and the Bush administration will be forever tainted by its poor handling of the war. Even so, we have a good chance to salvage a passable outcome, and that is largely because of what Democrats have done over the past year. Now these same Democrats have a chance to take the next crucial step.