The Big Question On Iraq

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 2, 2006

The campaign season debate about Iraq, which circled last week around the question of whether the war has increased global terrorism, might suggest that Washington is nowhere near facing the critical question of what to do about the actual situation on the ground. Yet behind President Bush's "we're safer" rhetoric and the answering shouts of "fiasco," the most serious debate about U.S. Iraq strategy in three years is quietly emerging. Shortly after the election it should take center stage.

The central question for discussion is this: Should the United States continue to depend on Iraq's "unity" government and army to carry out the political, military and economic measures needed to stabilize the country -- most important, a political settlement among its warring sectarian factions? Or is it necessary to override the new political system and mount some sort of intervention, led by the United States and perhaps other governments, to force the necessary deals?

President Bush has been hinting about this decision point ever since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit to Washington in July. "Iraq can count on our partnership as long as the new government continues to make the hard decisions necessary to advance a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq," Bush said in an Aug. 31 speech. Administration officials say the passage was a warning deliberately aimed at Maliki.

A more explicit signal came in a Sept. 19 news conference by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, who are leading a congressionally mandated and Bush-blessed commission to consider options for Iraq. The panel long ago decided not to make recommendations until after the November elections. So why hold a news conference in September? Perhaps so that Hamilton could make this statement: "The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon, and the citizens of the United States, that it is deserving of continuing support. The next three months are critical. Before the end of this year, this government needs to show progress in securing Baghdad, pursuing national reconciliation and delivering basic services."

At least some in Maliki's government are hearing the warning. Two of its most pro-American officials, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, appeared in Washington in September. Mahdi, a Shiite, pleaded for more time, saying that Washington could not expect the new government to deliver results on a timetable measured in months. Salih, a Kurd, took a different tack, listing a string of measures he said would be approved by parliament before the end of the year.

In fact, amid the continuing chaos in Baghdad the parliament has finally begun to act: Last week Sunni and Shiite deputies struck a preliminary deal on legislation that would allow the creation of federal regions and set up a committee to consider amendments to the constitution. But Maliki is still resisting forceful steps against Shiite militias; and negotiations with Sunni insurgents have gone nowhere.

If such sluggishness continues, the Baker-Hamilton commission, and with it the consensus in Washington, could be tipped toward the conclusion that the United States can't look to the new political system for solutions. That doesn't mean there would be a precipitous American troop withdrawal; the commission will almost certainly conclude that such a step would be disastrous.

Instead, the time may finally be ripe for some of the ideas that have been doggedly pushed for most of this year by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, who has been one of his party's most serious and responsible voices on Iraq. In essence, Biden is proposing that the United States enlist its NATO allies, U.N. Security Council members and Iraq's neighbors for an intervention that would be aimed at forcing political and sectarian leaders to leap to the political settlement they are now creeping toward.

The settlement Biden has in mind is the division of Iraq into highly autonomous regions, dominated, respectively, by Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. That solution was the subject of last week's parliamentary deal, which postponed any action until 2008. A new reconstruction aid program would be launched; an international conference would commit Iran, Syria and other neighbors to a nonaggression pact. International peacekeepers would be recruited to patrol cities such as Baghdad. Meanwhile, most U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of next year, except for a residual force that could intervene against al-Qaeda.

It's easy to find holes in this strategy, as with any other plan for Iraq. To begin with, Iraqis simply may not be capable of jumping to a settlement. Perhaps only the pain of an extended civil war will get them there. But Biden's basic idea -- of an external political intervention backed by an international alliance -- is the one big option the Bush administration hasn't tried. It wouldn't be surprising if Baker -- master orchestrator of the Plaza agreement and the Madrid conference -- finds it compelling.

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