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Give Them a Break

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May 22, 2007
New York Times

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TALKING heads and lawmakers in Washington have a new reason to be exercised about the situation in Iraq — as if any were needed. They’re in an uproar that the Iraqi Parliament, the Council of Representatives, is planning to take a two-month recess starting on July 1. This is being represented as evidence that the Iraqis would prefer to go off to the seashore rather than try to save their country.

“If they go off on vacation for two months while our troops fight — that would be the outrage of outrages,” said Representative Chris Shays, Republican of Connecticut, echoing the views of many, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who have both urged the Iraqis to skip or shorten their break.

It’s certainly a bad idea for the Parliament to take such a long recess — but mainly for symbolic reasons. In practical terms, it’s much less important how long the Parliament is in session than how much agreement leaders of major factions can reach.

In Iraq, as in the United States, the serious work of legislating does not take place on the floor of Parliament or in committee meetings. It takes place behind the scenes. In the case of Iraq, it’s often late at night, over numerous cups of chai, that deals are hatched and bargains concluded.

The work in those smoke-filled rooms — and in Iraq, unlike in modern America, the cliché is still applicable because everyone still puffs away — can go on whether Parliament is formally in session or not, as long as the major Iraqi leaders agree to remain in the Green Zone. If a deal is concluded, it’s possible to call Parliament back into session to ratify it. If no deal is concluded it doesn’t make any difference whether Parliament is in session or not.

The United States needs to keep pressing for important bills — especially laws on sharing oil revenue, de-Baathification and provincial elections — to be passed as part of a broader reconciliation process. The failure of Iraqi politicians to make more progress is frustrating.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that even in the unlikely event that all these bills are approved by September, they will mark a turning point in the war. At best they will give Gen. David H. Petraeus and President Bush some signs of progress they can point to in arguing for more patience from the American public to give the “surge” a chance to work.

The top priority at the moment is for Iraqi and American troops to bring Baghdad under control. Absent a greater degree of security, any deals reached in Parliament wouldn’t be worth the paper they’re printed on, because the factions would not trust one another to carry them out and they would still feel compelled to settle their differences at gunpoint. First you have to win the war, or at least start to win it. Then come the negotiations. Not the other way around.

But impatient Americans are demanding results even before the surge is completed (the fifth extra brigade combat team won’t arrive until June) — and while Congressional leaders are doing their utmost to pull our troops out. What incentive do Iraqis have to compromise with mortal enemies if they think United States forces are about to depart and a major civil war is about to erupt?

Iraqi politicians will make serious concessions only if they feel a reasonable degree of assurance that the rule of law, not the rule of bomb-makers and throat-slitters, will prevail. Establishing those conditions is primarily a job for the American and Iraqi security forces, who can go about their business whether the Council of Representatives is meeting or not. The most immediate challenge for the government of Iraq is to provide the kind of support that its troops in the field need — everything from bullets to food to pay, all areas where the government has been deficient.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government also desperately needs to spend more of its budget, and especially to send more money to Anbar Province and other Sunni areas to convince the Sunnis that the Shiites who are in control in Baghdad are serious about sharing the wealth. That will be a more significant short-term indicator of the government’s good will than the ability of the Council of Representatives to pass legislation that may or may not be carried out.

This is not meant to be an excuse for Iraqi politicians, who should be doing more to end the violence ripping their country apart. But our politicians, who are reduced to quivering piles of Jell-O by the threat of falling opinion polls, aren’t in the best position to point fingers at Iraqi politicians who perform their duties under constant threat of death.

It is also mildly bizarre to see our lawmakers castigate the Iraqis for taking a summer recess when they themselves have just taken a break (the “spring district work period”), which occurred even as work on a bill to provide money for our troops went uncompleted. And that’s not the end of it. They are also preparing to take another siesta in August (the “summer district work period”).

Some have argued that it’s far more important for the Iraqis to meet, because they’re in the middle of a war. But lest we forget, there are American men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We’re in the middle of a war, too.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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