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Mulling A Course Change in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: October 17, 2006

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It is no secret that U.S. policymakers have lowered their expectations of what a future Iraq will resemble. President Bush’s hoped-for “shining beacon of freedom,” which would infuse its authoritarian neighbors with democracy, has been downgraded. James A. Baker III, cochair of a forthcoming report on Iraq, says the United States would be lucky to see a Middle East emerge that is merely “representative,” not “democratic.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is less charitable in his criticism. “The idea that Iraq would somehow become a democracy and example that would transform the region was a pathetic neoconservative fantasy from the start,” he writes in a new CSIS report. Yet neither Baker nor Cordesman says all hope is lost.

Quite a wide range of options are available to the Bush administration. None of them guarantee “victory”—more precisely, they try to minimize the effects of defeat—and all are fraught with risk. According to the New York Sun, leaked accounts of Baker’s commission on Iraq—whose official report is not due before December—suggest the White House has two main options. The first is to focus on establishing security in Baghdad while striking “political accommodation” with Iraqi insurgents. “The goal of nurturing a democracy in Iraq is dropped,” reports the Sun. The second option calls for the phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq but leaves open the difficult question of where and when these soldiers should be deployed.

Cordesman divides his options into the “almost good, the bad, and the ugly.” He suggests conditioning military and civilian aid packages on political effectiveness in Baghdad, particularly within Iraq’s ministries of defense and interior. He says efforts to disband militias should coincide with aid programs to provide their members with jobs. Putting tens of thousands of young Iraqi men into the streets “has already been a disaster once, after the collapse of the Iraqi Army,” he writes. Cordesman says President Bush must “defuse fears and conspiracy theories,” by making clear that the United States “has no ambitions for a lasting presence in Iraq” or “ambitions relating to Iraqi oil.” One way to do this, he says, is to transfer security duties to an international body like the United Nations, although Security Council authorization of a blue-helmeted mission to Iraq would be difficult. A recent CFR symposium weighed different options for leaving Iraq as well as the impact of the incursion upon U.S. policymaking.

Bush reiterated to reporters this month that defeat, which ostensibly means a pullout of U.S. forces before Iraq is secure, would prompt “the terrorists [to] take control of Iraq and establish a new safe haven from which to launch new attacks on America.” Yet CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb argues in TIME that “events may be sliding in that direction and we need to shrink the fallout.” Meanwhile, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute looks at the larger implications of concluding the war short of outright victory. “If the United States gets driven from Iraq, the soul-searching necessary to combat Islamic extremism will also suffer a rout,” he writes in the Weekly Standard. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman the Bush administration has proven unwilling to make changes aside from incremental ones that have “mostly come in the form of ‘too little, too late.’”

Regardless of U.S. action, however, few experts now expect democracy to flourish in Iraq, much less the Middle East. "Visions of a new Europe-like Middle East that is peaceful, prosperous, and democratic will not be realized," writes CFR President Richard Haass in the Financial Times. As Dennis Ross, former director for policy planning in the State Department, writes in the Washington Post, "Iraq could, in the best case, evolve into a country that has the following: a central government with limited powers; provincial governments with extensive autonomy; sharing of oil revenue; and, at the local level, some rough form of representation and tolerance for minorities."

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