By Brent Scowcroft
Monday, January 16, 2006
The December election in Iraq could prove to be a seminal event. The parliament elected last month will choose a president and prime minister, providing Iraq its first elected government under a constitution approved by referendum. This government may well seek, or at least welcome, changes in the foreign military presence. In addition, President Bush has made clear that it will need to take increasing responsibility for rebuilding the country politically and economically, while Iraqi armed forces take increasing responsibility for defeating the insurgency.
The election was preceded and accompanied by a bitter and emotional debate in the United States about the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The coincidence of these events may provide a unique opportunity to review the role of foreign military forces and the international community as Iraq takes its next steps back into the community of nations. Such a review could usefully begin by turning over to the historians questions about how and why we got into Iraq. Whatever questions remain, we are there in force, and the central issue that confronts us is how we move forward most effectively.
The stakes -- for the United States and for the world -- are enormous. Iraq lies in the center of a region critical to the well-being of the global system. It is surrounded by states intensely concerned about the nature and future of that country and its government. A failed Iraq could be a catastrophe for the Middle East and a calamity for the world. At the moment such an outcome would be inevitable without the U.S. presence.
There are at least two elements essential to "success" in Iraq. The first is a central government that meets the needs of the people well enough to secure their sustained support, shows sufficient consideration for minority rights to win the loyalty of those minorities and demonstrates a credible determination to live in peace with its neighbors.
The second is an effective, highly disciplined military and security establishment that gives its allegiance not to various elements within Iraqi society but solely to the central government.
The fundamental question for the United States is what kind of policy is most likely to produce such an outcome and do so at a cost the American public is prepared to sustain. At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the "answers" proposed in the debate thus far fall into two broad categories. "Withdrawal" proposals range from immediate pullout to "setting a date certain." "Success" proposals range from "staying the course"(not clearly defined, but presumably meaning maintaining substantial forces in Iraq until the goals there have been achieved) to increasing the number of troops there.
The first category of proposals places primary emphasis on reducing the costs -- in blood and treasure -- that the United States is paying in Iraq. This would be achieved, however, by accepting (or ignoring) the very real risk that Iraq will not emerge as a viable state and that the region will descend into chaos. The second category of proposals underscores how critical it is to achieve "success." But the assumption is that the American people will continue to be willing to bear the burdens of Iraq indefinitely.
Both alternatives have unattractive or even unacceptable aspects. The real challenge is not to choose between them but to make the option that is most likely to advance the overall U.S. national interest -- the "success" option -- both more acceptable and more likely, by reducing its cost and risk. Clearly, progress has already been made, but we should do everything possible to enhance the prospects for success.
This could be accomplished through several steps designed to eventually make the foreign presence in Iraq more advisory in nature and more international in character, in ways resembling the course the United States has pursued in Afghanistan. The United Nations could be asked to assume a greater role in providing a more ecumenical political umbrella and expertise in building and coordinating institutions, programs and structures. After all, the United Nations played a significant role after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, until a bomb explosion prompted its exit from the country. The coalition forces are themselves in Iraq pursuant to a Security Council resolution. And U.N. personnel figured prominently in managing the recent parliamentary election. A U.N. presence of such magnitude, however, would require a dedicated security force, to prevent a repetition of the 2003 tragedy.
Such a force could be contributed by NATO or provided by other international military units. The new post-election circumstances, combined with an enhanced U.N. role, could provide a basis for asking countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and Egypt to provide enough additional countrywide security and training capabilities to accelerate the development of a stable, progressive Iraqi state. (Some Arab states could provide financial support for infrastructure reconstruction and rehabilitation.) Initially, these forces might be engaged in missions such as the training of Iraqi troops, infrastructure protection and holding areas cleared of insurgents. The presence of such forces might also encourage members of the current coalition to continue their participation.
As the security situation improved and Iraqi military capability increased, these international forces could assume more of the traditional peacekeeping missions they have so effectively carried out in the past. This could allow the mission of the United States to be restructured and U.S. troop levels to be reduced.
To be sure, a searching, deliberative debate might disclose still other possible or more attractive courses of action. But above all, it is time to focus on our long-term goals in Iraq and on how best to go about achieving them at a sustainable cost.
The writer was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He is now president of the Forum for International Policy.