The fatal flaw in the "benchmarks" approach to Iraq, and what an effective alternative might look like.
The congressional leadership and the White House have just reached a deal over war spending that drops a timetable for withdrawal and focuses instead on benchmarks that the Iraqi government should meet. At the same time, the president has further rubbed the Democrats' collective noses in mud with a speech given at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, wherein he delivered a new version of the spurious accusation that opposition to the war in Iraq is tantamount to support for al-Qaeda.
Ignore for a moment that Iraq-based al-Qaedists only exist and have become a threat because of this administration's misconceived and mismanaged war. Ignore, too, that the achievements the president hailed in confronting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are being rolled back, not least because attention and resources were diverted to Iraq. Ignore even the president's defense of Guantanamo (rising, as it did, nearly to the level of the last GOP presidential primary debate) or the fact that the detention center provides grist for the mill of jihadist anti-American recruitment and thereby weakens U.S. security.
Ignore all that, and return to the funding deal. Maybe a war funding compromise was inevitable. But, beyond the basic recoil inspired by any bill that funds an open-ended continuation of the war, this specific compromise is based on a fundamental flaw -- namely, the benchmarks approach.
Here's why: Setting benchmarks for the current Iraqi government assumes that it can rise above the sectarian fray and deliver a degree of effective central governance. But the Maliki government is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. It is insufficiently politically inclusive, and it lacks credibility and delivery capacity. To place all one's eggs in this basket smacks of the kind of irresponsibility that has characterized the entire Iraqi misadventure from the get-go.
Rather, the current Iraqi Government should be dealt with as one of a number of actors that need to be brought into a new political, security, and regional accommodation, around which Iraq can begin to be restabilized.
As a recent International Crisis Group report on Iraq put it, "the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict." Or, in the words of a Chatham House Briefing Paper released last week called "Accepting the Realities in Iraq":
Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, Security, and Economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groups. The Iraqi government is only one of several "state-like" actors... there is not 'a' civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies... The surge is not curbing the high level of violence.Delivering on the benchmarks -- passing a new oil law, provincial elections legislation, a revised constitution, and security improvements -- in a way that is sustainable, meaningful, and builds Iraqi stability, cannot be achieved by exclusively relying on the Maliki government. What is required is to exhaustively engage a broader set of actors within Iraq and with its neighbors. As the ICG says:
... it will take more than talking to Iraq’s neighbours to obtain their cooperation. It will take persuading them that their interests and those of the U.S. no longer are fundamentally at odds ... That cannot be done ... as long as the Bush administration's paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodeling the Middle East.So the diplomatic alternative requires a lot of tough talking both within and beyond Iraq. Much but not all of what is required politically was already suggested in last December's Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. As The Washington Post reported a couple of days ago, people have been dusting off the report for ideas.
Secretary Rice attended two gatherings of an International Iraq Support Group, most recently in Egypt. In a policy reversal, she has met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and talks are scheduled with Iran at the working level.
Yet the strong impression given is that the administration is going through the motions rather than giving robust, concerted, creative diplomacy a real try. The Iraq Study Group devoted a significant chunk of its recommendations to how the United States might create a more conducive regional atmosphere for the heavy political and diplomatic lifting required in Iraq. Not surprisingly, that ten-person bipartisan commission identified active American reengagement with Israeli-Arab peacemaking as being decisive to restabilizing U.S. credibility, reviving U.S. alliance-building capacity, and reversing the growth of radicalism in the region.
This key recommendation has yet to be taken up, and U.S. national security interests (not to mention Israeli ones -- but that's another story!) are suffering every day it is ignored. In conditioning any extension of war funding, the starter should be a diplomatic surge. That could include at least 5 elements:
- (1.) Rather than convening the Iraq International Support Group merely every 2 months with great fanfare, create a permanent group on Iraq that meets all the time, with all the neighbors. Americans discussing Iraq with Syrians, Iranians, and others should not constitute an eyebrow-raising image but rather an everyday occurrence.
(2.) Work with the neighbors on an inclusive, broadly defined set of stakeholders inside Iraq that extends well beyond those in government, and only excludes al-Qaeda. This should be done in conjunction with Iraq's neighbors as part of a regional approach suggested below. (By the way, introducing U.S. troop draw-down timetables would help, rather than hinder, such an effort.)
(3.) Make the Iraq effort part of a broader rethinking of regional diplomatic engagement. The issues are linked. One cannot ask for Syrian and/or Iranian cooperation on Iraq in one press conference while threatening them in another. If the decision is for diplomatic engagement, then the conversation cannot be artificially narrowed to the Iraq issue only. Everything should be on the table with Iran and Syria. That does not translate into a neglect of nuclear concerns regarding Iran, nor of the Lebanon file with Syria. With those issues, too, diplomatic solutions should be tried.
The entire region has been destabilized -- look at Lebanon and Gaza. There is a tendency to parcel or even block out the rest of the region and focus narrowly on Iraq, the argument being that zooming out would only make it more difficult. But actually, the best approach at this stage may in fact be a comprehensive, regional one.
(4.) Drop the allergy towards non-al-Qaedist political Islamists: An approach to the Middle East that combines democratization with political isolation of all political Islamists was stunningly unrealistic from the start, and the tendency to view political Islam as a monolith has crippled regional policy. The Muslim Brothers, including Hamas, do not see the world through the same lens as al-Qaeda, and they may be more effective as allies than secular nationalists in preventing the spread of violent Salafist jihadism. Establishing agreed-upon guidelines for an engagement with the Brothers will not be easy -- there is plenty to argue about -- but it is an absolute priority. The United States should probably not take the lead in this effort -- but it should encourage and take an interest in other third-party-led dialogues, rather than denounce and shut its ears to such initiatives. Certain European countries, and others such as South Africa, should be supported and listened to as they plough this difficult terrain. (By the way, in effect, this is what the United States is already doing in Iraq in its dialogue with non-al-Qaeda Sunni groups.)
(5.) Do not pursue an exclusively al-Qaeda-centric policy in Iraq. The president's Coast Guard Academy speech focused on that for domestic political reasons, and featured yet more misleading rewriting of reality. Success against al-Qaeda is one (vital) thing; success in Iraq is another, and to define the latter exclusively in terms of the former is to add insult to injury.