- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

War is about compelling and coercing human behavior. The official raison d’etat for attacking Saddam Hussein was to compel him to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Because the Iraq war has entered a more dangerous and difficult phase, and four long months have elapsed since the election, the current American aim is to compel or cajole Iraqis to end the violence and finally form a government. That aim, however, is increasingly disconnected from any means to achieve it. And time is not on our side.

Because of political disarray in Baghdad, the current debate in Washington has understandably jumped to finding the most effective way of forcing or convincing Iraqi politicians to resolve their differences. The Bush administration’s rhetoric is “to stay the course,” believing that only through continued U.S. military presence can the insurgency be defeated and a lasting government formed.

Democrats such as John Kerry argue that the leverage necessary to compel Iraq’s politicians to act will only come from the threat and then the reality of a major American troop withdrawal, not continued presence. Writing in the “other” Times last week, Mr. Kerry went on to propose a “Dayton”-like conference as a means of engaging regional states in helping bring stability to Iraq and preventing a civil war from breaking out, a civil war in which Americans should not be asked to give up their lives to fight.

This is the dilemma. If we stay, what is the added inducement for Iraq to form a stable government? If we go, will that departure trigger a major civil war and collapse the fragile Iraqi security forces that remain entirely dependent on the U.S. military for virtually everything? And when a government emerges, what will ensure it lasts? Hence, Mr. Kerry is absolutely right in pushing for a diplomatic alternative.

What must we do? Crucially, we must recognize that the only substantive pole left in our Iraqi tent is training Iraqi security forces. That must be done with the utmost urgency. Reconstruction has not worked so far and fighting between Sunni and Shia, misnomered as “sectarian violence,” has grown worse. The U.S. military has little or no role to play in successfully separating these warring factions. Clearly, the principal effort for America’s military must be to train Iraq’s forces to take on the security mission soonest.

As Iraq’s capability builds up, the president argues we will build down — a sensible proposition. But senior U.S. military officers privately predict that it will take years to train up an Iraqi security force capable of operating on its own without a U.S. safety net. If that is a correct assessment and the violence does not abate, we and Iraq are in grave trouble unless we make some fundamental changes.

The administration has argued that laying out specific plans for this transition of responsibility is in the “too tough” category — what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sees as too many “unknown unknowns” that raise so many uncertainties to preclude making any accurate and detailed forecasts. Both parties in Congress have tolerated this excuse. Congress no longer can allow the administration this luxury of imprecision.

The military knows well how long it takes and how much it costs to train soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines; to conduct basic and advanced training; and to retrain large-scale units prior to deployment. While Iraq is not the United States, there is no logical reason why we cannot produce a plan that can accelerate this job, including precise answers as to how quickly and how much it will take to field a competent indigenous Iraqi security force. A plan however is necessary, not sufficient. Wrongly or not executed, the best plans are worthless.

In a perfect world where national interests override partisan politics, Congress can compel an administration to act, in this instance to produce and carry out a “beefed-up” plan for training Iraqis. If it chose to exert real leverage, Congress could threaten to cut off spending as it did to end the Vietnam War or charge senior civilian officials in the executive branch with contempt of Congress intimating potential punitive measures to spur a response should appropriate action not be taken.

Of course, the chances of that happening are less than the chances of seeing democracy bloom in Iraq next month. Instead, the likely outcome will be a variant of how government has dealt with the budget deficit, Dubai Port World, Medicare reform, Katrina and a host of other unsatisfactory examples.

Today, the urgent fielding of Iraqi security forces is our best and probably our last hope for success. Time is now an enemy. Unless we understand these realities and act swiftly, the prospects for peace in Iraq will grow ever more distant.

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