Skip to main content

Success in Iraq Is Up to the Iraqis


President Bush has been emphatic in saying that American troops will leave Iraq only when conditions there allow it. His “stay the course” approach, underscoring the progress Iraq needs to make in security and other areas before we can prudently depart, has sent a powerful signal to our Iraqi friends that our commitment is durable — and to our Iraqi and jihadist enemies that we will not be intimidated into a hasty departure.

For the first few years of U.S. involvement in Iraq this “conditions-based” exit strategy made some sense. But in view of the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad and the emergence of an escalating sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the time has come for what might be called a conditions-based commitment strategy.

This new strategy would make our continued military presence in the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq contingent on the Iraqi government’s initiating long-overdue steps that are crucial for any prospect of success. It would be similar to what Congress demanded of El Salvador in the 1980s, when continued U.S. assistance was made conditional on substantial progress toward the elimination of government-sponsored death squads and greater respect for human rights in general. Such an approach in Iraq could spark needed reforms while still allowing the president sufficient flexibility.

This approach recognizes that the most important policy decisions now needed in Iraq can be undertaken only by Iraqis. It also recognizes the changed politics of Iraq in the United States. Most Americans think we are either losing or treading water — and their assessment is not far off. If the Iraq mission is to remain politically sustainable at home, we need to make it clear that our commitment is not open-ended and that without essential reforms we will not continue to spend American blood and treasure on a failing operation.

Right now Iraq faces a Sunni-based insurgency that is morphing into a Sunni-Shiite civil war. To have any hope of defeating the insurgency, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration needs to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni community, giving Sunnis a stake in the success of a government they no longer dominate and depriving the resistance of the support it enjoys from as much as 20 percent of the population. To have any hope of preventing civil war, the government must eliminate the Shiite death squads that have fueled the downward spiral toward an all-out sectarian conflict.

To succeed, the Iraqi government must make substantial progress over the next few months in:

  • Adopting a series of constitutional amendments and related legislation that address the concerns of the Sunni community, while also being acceptable to Kurds and Shiites, on key issues such as federalism and the equitable distribution of Iraq’s future oil revenue.
  • Reining in the Shiite militias. This is the hardest challenge of all, since Maliki’s government depends on the support of the party leaders whose militias he needs to bring under control.
  • Creating and implementing a plan for rehabilitating lower-level Baathists so that those who were essentially forced to join the party under Saddam Hussein but were never directly complicit in its crimes can fully reenter the nation’s political and economic life.
  • Establishing functioning government ministries capable of delivering essential services. These are all steps that both the Bush and Maliki administrations have already endorsed. But this approach would make our continued military presence in the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq contingent on their implementation within a reasonable period.

    To be sure, the cost of failure in Iraq would be enormous. Jihadists would gain a new bastion in the region and be confirmed in their view that the United States is a paper tiger. In addition, a major oil producer would be condemned to a sectarian conflict that would probably be much worse than the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s (in which 150,000 Lebanese lost their lives). Our claims to care about a key Muslim nation would be mocked, and a strategically crucial part of the world would risk slipping into a broader regional conflict. But whether such a failure can be averted depends much more on the Iraqis than it does on the United States.

    The debate over Iraq in the United States has become extraordinarily polarized. Given the implications of an American failure, most Republicans argue that we should stay the course regardless of the cost in life and money and even our prospects for success. Given the price being paid, most Democrats believe we should begin the process of withdrawing now, regardless of the consequences.

    National disunity in time of war is a recipe for failure. By recognizing the imperative of success in Iraq, while also recognizing that success is not possible in the absence of measures that only the Iraqi government can take, a conditions-based commitment strategy has the potential not only to induce the Iraqi government to do what it must but also to unite the American people around a policy more firmly rooted in Iraqi and American realities.

  • Get daily updates from Brookings