The next president of the United States will inherit 130,000 to 150,000 troops in Iraq amidst a fractured state of Iraqi politics that includes nascent stability in some provinces, militias armed to the gills, and little or no consensus on major national issues that are fundamental to a viable Iraqi state.1 A precipitous troop withdrawal could unleash an internal conflagration that could increase the threat of transnational terrorism, send oil prices soaring further, and add to the number and anguish of 4.7 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. Yet keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is an unsustainable stopgap in the absence of a political agreement among Iraq’s warring factions.
The next U.S. president should seek the help of the United Nations to broker a political settlement in Iraq that breaks through this Gordian knot. Military interventions can help shape the conditions for a political settlement, but without a consensus on peace, military force alone is unsustainable. That has been the case in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Sudan, and Liberia, and it will be the case in Iraq. If Iraqis cannot get over their differences to negotiate a political settlement, then U.S. troops cannot resolve their differences for them and should be withdrawn.
A peace initiative must go beyond platitudes about commitments to diplomacy. A central UN role would provide an umbrella to engage Iraq’s neighbors and to garner international support from Europe, China, India, and Japan, all of which depend on Middle East energy. The next U.S. president must make it clear that the United States will coordinate military action to support the diplomatic process. A political settlement, if reached, will require international troops, including troops from the United States, to implement it.
The chances for brokering a political settlement are not high. Iraqi factions may still think they can fight and win. Provincial and parliamentary elections are scheduled, respectively, for the fall of 2008 and in 2009. Whether elections will exacerbate political competition among rival factions or inject public accountability remains to be seen. Still, a political settlement is worth pursuing to garner a truce around core issues that divide Iraqis so that a base for sustainable peace is created. The gains from success are huge; the fallout from failure is limited. The process of reviving an international diplomatic process on Iraq could help our friends and allies come to appreciate that they, too, have a stake in ending this war.