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Assessing U.S. Policy in Iraq and the Middle East

Lee Hamilton and Rep. Ellen Tauscher joined experts at a CAP event marking the four-year anniversary of the Iraq war.

“After four years of effort to rebuild Iraq, the task is overwhelmingly unfinished,” former Congressman and Iraq Study Group member Lee Hamilton (D-IN) reported at the Center for American Progress on Monday. “We have fundamentally had a failure of political leadership in this country.”

The Center for American Progress marked the fourth anniversary of the war by holding an event to examine Iraq’s impact on the Middle East and debate U.S. military strategy. Experts from across the ideological spectrum provided very different assessments as to what U.S. policy should be going forward.

Hamilton, who spoke first, said the United States’ goals must be stability in Iraq and the surrounding region and finding a “responsible way to extricate American forces from Iraq.” He stressed that creating a framework for diplomacy was necessary for military operations to succeed. Regional conferences are a positive first step, Hamilton argued. However, the lines of communication must remain open and skillful diplomacy carried out in order for the United States to shift toward what Hamilton hoped was a more “balanced approach” to its policy, one that integrates military, political, economic and diplomatic threads.

“No matter what option you choose we don’t have a good option,” said Lawrence J. Korb Korb, Senior Fellow at CAP and co-author with Brian Katulis of the Center’s strategic redeployment plan. “There are no really satisfactory solutions for Iraq,” Hamilton agreed. “Where we go from here is an exceedingly difficult task.”

The difficulty of this choice is compounded by the effect that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on military health, safety, and readiness. “What is [the war] doing to our army—The Washington Post used the term ‘death spiral,’” Korb said. “If you’re going to fight with a volunteer military, you need a good reason for people to volunteer.”

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) agreed with Korb, citing CAP’s recent report, “Beyond the Call of Duty.” “[This report] presents a startling picture of the strain on the troops,” Tauscher said. “Because of this, the mission is becoming more dangerous than it needs to be.”

Yet General John Keane disagreed, saying, “The United States military exists to be stressed… It’s stressed during war, and we shouldn’t wring our hands about it.”

Keane argued that the damage to the military is justified by the necessity of the surge. “The level of violence is so high it’s beyond the capabilities of the Iraqi forces to quell it… You have to force the Sunnis to realize that they can’t achieve their political solution using violence,” explained Keane. “[After that,] you start to give [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] some tools that he doesn’t have now.”

“You cannot separate the political and the security progress,” Hamilton countered. “What has been lacking and what is still lacking is an integrated approach to deal with these problems.” Korb agreed, saying, “I am absolutely convinced that this war won’t be won militarily, but politically.”

Experts discussed the need for a “diplomatic surge” to solve the region-wide political issues. “The situation in Iraq has turned into a proxy war between Arabs and Iranians,” explained Jon Alterman, Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Quoting a senior Arab official, he said, “This Arab-Iranian rivalry has existed for some time… Iran has only been Shi’a for 400 years, but it has been Persian for millennia.”

“Making a sustainable policy is figuring out everyone’s politics,” added Mara Rudman, a CAP Senior Fellow. “All politics are local. A lot of times in the United States we think that only applies here.”

Every panelist agreed that an Iraqi-based political solution is necessary prior to a U.S. withdrawal. “No bill or no vote in Congress will bring stability in Iraq, only the Iraqis can do that,” Tauscher said. “If we get a political accommodation with the Sunni insurgents, the Shi’a insurgents will get back behind their barricades,” added Keane.

Panelists did disagree over whether the surge would spur such a political reconciliation. “I believe passing the supplemental funding legislation is the right way forward,” Tauscher said. “[It was a] horrendous decision to put Iraq’s civil war over the war on terror… We understand that there needs to be accountability.”

“Maliki has said, over and over and over again, good words about meeting the benchmarks. The problem is performance,” Hamilton agreed. “Again and again we have set these benchmarks, told them to perform, they do not perform, and there are no consequences.”

“We are refusing to hand the president a blank check,” explained Tauscher. “The president has to certify that there is real progress!”

“The supplemental should go forward, but it’s not the end of the process,” warned Hamilton. “The focus in the days ahead should be to try to end this war responsibly and gradually.”

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