New Aims, Not Blame, for Iraq

Congress Must Broaden Its Vision

Too few troops, too much incompetence, too many mistakes mean “victory” in Iraq will require new sets of benchmarks, says Korb and Katulis.

The heated congressional debate this week over a $121.7 billion spending package to support our troops in the Middle East and care for them upon their return home is deeply marred by the willful misunderstanding among supporters of President Bush’s “surge” strategy over the definition of victory after four long years of war in Iraq.

Opponents of this critical supplemental budget contend that a vote in favor of the entire package will lead to a U.S. defeat, chaos in Iraq beneficial only to Al Qaeda, and future terrorist attacks on American soil—all because the legislation would set a date certain next year for our troops to begin redeploying from Iraq and benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in order to avoid earlier redeployment.

The purpose of these talking points: to lay future blame for the Bush administration’s serial failures in Iraq upon those now seeking to rescue our nation from this tragic quagmire and enhance our country’s national security. Such cynicism is stunning when our brave men and women in uniform are still fighting and dying in Iraq amid primarily multiple sectarian conflicts that by definition cannot be “won” by the United States.

But with an eye to the next election cycle, proponents of the president’s open-ended escalation of U.S. military forces in Iraq are arguing that anyone suggesting any another course of action will be held responsible for the Bush administration’s multiple past failures. “You try to fix it, you’re responsible for breaking it,” is their crass political strategy, turning former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s admonition to the president back in 2002 on its head.

“You break it, it’s going to shatter,” Powell warned the president on the eve of the Iraq invasion. “You own it,” he correctly noted to Bush before the president launched his war of choice. That warning didn’t faze the president at the time, but it frightens the wits out of his fellow conservatives today who still must face the American public.

After all, conservatives are well aware that General Eric Shinseki was absolutely right when he warned that several hundred thousand troops would be required to win the peace in Iraq—advice that was belittled by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ignored by President Bush.

Conservatives also know that insufficient forces on the ground after the 2003 invasion allowed sectarian groups to help themselves to the vast conventional military stores around the country, contributing directly to the large number of casualties among U.S. fighting men and women and the Iraqi people. The failure to lock down all of Saddam Hussein’s military storehouses stems directly from the deployment of U.S. forces in search of non-existing weapons of mass destruction—just one of the many post-invasion mistakes that the president’s supporters today know are part of the chaos enveloping Iraq.

From phantom WMD to de-Ba’athification to ideologically driven economic reform plans that bore no relation to the needs of everyday Iraqis, the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq make victory as defined by the president’s supporters completely impossible. That’s why progressives today put forward new strategies to address the administration’s many mistakes and their sadly predictable consequences.

And that’s why conservatives desperately want the American people to instead blame progressives for failing to embrace an unachievable “victory” in Iraq even as progressives offer solutions that just might snatch something akin to victory from the jaws of defeat.

America deserves a “Plan B” for Iraq that takes into account the realities in and around the country today, not more political posturing for domestic political gain. If there is to be any hope of a national consensus to finish the job in Iraq, Congress and the White House must broaden the debate beyond timelines and the “surge.”

No number of U.S. troops can lead to a sustained cessation of hostilities in Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts today. The “surge” in Baghdad has simply pushed Sunni insurgents to other parts of the country and driven Sh’ia militias underground to bide their time until the U.S. troop presence is eventually decreased. Rather than changing Iraq’s political realities, the escalation only temporarily obscures them.

For the violence to stop, Iraqis will need to see that it is contrary to their strategic interests to continue to kill other Iraqis. This is something not likely to happen in the foreseeable future due to the increasing ethnic and sectarian divisions and vicious score-settling aimed at addressing decades-old grievances. The “surge” only masks this reality.

Dedicating our most precious national security assets—our young men and women in uniform—to do the tasks that the more than 325,000 Iraqis trained and equipped by the United States should be doing is a self-defeating proposition. The United States instead should take four key steps to get its national security priorities back in order.

Begin a strategic redeployment immediately
The United States should begin a phased redeployment of its troops from Iraq immediately, with the goal of eliminating the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by the end of 2008. A phased redeployment gives the Iraqis the incentives to compromise in search of peace and allows the United States the best chance to revitalize its ground forces stretched thin by the Iraq deployment so that we can address growing threats on other fronts in the fight against global terror groups, especially in Afghanistan.

By redeploying troops to other countries neighboring Iraq and over the horizon around the Persian Gulf, the United States can safeguard its core interests, prevent the conflict from spreading outside of Iraq, and better confront the threat of global terror groups than our massive troop presence in Iraq currently does. Our armed forces need to regroup to fight the enemies we have, not referee combatants with other scores to settle.

Partition America’s policy, not Iraq
Iraq’s national political stalemate has effectively driven politics and political authority to Iraq’s regions, localities, and even neighborhoods. No significant action at the national level is likely to result in a sustainable political settlement because of sharp divisions among Iraq’s leaders. But rather than pursue a futile effort to force Iraqis to agree to some sort of decentralization of the country, which would require significant compromises at the national level, the United States should focus instead on what it can do and instead decentralize its own policy.

The United States should dismantle the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone and reassign U.S. personnel to its four regional embassy offices in other parts of Iraq. These regional outposts can then work closely with Iraqi regional and local institutions and powerbrokers to provide a better quality of life for Iraqi citizens. An emphasis on security sector support during the next four years should focus on building local police accountable to local authorities. In places less hospitable to an American presence, the United States should focus on simply guarding against the threat of global terror groups with military operations by U.S. special forces and intelligence.

Develop pragmatic regional conflict management strategies
Iraq suffers from four different conflicts in different sections of the country: a Sh’ia-Sunni civil war in the central part of the country; intra-Sh’ia clashes in the south; a Sunni insurgency largely centered in the west and central part of the country; and growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north. Yet the United States is not doing enough to contain and manage these multiple conflicts.

The United States needs to develop tailored conflict-management strategies, each of them focused on the different internal dynamics in Iraq and their potential impacts on the broader Middle East. Most urgently, the United States must rein in growing tensions in northern Iraq, where there is the greatest immediate threat of violence spilling over Iraq’s borders. A smaller contact group involving Syria, Iran, and Iraq—with the participation of others, such as the United States—would more effective in addressing the growing security challenges in northern Iraq.

Similarly, discussions involving the emerging Shi’a leaders in southern Iraq and its neighbors along the Gulf coast might head off any unnecessary cross-border tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The Shi’a-Sunni civil war raging in central and western Iraq will require even more localized approaches, with the involvement of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Implement a comprehensive yet pragmatic Middle East diplomatic surge.
U.S. participation in the Baghdad regional security conference earlier this month, at which American representatives sat at the table with all of Iraq’s neighbors including states labeled as pariahs, Iran and Syria, was a good first step in this direction. To achieve tangible gains, however, these diplomatic approaches need to be targeted. All-inclusive regional contact groups are not a panacea for the instability in Iraq and the region.

For instance, just as the United States has started to engage Iraq’s neighbors on the growing problems of refugees, it should also work to develop a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach to address an emerging threat—the “boomerang” effect of foreign fighters in Iraq heading back home as the United States redeploys its forces from Iraq. The threat posed by global terror groups in Iraq is better addressed by increased cooperative efforts with all countries in the region threatened by non-state terrorist groups alongside a smaller, more nimble U.S. military presence in the Middle East to target these terrorist networks ruthlessly and efficiently

Back in early 2003, some of President Bush’s top supporters of the coming invasion of Iraq argued that the road to peace in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad and that an Iraq war would stabilize the Middle East. Four years later, it is clear that the United States has lost control of the situation and needs to take pragmatic steps to extricate its military forces from Iraq.

There are no easy answers or solutions, but the third current military escalation in Iraq in the past three years will not change political realities in Iraq and the Middle East in a way that advances U.S. interests. Past mistakes are only compounded by escalation on the one hand and inaction everywhere else. It’s time to move to a post-Bush strategy on Iraq and the Middle East.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Former Senior Fellow

Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow