Salvaging the Possible: Policy Options in Iraq

Carlos Pascual and
Carlos Pascual Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Senior Vice President for Global Energy - IHS Markit, Former Brookings expert
Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

September 1, 2007


The January 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq presents a stark picture of a polarized and violent society beset by terrorism, widespread organized and unorganized crime, an insurgency, a failed state, and a civil war. A successful U.S. policy toward Iraq must come to grips with all of these problems if it is to have any chance of success. Unquestionably, this is a daunting challenge.

Initially, Washington insisted that the problems of Iraq were merely a problem of terrorism, and later of terrorism and an insurgency. However, pulling Iraq out of its nose-dive will require the United States to confront the far more difficult problems of Iraq as a failed state and Iraq in civil war. Historically, building the political, economic, and bureaucratic institutions of a failed state require time, commitment, and a secure environment. Ending a civil war requires a negotiated settlement among the warring parties. Both will be necessary in Iraq for any changes in military tactics and augmented troop strength to create conditions for lasting progress.

Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Congo, Mozambique, Northern Ireland and countless other conflicts have shown that civil wars require a political solution. In civil wars, military forces can keep a lid on the violence to make a political solution possible, but force alone will not translate into sustainable peace. Understanding this reality gives even greater urgency to understanding Iraq as a failed state. U.S. political strategy for Iraq has amounted to setting political benchmarks demanding that a failed Iraqi nation ensnared in a sectarian civil war fix itself. That will not happen, no matter how much pressure we apply. Nor will Iraq rebuild itself under conditions of war. If the United States could not successfully disburse the $18 billion Congress appropriated for reconstruction in 2003, we should not expect a dysfunctional Iraqi state to meet President Bush’s benchmarks on reconstruction, political reconciliation, and security.

If anything has been demonstrated by the Bush administration’s surge strategy, it is that a high concentration of American troops in the relatively small area of Baghdad can nominally improve security in that area. Yet all other indicators on political reconciliation and capacity building give no sense of confidence that nominal security improvements can be extended elsewhere without a comparable American force presence, while also maintaining increased force levels in Baghdad. U.S. domestic politics and the strain on American forces make any such scenario untenable.

Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of any sustainable outcome in Iraq without a political agreement to stop the violence and set in motion processes to begin to rebuild Iraq’s capacities for self-governance and economic regulation. The United States will need to cede political leadership to the United Nations to create a process that could potentially involve all the key players that need to accept a political settlement. Even then, the chances for success are not high. Yet the risks from failing in a diplomatic initiative are low, and the alternatives are grim. Without a truce that gets the warring parties to stop fighting, neither the United States nor the Iraqi state will succeed at providing security and a better life for its people.

This paper identifies the stakes in Iraq and why the U.S. and international community should have a stake in stability in Iraq – and if that is not possible, why we should try to contain the impact of the civil war. Because future policy will need to reflect changing security and political dynamics, we do not attempt to predict and analyze every option that might arise in the coming months. Rather, we analyze four options that represent the envelope of possibilities in Iraq: victory, stability, withdrawal, and containment. Understanding the requirements and shortcomings of these options will provide a base to define and assess future variants on these core themes.