Last Chance in Iraq?

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

January 11, 2007

If you could set aside the President’s usual off-key rhetoric about the threat of terrorism and the importance of freedom, the plan he outlined for Iraq isn’t bad at all. As elaborated far more fully by senior Administration officials and a slew of paper from the White House, the plan emphasizes (among other things) employing paired Iraqi and American units to protect Iraqi population centers, starting with Baghdad; using the “space” so created to spur local economic revival; decentralizing power away from the corrupt and inefficient central government; implementing a new oil-revenue sharing agreement that would make resources available to new local Iraqi political bodies; and greatly increasing not just the numbers of American troops but, of far greater importance, increasing the numbers of American civilian personnel in Iraq outside the Green Zone. These are all necessary steps for there to be any chance of pulling Iraq out of its nose-dive toward all-out civil war. And contrary to the protestations of many of the President’s critics, an additional 20,000 American troops could make a useful difference in helping to implement such a plan.

In fact, some version of this plan should have been adopted years ago, and if it had been, it would have stood a good likelihood of succeeding. Even as late as the spring of last year, when Lt . General Peter Chiarelli proposed a similar plan, there was good reason to believe that it could have stabilized the country and set it on a path toward eventual functionality. Today, it still can be commended as being the only plan to stabilize Iraq that has any chance of succeeding, although the prospects are much dimmer than they were even a year ago.

That said, any outside observer must have at least three important reservations about supporting the President’s new plan.

  1. It may be too late. Civil wars are born of dangerous psychological dynamics that can be difficult to stop once they have started. These dynamics have already been unleashed in Iraq and we simply do not know if even the right plan, implemented by the right personnel, with the right resources could still make a difference. In February 2006, The Iraq Strategy Working Group convened by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution issued a massive plan for Iraq similar to what the President has finally proposed (available here); in that report, we warned that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating so quickly that the United States should not assume that it had more 6-12 months to turn things around by adopting such a plan. It is now 11 months later, and it is unlcear if at this late date, even the right plan can still make a difference.
  2. This Administration has not demonstrated a high degree of competence. Even under better circumstances, a plan like this one could only be a complicated undertaking, requiring considerable realism and competence on the part of the officials charged with implementing it. Unfortunately, this Administration’s record is poor on both scores, and many of the catastrophic problems in Iraq today can be traced back to bad ideas, badly executed. The replacement of Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as well as the succession of Lt. General David Petraeus to the command of all Coalition forces in Iraq does offer some hope. Both men are smart, pragmatic, effective, and highly competent. This suggests that the military side of the American effort may run better than ever before. However, as is frequently intoned but rarely acted upon, the military cannot possibly win the struggle for Iraq by itself. Even if Gates and Petraeus deliver a brilliant performance (and they may well), without a commensurate civilian effort to deliver the political, economic, diplomatic, and social components, the plan will still fail. And those aspects of the plan remain in the hands of the same officials who have yet to demonstrate they can actually pull them off.
  3. We have heard it all before. This is not the first time that the Bush Administration, or even the President, has gone before the nation, admitted to making mistakes and promised to change direction. In the fall of 2005, the President made a series of speeches that were far better than anything the nation had heard before from him, and outlining a new approach to Iraq that contained some interesting and potentially helpful ideas. Secretary of State Rice went before Congress promising to switch to a strategy of “Clear, hold and build”-one of many shorthands used to describe the right military approach for situations like Iraq’s current mess-the strategy the President effectively outline last night. Both she and the President held up the highly successful American operations at Tal Afar as the example that all Coalition operations in Iraq would be expected to conform to. It was all lovely, but it turned out to be nothing but words. The Administration did not follow-through on its promises; it did not provide the resources to “hold” or “build” making the operations to “clear” parts of Iraq meaningless. The Tal Afar model did not become the template for any other operations. Thus, while acknowledging that the President is saying (by and large) the right things about what the United States should try to do in Iraq if it is to have any hope of stabilizing the country, his Administration’s past actions leave room to doubt that they will actually live up to the rhetoric. At the very least, the American taxpayer and the U.S. Congress ought to demand that the Administration prove that it is actually honoring its own, long overdue, words.

In the end, every American, Democrat, Republican, or other, ought to hope that it is not too late for this plan to work, that the Administration now has the right people to execute it, and that they actually live up to their promises, because it is surely our last chance to prevent catastrophic failure in Iraq. And that would be disastrous, not only for the Iraqis, but for all of the people of the Middle East, and likely for all Americans as well.