Bush Lacks Political and Diplomatic Iraqi War Strategy

As the dust settles following the Petraeus-Crocker reports on the troop surge in Iraq, the Bush administration is again being urged to develop a political and diplomatic strategy to support the beleaguered Iraqi government, which many believe is not capable of progressing the political reconciliation required to quell sectarian violence and enable the US to scale down its military presence in the longer term.

The Maliki government’s failure to meet most of its political benchmarks has also reignited calls for a regional governance model to be considered for Iraq.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes the Bush administration’s military strategy alone is unlikely to result in meaningful, long-term progress in Iraq. In an opinion piece first published in The Washington Post over the weekend, Dr Kissinger said, “An appropriate strategy for Iraq requires political direction … The missing ingredient has not been a withdrawal schedule but a political and diplomatic design connected to a military strategy.”

Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and presidential candidate, agreed that the Bush administration should not just leave politics to the Maliki government; he advocates a political and diplomatic strategy that addresses internal sectarian fault lines as well as external security threats. “This is what a president’s supposed to do. A president is supposed to bring about a diplomatic solution,” he told Fox News Sunday.

Senator Biden and Dr Kissinger also share the concern that demands for “a strong, central, unified government” may not be realistic for Iraq, where the political culture seems more amenable to a higher degree of regional autonomy and local leadership based on ethno-sectarian demographics.

“It is possible that the present structure in Baghdad is incapable of national reconciliation because its elected constituents were elected on a sectarian basis,” said Dr Kissinger. “American exhortations for national reconciliation are based on constitutional principles drawn from the Western experience. But it is impossible to achieve this in a six-month period defined by the American troop surge in an artificially created state wracked by the legacy of a thousand years of ethnic and sectarian conflicts.

“Experience should teach us that trying to manipulate a fragile political structure — particularly one resulting from American-sponsored elections — is likely to play into radical hands. A wiser course would be to concentrate on the three principal regions and promote technocratic, efficient and humane administration in each.”

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker acknowledges the extraordinary challenges attending American efforts to foster a “new political society” in Iraq. Speaking on the PBS NewsHour, Mr Crocker said, “Iraq is going to be a work in progress for a long time to come; there’s no question about that. This is a revolution, not just a regime change or a change in leaders. They’re building an entirely new political society. That will take time. That will take years. There’s no question.”

Trudy Rubin, a Philidelphia Inquirer international affairs columnist and author who has made numerous visits to Iraq, says the Bush administration’s failure to develop a sound political and diplomatic strategy has overstretched the US military while offering no progress towards long-term goals.

“The current surge strategy contains no levers to make reconciliation happen,” said Ms Rubin. “Iraqis are clearly unable to compromise by themselves, and the administration has had no success in applying pressure. Nor does training Iraqi forces to replace ours offer a good solution – without political reconciliation, those forces will split by sect as soon as US troops leave.

“There is only one strategy that holds any hope of pressing Iraqi leaders to reach consensus – an international diplomatic offensive, with full US backing, that draws in the permanent UN Security Council members, European Union, and all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria.”

Although there has been some dialogue between the US, Iran and Syria regarding the crisis in Iraq, most notably in a regional conference held in Baghdad in March, the Bush administration has resisted high-level diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria due to allegations that they have fomented sectarian violence in Iraq.

General Petraeus told Congress last week that the US military now has evidence that the Iranians have been funding, arming and training Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq. President Bush said in his national televised address on Thursday that the US needs to maintain a military presence in Iraq to counter the threat of further Iranian aggression and expansion.

Dr Kissinger acknowledged that, while a comprehensive regional diplomatic strategy is “the best road to reduce America’s military presence in the long run”, such a plan “inevitably raises the question of how to deal with Iran”. He believes that unilateral strategies to isolate or confront Iran will be less productive than engaging Iran in a broader diplomatic forum with other regional leaders, which would send a stronger message that there are “red lines Iran will not be permitted to cross”.

Sectarian conflict in Iraq continues to threaten political stability throughout the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan has repeatedly urged the Bush administration to resume diplomacy in the region to avoid the escalation of three civil wars – in Iraq, in Lebanon and among the Palestinians.

Stronger US diplomatic leadership was one of the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) chaired by former US Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and James Baker, former Secretary of State under President George H. W. Bush and author of the book The Politics of Diplomacy.

On releasing the ISG report, Mr Hamilton told NBC’s Meet the Press, “We need to build a consensus in the region with Iraq’s neighbors. Iran and Syria are major players. Now, to try to isolate them, to shove them aside, I don’t think gets you anywhere. How do you solve problems with people unless you talk to them?”

The ISG report recommends a “New Diplomatic Offensive” to jump-start dialogue between the US, Iraq and neighboring nations who will have a long-term influence on Iraq’s stability. The strategy would also include Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian leaders who recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“The United States has diplomatic, economic, and military disincentives available in approaches to both Iran and Syria. However, the United States should also consider incentives to try to engage them constructively, much as it did successfully with Libya,” states the report.

The ISG also said that “the Iraqi government cannot succeed in governing, defending, and sustaining itself by relying on US military and economic support alone” and that a US-led diplomatic strategy would “help marginalize extremists and terrorists, promote US values and interests, and improve America’s global image.”

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