Because the current course in Iraq is a losing course, we have to prepare ourselves to make the toughest decisions since the end of the Cold War. Neither Democrats nor Republicans alone will make them: No one wants to be blamed for what might happen next in Iraq. Thus, President Bush continues on autopilot with no end in sight, while some Democrats call for fixed withdrawal deadlines that no president would ever adopt.
The only way to carve out a new path is through bipartisanship. With a united voice we can speak with strength to Iraqis on the need to put their house in order, and find political protection here at home. Political leaders in our country must choose to hang together rather than hang separately. They have every incentive to do so. It is flatly against the security interests of the U.S. to stay the current course. It is also against the political interests of both parties. Republicans don't want to run for the presidency in 2008 with Iraq around their necks. Democrats do not want to assume the presidency in 2009 saddled with a losing war.
Serious members of both parties are prepared to seek a solution. It was in that spirit that Congress urged the creation of the “Iraq Study Group” to explore policy options, led by James A. Baker III, former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee—a Republican and a Democrat both known for bipartisanship. The other eight members of their commission have stature in their parties to kickstart a bipartisan policy. They understand their responsibility to help our nation find a reasonable path out of Iraq’s plunge toward civil war and the untenable situation for our troops.
The commission is expected to present its views publicly after the November elections. We believe that the group could cohere around three basic principles which we have advanced for some time and which are explained in detail at www.planforiraq.com:
What could work is a federalized Iraq, with three or more largely autonomous regional governments to suit the separate interests of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. A central government would administer common concerns, such as defending Iraq’s borders and managing its energy infrastructure. The constitution already provides for this approach and Iraq’s parliament last week passed a law to implement its articles on federalism. But for federalism to work, the constitution must be amended to guarantee Sunnis 20% of oil revenues to be administered by the central government. Only with such revenues could a Sunni region become economically and politically sustainable.
The final decisions will be up to the Iraqis. But without us helping them arrange the necessary compromises, as we have at every critical juncture, nothing will get done. With 140,000 Americans at risk, we have a right and a responsibility to make our views known.
The redeployment plan has to prevent insurgent control of strategic areas; vet and train Iraqi forces; create strong incentives for Iraqis to assume battlefield and police responsibilities; and allow for a residual American force to keep Iraqis and their neighbors honest. There's no fixed or artificial timetable here to bind a president unreasonably. But we must unambiguously say to Iraqis, “Here is your last, best chance to escape a disastrous civil war with our help, and it is up to you, now.”
Given the deterioration of the situation, no approach is an odds-on winner. But these three principles can unite our political parties. Nothing in them runs counter to the basic beliefs of either party. And unlike the present policy, they have a chance of working.
The Baker-Hamilton commission has a unique opportunity to generate a bipartisan way forward in Iraq. If it comes up with a better plan than the one we propose, we will embrace it. But whatever it does, it cannot kick the can down the road. It must come up with a strategy that allows us to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind—which is not being done in Washington now.