Diplomatic Surge for Iraq, But New Steps Require Credible Redeployment Plan for U.S. Forces

The news out of Iraq these days is focused on the largely negative dynamics inside the country—the continued vicious violence in Iraq, the Iraqi government on the brink of collapse with growing divisions among Iraq’s leaders, and a new U.S. security assistance program that is unwisely arming different sides of Iraq’s civil wars.

Yet this week Iraq and its neighbors, as well as the United States, started to take additional steps in the right direction of a diplomatic surge advocated by a growing consensus. These efforts include a new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iraq that may gain approval this week as well as a flurry of bilateral and multilateral meetings in the region.

These diplomatic moves are encouraging, but by themselves they are not enough. To motivate Iraq’s leaders and countries in the region to take greater responsibility for their own neighborhood, the United States needs a “Strategic Reset,” a serious plan for reclaiming control of our security and restoring our military readiness by beginning troop redeployments this year. The severely deteriorating political and military situation inside Iraq requires not just a realistic assessment of what the United States can achieve by extending the military “surge,” but also a clear understanding that the redeployment of our military forces there will strengthen our diplomatic hand in the region. In short, the two are inexorably linked.

Steps Backward Inside Iraq

The discouraging news inside Iraq raises red flags about the wisdom of the Bush surge strategy and builds the case for changing the strategy. Cases in point:

  • Upswing in violence in Iraq. Despite optimistic reports to the contrary, the summer of 2007 is turning out to be one of the bloodiest summers for Iraqis and U.S. troops, with growing attacks in the past week hinting at a worrisome trend and nearly twice as many U.S. troops killed this July than the previous July.
  • Wheels come off Iraq’s political transition. Almost half of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ministers—17 of 38 ministers—have bolted from the government. The central premise of the surge was that it would increase stability, which would in turn result in a greater chance that Iraq’s leaders would strike power-sharing deals and move toward greater national reconciliation. About two years after Sunnis were finally brought into Iraq’s political transition, the leading Sunni bloc withdrew its ministers from the Maliki government. So no matter how much President Bush and his cheerleaders try to switch the terms of reference for evaluating the surge, it is failing to achieve its most fundamental objective.
  • U.S. pours more weapons into Iraq’s internal conflicts. The recent report from the Government Accountability Office that the Pentagon lost track of nearly 200,000 weapons given to Iraqis and another report from the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Armed Services that says the Pentagon cannot account for how many Iraqi security force personnel are actually present for duty raises serious questions about whether the United States has been unwittingly and recklessly arming its enemies. This track record should raise questions about the recent efforts to support “irregular” Iraqi forces with short-term renewable contracts, an effort causing dissension among Iraq’s leaders and undermining the Iraqi national government.

Small Steps Forward on International and Regional Diplomacy for Iraq

While the Bush administration has pursued policies that reinforce Iraq’s internal fragmentation, it actually has taken some small and positive steps aimed at building a wider coalition of support to contain and manage Iraq’s conflicts. Iraq’s leaders and neighboring countries have also been active on several fronts. Cases in point:

  • A new United Nations resolution. This week, the United Nations may pass a new resolution pushing the organization into an expanded role in promoting Iraq’s national reconciliation and bridging the growing political divisions among Iraq’s leaders. This move, advocated in this New York Times op-ed ambassador to the United Nations and former by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.U.S. ambassador to Iraq, represents a step in the right direction, but is not enough.

    Serious questions remain about how U.N. staff members might operate in Iraq, with the U.N. Staff Council recently calling for a pullout of U.N. staff members because of security concerns. The memories of the murder of U.N. Special Envoy Sergio Viera de Mello in the summer of 2003 also remain strong for many at the United Nations. But the United Nations has played a pivotal role at key points in in Iraq’s political transition in the past four years, with U.N. envoys quietly working with Iraqi political leaders as mediators.

  • U.S. participation in security meetings with Iran and Syria this week. U.S. officials have participated in meetings on Iraq’s security with key neighbors, including another round of trilateral talks between the United States, Iran, and Iraq in Baghdad this week and an international security conference hosted by Syria this week that the United States is attending. These meetings may not result in major advances. Saudi Arabia, for example, is not attending the regional security meeting in Syria this week because of poor bilateral relations between the two countries.  But the diplomacy and U.S. participation in these meetings represent a degree of departure from the Bush administration’s lack of confidence in its ability to engage in tough diplomacy with adversaries.
  • Iraqi efforts with its neighbors. On three key fronts, there was some movement between Iraq and its neighbors. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki traveled to Turkey earlier this week to sign a counterterrorism pact with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at addressing the problem of Kurdish rebels. After Turkey, Maliki flew to Tehran to discuss security matters with Iranian officials, his second visit to Iran this year. And the Saudi government announced that it will send a mission to Iraq to develop a plan for opening an embassy in Iraq. This could send an important signal and help boost relations between the two countries. Saudi officials have been strongly critical of the Maliki government and raised concerns about the Shi’a-Sunni divisions in Iraq. Opening an embassy could represent a small step toward developing a more positive regional environment.

Pull the Threads Together for a New Strategy: More U.S. Leadership Needed

All of these diplomatic efforts represent small steps in the right direction, but they are unlikely to result in substantial results without four key shifts that bridge the dangerous disconnect between U.S. security strategy and U.S. diplomatic strategy for the region:

  1. Present a credible plan for redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq. Meetings, conferences, and new U.N. resolutions represent vehicles for transforming the policy, but what is missing is the motivation to get other countries and Iraq’s leaders to step up to the plate and do their share. The best way to motivate other countries and Iraqis to act more constructively on Iraq is for the United States to tell the world it is planning to redeploy its troops from Iraq within a specified time frame. Pulling U.S. forces out is necessary to contain Iraq’s internal conflicts and jumpstart regional security and diplomatic initiatives necessary for stabilizing Iraq.
  2. Implement a temporary pause in underwriting the arms race in Iraq and the region. The U.S. effort to arm and train Iraqis in the absence of a national political consensus is fraught with national security risks. In fact, we are contributing to the escalation of Iraq’s internal conflicts as well as unwittingly strengthening the hand of forces that are ultimately inimical to U.S. interests and values as well as a threat to U.S. allies like Jordan and Israel. Similarly, the $20 billion arms deal for Arab Gulf countries that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raises serious questions about whether the Bush administration has a clear strategy for stabilizing the region. Leaders in Congress should consider at least a temporary pause on these efforts until the Bush administration provides a clearer strategy for stabilizing the region and advancing U.S. interests.
  3. Intensify high-level U.S. diplomatic engagement in the region. Increased U.S. diplomacy with key countries in the region is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. The recent fly-by visits of Secretaries Rice and Gates won’t yield substantive results unless there is steady and high-level engagement. The United States needs a full-time high-level envoy engaged full-time on the monumental tasks tied to diplomacy needed to stabilize Iraq and the region.
  4. Link efforts to other major regional security challenges like the Arab-Israeli conflict. A final key shift needed for these small steps in the right direction to yield tangible results is for this country to undertake a serious diplomatic effort that recognizes that linkages between the national security challenges the United States faces across the region. The Bush administration is planning a separate regional meeting this fall on the Arab-Israeli peace front, but there are two missing elements.

First of all, it does not seem to be laying the necessary groundwork to make this meeting something more than a one-time event with speeches. As former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross points out, it took former Secretary of State James Baker eight trips around the world to negotiate the ground rules and terms of reference for the 1991 Madrid conference. Nothing of that sort seems to be happening with this planned fall meeting. Second, these efforts are largely not linked to the concerns many countries have about Iraq.

Secondly, to be successful in making progress in the Middle East, the United States needs to balance and leverage efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and manage Iraq’s impact on the region more effectively.

Piecemeal and partial diplomatic efforts, as well as small tactical shifts inside of Iraq like arming irregular forces may only achieve temporary tactical gains, but they ultimately will not advance U.S. interests. Instead, the United States needs a wholesale strategic reset of its approach to Iraq and the Middle East.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and an author of the new report “Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East.”

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