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Finding a Silver Lining in the Iraq Cloud

This piece appears as an op-ed in today's Boston Globe.  It is co-authored by Michael Hanna, a program officer at The Century Foundation

If there is ever a TV series about the American adventure in Iraq it might be called "Unintended Consequences Gone Wild." The war strategically weakened the United States, strengthened Iran, undermined democracy promotion, and gave Al Qaeda and the Taliban time to regroup - and that would just be season one. But the latest episode, the unintended Iraqi consensus opposing America's secretive quest to complete a Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement by the end of July, may turn out to be good news for both the United States and Iraq.

Even as short-term improvements have been registered in the security situation, the internal politics of Iraqi stabilization have continued to languish. Without functioning politics and governance, Iraq's long-term prospects remain bleak, and any tactical military success will be ephemeral.

So, the furious reaction to the proposed agreements and the opening it has created for an emerging Iraqi nationalist sentiment in opposition to US long-term plans for Iraq are developments that could serve US strategic goals by realigning the Iraqi political order and establishing a more sustainable framework upon which to advance national accommodation and reconciliation. It could also save the United States from its own worst impulses, by making it impossible for it to pursue an illogical policy of open-ended military engagement.

Rejection of the initial terms proposed by the Bush administration, which allegedly included plans for an unfettered and indefinite American military presence, expansive basing arrangements, legal immunity for US soldiers and civilian contractors, and the undiminished right to detain Iraqis, could provide a basis for an Iraqi political rethink. Opposition to these terms has spurred the formation of a cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc with a significant collection of mainstream Sunni and Shi'ite factions.

An emerging political realignment, hostile to an indefinite US military presence and defending the prerogatives of Iraqi sovereignty, could provide the organizing principles for a nascent program of national accommodation and reconciliation. Such an alternative framework is clearly fragile after the sectarian civil war that scarred the country.

However, the current realignment is broader than previous efforts and touts a greater degree of consensus on many of the fundamental issues that could help ease the United States out of Iraq. If it can address unresolved questions on the future nature of the Iraqi state, then this partial consensus could begin to overcome political fragmentation and help Iraqis pursue national accommodation and reconciliation.

The bloc opposing the Status of Forces Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement (and the Maliki government negotiating it) includes Shi'ites from the Fadhila party, Sadrists, and elements of the Dawa party alongside the Sunni National Dialogue Front and the secular Iraqi list led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition recognizes that to agree to the proposed provisions would be both substantively problematic and politically suicidal, especially with provincial elections scheduled for fall 2008.

Accordingly, the Maliki government has scaled back its public pronouncements on long-term security arrangements and has now begun to speak of possible withdrawal timetables and a short-term pact. With the current UN Security Council resolution under which US forces operate expiring at the end of December, the solution to the stand-off may be to extend this mandate or conclude a less drastic interim agreement. Better yet, the United States might also encourage a broader political conversation, using the agreements, or opposition to them, as a point of departure for a much-needed dialogue about long-term power-sharing in Iraq.

The establishment of a broad political coalition built upon nationalist sentiment could serve to protect the long-term interests of the United States in Iraq, which hinge on establishing a sustainable political culture, preserving the country's territorial integrity, and curbing excessive Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs - all of which would facilitate a US withdrawal.

While an anti-American coalition in an Arab state would appear to be an unlikely protector of vital US interests, the status quo of ethno-sectarian political division and an attendant weak central government guarantees continued US frustration. At a minimum, a nascent coalition fueled by opposition to long-term US plans might stem the pursuit of a foolhardy and costly American policy. If this comes to pass, then the strategic myopia and high-handedness of the Bush administration in the current negotiations will, paradoxically, have proven to be a boon for both the United States and Iraq.


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Daniel Levy


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