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Which Way Forward on Iraq?

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: December 11, 2006

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The calm after the storm set off by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report has settled in, leaving the question of what happens next. While nobody expects President Bush to adopt the ISG report wholesale—particularly its recommendations to pull out combat troops by 2008 or to engage Iran and Syria (NYT)—he has indicated some change in course can be expected. The White House says it will weigh the ISG report along with forthcoming reports coming from the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council before making any major changes in policy. This new Backgrounder addresses these proposals competing for the president’s attention.

The ISG report has stirred debate in foreign policy circles. Some say it is a recipe for failure in Iraq. Instead of regional diplomacy or fewer combat troops, what is needed is more "energy and competence in fighting the fight" (WSJ), suggests Eliot A. Cohen of Johns Hopkins University. Others say the report is overly generous to Iraqi neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which indicated it may back Iraq's Sunnis in the event of a U.S. pullout. "Saudi Arabia is the elephant in the room that cannot be mentioned," writes Greg Palast in the Guardian. Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, says the problem with the report is it "treats Iraq as an existing country needing a quick fix in the name of resurgent American realism, rather than a still-to-be-born country that needs to be ushered into being in the name of American idealism."

The ISG is critical of the U.S. approach to Iraq. But it says Iraqi leaders “who are not working toward a united Iraq” also share responsibility. This “begins to pave the way for a U.S move out of Iraq in a way that if push comes to shove would attempt to place the lion’s share of the burden on Iraq,” CFR President Richard N. Haass tells Bernard Gwertzman. The ISG report endorses a withdrawal of U.S. support if the Iraqis do not make political progress. Yet the logic of this approach is faulty, say experts like CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, because if the Iraqis meet the milestones set, Washington can also expect to withdraw its support. This raises questions about what incentives there are for Iraqis to reform.

All of the plans are expected to call for a political solution to resolve the violence in Iraq. But history, as CFR Fellow Stephen Biddle explains in this Backgrounder, suggests that negotiated settlements are rare in civil wars. More often than not, national reconciliation emerges after one side is defeated on the battlefield. There is a growing sense that Iraq’s various sectarian divisions cannot be healed through political compromise. Shiite leaders who hold true sway over Iraqis are not in the government. They include the popular clerics Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr, or the head of the largest Shiite faction, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who met recently (RFE/RL) with Bush in the Oval Office.

Some, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggest focusing less on Iraq’s internal politics and more on the regional dimension. Bring in Iraq’s neighbors, they say, including Iran and Syria, to hold an international conference that addresses not only Iraq but also the Arab-Israeli peace process. After all, this precedent has a sound track record in places like Madrid (where Arab-Israeli peace talks reconvened in October 1991), Dayton (where agreement was reached in 1995 to resolve the Bosnian War), and Bonn (where the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan was brokered in 2001). Writing in the American Interest, Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution lays out the positives for a Bosnia-style option. But as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke points out, Washington’s only leverage in Iraq is the threat to pull out, whereas in Bosnia it had the threat to bomb them. “It’s quite a different kind of thing,” he says.

There are also growing calls for a drawdown of U.S. forces, perhaps by as early as 2008. President Bush has rejected calls for a “graceful exit,” but said more recently he needed to be "flexible and realistic" (PBS) about troop deployments. The ISG suggests switching the military mission from combat to support by embedding up to 20,000 advisory officers with the Iraqi forces. But CFR’s Biddle says there are real risks with this strategy. “If any significant fraction of U.S. troops is pulled off the streets, the situation will get worse,” he writes.

Then there is the question of what defeat in Iraq would mean for U.S. interests, not to mention America's standing in the world. Haass writes in TIME that regardless of the outcome, the United States will remain the world's lone superpower. "What is essential," he says, "is that the U.S. cut its losses there, contain the consequences and look for new opportunities to advance its interests around the world. The sooner the post-Iraq era of U.S. foreign policy dawns, the better."

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