- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite our long overdue “surge” in Iraq, political and religious violence continues to spike: Rival Sunni and Shi’ite militant groups are not “going away” and are insistent on being the dominant part of any political and economic settlement. To guarantee it, the various factions and their militias retain significant military capability and political influence, especially in the key oil-producing regions of the country.

Most of the operative parts of the provisional government we are supporting — especially the senior political officials who are also connected to the various factions — are hedging their bets so they can survive a post U.S. drawdown, which they all assume is coming.

Assuming this is a realistic — albeit negative — assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq, what should the Bush administration be doing over the next few months before our presidential election, and what should our next administration — whether it’s a Republican or a Democratic one — be planning to do in Iraq in 2009 and beyond?

Believe it or not, it’s rather a simple set of alternatives, controlled as much by political realities in the U.S. as it will be by those in Iraq.

First, let’s look at the extremes:

Are we capable of pulling up stakes and leaving in a matter of days or weeks, knowing that the political and military networks we have established there would be pulled up by the roots? A rapid U.S. pullout would also invite the Iranians to further influence and even occupy the oil-rich Shi’ite regions of Iraq in the South, and encourage the Turks to take whatever action they determined appropriate for their security in the Northern Kurdish regions of Iraq, which could include the longer-term defensive occupation of territory there.

But, could we do it anyway? Sure, we did it in Vietnam and there was never a responsible accounting for it; it is a sad legacy of our politics that we are entirely capable of such radical inconsistencies — and if the Democrats win in November it would be a way to rub the defeat of President Bush’s policies in Iraq squarely in the faces of the Republicans. It is after all, “George Bush’s war” and the Democrats — if they win — must make a significant turn away from it in order to blame him for the war and all the negatives that occur in the future as a result of it.

However, and because it is a “Republican war,” if the Republicans win in the fall we may not be able to make a significant change in our Iraq policy; nevertheless, a new Republican administration offers at least the opportunity to walk away from some of the more unrealistic goals we have pursued there for the past five years. But “opportunity” is one thing and reality is another: How likely is it that a new Republican administration could actually make substantial policy changes in Iraq?

Policy is largely driven by people, and a new Republican administration is not going to be able to make significant changes in Bush administration policies unless they “clean house” of the senior political appointees in the National Security Council, Department of Defense and the State Department. This won’t be easy, because Bush administration appointees who want to stay or move into even higher positions already have their contingency plans in place, and will use whatever influence they have to stay on the job. So, even if John McCain wins and wants to make significant policy changes in Iraq, he’ll probably need a new team of national security seniors to do it for him.

Now, let’s assume the Democrats win in November, and the new administration sets about to determine how it wants to begin the exit from Iraq. And, let’s further assume that the new senior national security people determine that they cannot politically deal with the negatives of a rapid pull-out, even if they’d like to do it. So, they determine that they have to come up with a plan that:

1. Doesn’t look like a simple hand-over of Iraq to the Iranians;

2. Is politically responsive to their campaign promises to “get out of Iraq”;

3. Is acceptable to most Democrats and a respectable number of Republicans in Congress;

4. Appeals intellectually to the internationalists that traditionally occupy the Democratic Party, including various academics and the more liberal think tanks.

These criteria would seem to gravitate the Democrats toward a version of the “Biden-Gelb plan,” a proposal by Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and academic Les Gelb. The plan divides Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, with a loose federal structure providing border security and the equitable distribution of oil revenues — all this occurring while U.S. forces are being “responsibly withdrawn.”

A problem for some with the plan is that it continues to define a role for U.S. forces until the basic “political settlement takes hold,” and thereafter for training and counterterrorism. However, the plan describes the U.S. military presence, as a “small residual force.” A key question with regard to the plan, therefore, is whether this is realistic.

As always with such matters, the “devil is in the details” and the entire plan would have to be carefully evaluated and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is the case especially in context of the entire spectrum of regional threats to the United States and our allies — as well as the budgetary impact of the plan, which could easily cost as much as our current operations in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the Biden-Gelb plan offers a responsible way for a new administration — Democrat or Republican — to extract us from a war that has never gone as predicted, and has become a deep political divide for Americans. In recognition of this — and assuming senior Bush administration appointees were capable of it — it would be wise to at least begin evaluating the plan in consultation with both presidential candidates and the Congress — especially Mr. Biden — who could easily be our next secretary of state.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac institute for policy studies in Arlington, Va.

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