Two Deadlines, Two Bad Premises
John Kerry contends that Iraq is “in the middle of an escalating civil war” and offers a simple policy suggestion for dealing with it:
Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren’t willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they’re probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.
If Iraq’s leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year’s end. Doing so will empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country. Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain.
For three years now, the administration has told us that terrible things will happen if we get tough with the Iraqis. In fact, terrible things are happening now because we haven’t gotten tough enough. With two deadlines, we can change all that. We can put the American leadership on the side of our soldiers and push the Iraqi leadership to do what only it can do: build a democracy.
This is a variant of the John Murtha strategy and has become the spreading meme of the Democratic security machine. It has the virtues of being 1) a plan, which is more than Kerry seemed to have while running for president and 2) simple.
It has been said that, for every complex problem, there is at least one solution that is simple, easy to explain, and completely wrong. This may well be it for the Iraq War.
It begins from a reasonable enough premise: Things are not going as well in Iraq as we would like and the path we are now on has no end in sight. Unfortunately, it also relies on at least two additional premises, neither of which have the virtue of being correct.
First, Kerry contends that the Iraqis have taken so long to form a government because they “aren’t willing.” While I agree that the process has been maddeningly slow, it is obvious that they have been constantly negotiating for months. The problem, however, is that Iraq is a very diverse society with numerous reinforcing cleavages [*] which has been exacerbated by the adoption of a painfully complex proportional representation election scheme that allowed each electoral faction to chose a satisfying but too small electoral slate. Furthermore, these representatives are in a society with no history of democratic back-and-forth and no institutionalized trust. Italy had essentially the same problems, to a much lesser degree, following World War Two and still hasn’t solved them.
Second, Kerry believes deadlines force people to get things done without negative side effects. The first part of that is true, as the recent NFL labor deal demonstrated. The second part is not. By setting a deadline for departure of American troops, one merely incentivizes the guerrillas to rest up. After all, why get killed targeting highly trained American troops when one can simply wait a few months and take on comparatively green Iraqi forces?
It’s true that Kerry’s plan, like Murtha’s, calls for placing our troops in “garrison” for “emergency response.” While that sounds well and good, the political fact of the matter is that, once out, there is no going back in. If we are going to cut and run from “an escalating civil war” that we helped create, we surely would not try to impose ourself into a full blown civil war that developed after our departure.
Indeed, if Kerry actually supported doing that, then he concedes that the present mission itself is worthwhile and worth the risk of American lives. If not, why would he suggest that “emergency response,” which would involve the need for a very risky re-insertion, was worth doing? What would be the nature of the “emergency” that would justify the risk that is not now extant?
Kerry then invokes the D-word:
For this transition to work, we must finally begin to engage in genuine diplomacy. We must immediately bring the leaders of the Iraqi factions together at a Dayton Accords-like summit meeting. In a neutral setting, Iraqis, working with our allies, the Arab League and the United Nations, would be compelled to reach a political agreement that includes security guarantees, the dismantling of the militias and shared goals for reconstruction.
This is rather bewildering because the administration is already applying substantial diplomatic pressure, including trying to get Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside, removing one of the major remaining obstacles. And, frankly, adding the additional factional interests of the UN and the Arab League (which is increasingly radicalized) to the mix would not be helpful. Both institutions would, to cite one issue, greatly complicate negotiations with the Kurds.
David Ignatius gets it right:
[I]t would be folly if American impatience torpedoed the slow but real progress Iraqi leaders are making toward a government that could step back from the brink of civil war. “We need to be patient to get it right,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told me in a telephone interview yesterday. “Their concept of time is not the same as ours. While we press them to hurry up, the American people also need to be patient.”
Quite right. The rest of his column details both the very real progress that has been made–the basic outline for a governmental system has been agreed to by all the major parties–and the real problems which will need time to be resolved, notably the personal issues of who gets what jobs. That’s going to take time, to be sure, but will happen.
Update: Jon Henke believes the piece deserves “serious consideration” even though he disagrees with unspecified parts of it.
Richard Fernandez has a long review essay excerpting from several worthwhile articles recently published. One paragraph in particular is worth highlighting:
[T]he Sunni leaders appear to have accepted, in principle at least, that they are no longer dominant; simply one of the parties in Iraq. This suggests they have signed on to the Iraqi constitutional roadmap in theory. But every party still has grave reservations over whether the others can be trusted. That is why the rest of the package consists of a series of checks and balances to ensure that no one group controls the security forces, and prevents their use without the unanimous consensus of all parties. (Like the UN Security Council). But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will make sure the rules are followed? The United States, apparently.
That seems to be the plan, anyway. While the presence of U.S. troops undoubtedly complicates matters tremendously, they are also undeniably a security presence that most of the major players at least begrudgingly accept. Ignatius closes his piece with a quote from Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington: “America came to Iraq uninvited. You should not leave uninvited.”
Or, to use a quote often attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “You broke it, you bought it.”
As an aside, Kevin Drum is right when he criticizes the administration for trying to do Iraqi democracy on the cheap. It’s a longstanding problem [see here and here] that is quite inexplicable given that this is the policy by which the Bush presidency will be judged.