The ongoing political deadlock in the Iraqi government is arguably the greatest impediment to the country’s stability. Not until Iraq’s major parties replace paralysis with compromise will the sectarian warfare subside.
But it is not only in Baghdad that political stalemate threatens Iraq’s future. Partisan divisions in the United States are also a major obstacle to moving beyond the current crisis in Iraq.
Washington as well as Baghdad has been beset by political gridlock, with President Bush and the Democratic Congress at loggerheads over the war. Despite overnight sessions in the Senate, only a handful of Republicans have joined the Democrats in calling for withdrawal. The Republicans continue to chase illusory hopes of victory while the Democrats want to cut mounting losses, denying the country the political consensus needed to guide U.S statecraft.
Not since the 1920s and 1930s has U.S. foreign policy been so bedeviled by partisanship. During those decades, the United States lurched incoherently between stark alternatives, ultimately settling on the false security of isolationism.
It took World War II and the onset of the Cold War to reverse the polarization. By the late 1940s, partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge. Democrats and Republicans found common cause in liberal internationalism: America projected its power abroad, but it usually sought to secure its interests through alliances and diplomacy rather than unilateral initiative. When the United States pursued this formula of power plus partnership, successes in foreign policy followed.
This bipartisan compact has come undone. Today, most Republicans in Congress contend that U.S. security depends mainly on the use of military force and they see international cooperation primarily as an impediment. They staunchly back Bush’s policies in Iraq; for Republicans the war has become a test of American resolve. In contrast, most Democrats maintain that advancing U.S. interests depends more on diplomacy than military coercion. They view the war as the product of ideological excess and a stain on America’s image abroad. This growing partisan gap is evident among voters as well as elected officials.
Fueled by these ideological divides, mounting partisanship has engulfed Washington. According to one widely used index, Congress is more polarized today than at any time in the last 100 years. This confrontation is a recipe for paralysis at home and certain failure in Iraq.
Building a bipartisan consensus on Iraq will require both parties to give considerable ground.
First, Democrats and Republicans alike must close ranks around a strategy of power plus diplomacy. Even as Democrats continue to call for more negotiations with Iraq’s neighbors, they will need to accept that a headlong military retreat would run unacceptable risks, and that a reserve of U.S. power will be needed in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Democrats are right to insist on disengagement from the major centers of sectarian warfare, enabling the withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. forces. But a sizable residual force will be needed to contain the zones of sectarian warfare, combat Al Qaeda, deter intervention by Iraq’s neighbors and protect civilians.
In return, the White House will have to accept less power and more diplomacy. Bush will have to acknowledge that the military surge is not bringing stability to Iraq and that the United States must opt for a much more limited strategy of containment. As it joins Democrats in making this switch in strategy, the White House must be prepared to set clear deadlines for withdrawal and redeployment. And as Democrats accept the need for a reserve of U.S. power in Iraq, the Bush administration will have to make a far more serious effort at regional diplomacy with Iran and Syria.
Second, Democrats and Republicans must dampen the partisan rancor surrounding debate over Iraq. To do so, Democrats should announce a rolling moratorium on congressional investigation into the White House’s conduct of the war. A full accounting of the past will be needed, but now is not the time. Democrats should hold their fire and give the administration an opportunity to make good on withdrawal and redeployment deadlines.
In return, the White House should agree to close Guantánamo. The prison remains an international symbol of the excesses of the Bush presidency, and Democrats have been clamoring to shut it down. The willingness of Republicans to do so will not only help repair the partisan divide but also begin the process of restoring America’s damaged credibility abroad.
Third, the Democrats should take up President Bush’s offer, made during this year’s State of the Union, to establish a bipartisan congressional committee to work with the White House in overseeing the Iraq war. The committee should contain equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. In return, cabinet-level officials should meet with this committee on a weekly basis. This dialogue will be essential to restore a measure of trust between the executive and the legislature and between Republicans and Democrats.
As American officials pressure their Iraqi counterparts to set aside their differences in the name of national reconciliation, they should keep in mind that reaching across the aisle starts at home.
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Peter L. Trubowitz is a professor of government at the University ofTexas at Austinand a senior fellow at the Robert S. StraussCenter for International Security and Law.
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