It is time for a fundamental reassessment of our policy on Iraq—not because of the spiral of violence in recent days but because the current approach is simply not working.
Many now argue that the ideological naiveté that led us into Iraq with no real plan and no understanding of that country has left us with no good options. This is indeed the greatest strategic blunder in at least a generation. But it is not enough to moan about the mess and wish we weren’t there. If we pulled out, the regional consequences of the ensuing civil war would be huge and the withdrawal would put a bull’s-eye on the back of every American in every tough corner of the world.
Nor does the president’s repeated insistence in Tuesday’s news conference that “we will stay the course” provide an answer. What “course” are we on? On the central issue—presiding over the creation of a legitimate government that can manage Iraq after we leave—the administration has been making it up all along and now seems to have no plan at all. With just 10 weeks to go before the deadline for restoring sovereignty to the Iraqis, it has no answer to this critical question: Who are the Iraqis to whom we will entrust their nation’s future?
As in Vietnam, the heart of the strategic dilemma is political: How do we form and support a government that can gain popular legitimacy in the face of a growing nationalistic reaction against our presence and thus, to some degree, against any Iraqi group we explicitly support? Not easily. But victory will be achieved only through the presence of such a government. The military defeat of our opponents is a means to that end, not victory itself. Our soldiers are fighting bravely and well. But all their efforts will be in vain if we fail to reach the central political goal of a stable Iraqi government.
The fashioning of a serious course in Iraq must be seen through the lens of its effects on Iraqi politics. Doing so suggests a five-point approach:
First, we should delay the handover of sovereignty past June 30. Yes, this would exacerbate suspicions among Iraqis about our ultimate intentions there and offer a pretext for more violence. But there is not now, nor will there be by June 30, a functioning Iraqi government—let alone a viable state—to transfer sovereignty to. None of the conceivable governing entities that might be set up by then will have the necessary legitimacy. Indeed, the interim constitution that is to form the basis of post-occupation governance has been rejected by the most powerful political figure in Iraq, the relatively moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who holds sway over the majority Shiite population. And even after a handover, the most basic governing functions will remain the responsibility of the United States. Crucially, U.S. troops will continue to call the tune—and all Iraqi security forces will remain under U.S. command. Under these circumstances, Iraqi sovereignty will be a sham and the Iraqi people will know it.
Second, we should pledge instead that the turnover of sovereignty will come as soon as a legitimate national assembly is formed after national elections (one hopes by early next year). The assembly would be responsible for appointing a transitional government and drawing up a new constitution. This should reassure Ayatollah Sistani and give him a stake in helping to create a situation conducive to the elections. It should also strengthen his hand against Shiite radicals, such as Moqtada Sadr, who are benefiting politically from military confrontation with the United States.
Third, rather than pulling back or reducing our forces, we should reinforce them. Elections will require security. Even if our military commanders and their Pentagon civilian leaders (who have consistently underestimated the necessary force levels) decide to keep some of our troops there rather than rotate them out, it is clear that deterrence of future attacks on foreign forces, and the provision of real security for Iraqis throughout the country, require far more military force than we have now. No political solution is possible without this security.
Fourth, we should use our own willingness to commit more troops as leverage in seeking additional military contributions from other nations or, at the least, to stiffen the backbones of current contributors who may be going wobbly. More important in gaining their support would be, at long last and perhaps belatedly, a request that NATO command the military operation.
Fifth, our effort to gain more military support must be part of a broader push to involve the international community more in running the country. The Coalition Provisional Authority is an American-run affair. It would have been far better if it had been international from the start. President Bush should convene a summit of major countries in Europe soon and ask for their help in remaking Iraq. While committing U.S. resources, he should propose that an ad hoc consortium of countries take control of the CPA, putting a non-American in charge. We need the expertise, energy and expenditures of other countries to help make Iraq a success—not least through broadening the international support and thus the legitimacy of any new Iraqi governing structure.
This change in policy might look like poison to the president’s domestic political advisers. It would require implicitly admitting that the course the administration has been on is failing—something the president showed no sign of wanting to do during his prime-time news conference this week. But he should understand that it is Iraqi politics, not ours, that will determine whether we have any chance of success there. And he should remember that in the end, even in this age of spin, it is good policies abroad that produce good political results at home.