Members of the US Congress, distressed with the flagging popularity of the Iraq war, have spent the first month of 2007 scrambling to offer the public the exit strategy it seeks. Bereft of a serious and comprehensive strategy for several years, the American public now has a surfeit of offerings from their elected representatives. Competition, in the form of an array of imaginative and realistic ideas, is good. The congressional plans themselves? Not good.
Joseph Biden, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (both Democrats) initially partnered with a Republican war critic, Senator Chuck Hagel, to offer a non-binding resolution opposing any further infusion of troops into Iraq, calling on the Iraqis to sort out their political woes with "compromises necessary to ending the violence in Iraq", while focusing on "territorial integrity", "counterterrorism" and "accelerate[d] training". For good measure, the senators called for a "regionally-sponsored peace and reconciliation process". How any of this is supposed to come to pass is entirely mysterious. Ways and means are not discussed.
John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with a hawkish Democrat and a dovish Republican, offered what might be labeled the loyal opposition plan. (Hagel would be unlikely to claim the "loyal" opposition mantle, having vowed to "do everything I can to stop the president’s policy.") This non- binding resolution urges President George W. Bush to reconsider sending more troops, encourages "political compromises" by Iraqi leaders and, wait for it, stresses "focus on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq", "counterterrorism", and "training". A "regional, internationally sponsored peace and reconciliation process" also gets a nod.
In late breaking news, Warner and Levin announced that they are to join forces, though their "compromise" plan is not yet public. But the quest to lead the forces of retreat will not end there. Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has yet to offer her own non-binding resolution, but has stressed a cap on troop levels. Her Illinois rival Barack Obama has chimed in with a slightly bolder (though unconstitutional) ban on additional troops, a phased redeployment (read: withdrawal) and benchmarks for Iraqi politicians that emphasize economic and security goals, and the much-beloved exhortation for political compromise (which Obama labels "accommodation"). Senator Russ Feingold prefers the tougher, but less clearly unconstitutional threat to cut off funds for the war.
Setting aside the likely resolutions in support of President Bush, we can expect more blueprints for Iraq, many featuring daring offers of enhanced training and regional peace conferences. But defining oneself in opposition to (or indeed in alliance with) the president of the United States and advocating more meetings in hotels does not constitute "planning".
At the root of the failure to devise better strategies is a fundamental flaw: No plan other than the president’s seeks victory. Yes, it is crucial that the Iraqis compromise politically, and indeed, territorial integrity is important. Training the Iraqis is vital if the United States is ever to exit Iraq. And fighting terrorism is America’s top foreign policy priority. But the prerequisite for all these important pieces to fall into place is security for the people of Iraq.
There is no question that incompetence contributed to the manifest lack of security in and around Baghdad. In order to move forward, however, we must learn from those mistakes. Lesson one: If the Iraqi people cannot trust the Americans or their own armed forces to deliver day to day security, they will turn to the militias and tribes and gangs that will. Lesson two: A light military footprint and efforts to propitiate Sunni insurgents and their sponsors encourages violence. As the United States military learned from success at Tal Afar, victory facilitates compromise, and more men mean victory.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not a great man, nor even a great leader. But he is the democratically elected leader of Iraq. At the best of times, democratic leaders do not compromise with their opponents and abandon their constituents. And these are not the best of times in Iraq. Maliki must deliver services to Iraqi Sunnis and begin to embrace an Iraqi reconciliation process that emphasizes justice over amnesty. He must disband the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades and the other sectarian militias. But he cannot do those things until the citizens of Baghdad can go to school and work and prayer without risking death.
Some, like Obama, have suggested that it is not worth an American effort "to babysit a civil war". Ignoring the consequences of a raging civil war inside Iraq (and the ensuing power vacuum, likely terrorist ascendancy, implications for the broader battle against Islamic extremists and more), Obama and others who harp upon the feckless Iraqis and their primitive sectarianism fail to appreciate the currents beneath the Sunni-Shi’ite fighting.
On the surface, Sunni death squads and Shi’ite gangsters appear to be tolerated by their respective communities because alongside the ethnic cleansing, casual crime and occasional kidnapping, these men effectively act as neighborhood watch committees. But any serious review of the ample intelligence regarding these mini-armies reveals a tightly linked nexus with terrorism underpinned by Saudi money, Syrian fighters and al-Qaeda. Towering above these venomous meddlers, the Islamic Republic of Iran pours money and arms to Iraq’s extra-legal militias. The pragmatic Iranians, who are as uninterested in a stable Shi’ite Iraq as they were in a stable Sunni Iraq under Saddam, support both Sunni and Shi’ite killers.
Like the United States, Iraq’s neighbors and the terrorists have stakes in what passes for civil war inside Iraq. Unlike the troop- cappers and conferencers and tribunes of redeployment and training who now dominate the US Congress, they do have a plan. It involves ensuring chaos, undermining democracy and waiting until the benchmarks have passed, compromise is impossible and American will is worn down. And if congress is any indication, they are half way there.