And Now, Plan B

Sunday, December 3, 2006

THE IRAQ Study Group appears likely to recommend a new course for U.S policy this week that, in important respects, corresponds with what the Bush administration, leading members of Congress and the Iraqi government already are proposing. The elements of that emerging consensus begin with a commitment to greatly increase the U.S. training and advisory mission for the Iraqi army. During the coming months, command of the army would be steadily transferred to the government, which would then lead the fight against insurgents and renegade militias. As that process went forward, a substantial reduction of U.S. combat troops would take place.

Both the study group and the Pentagon are reportedly considering a halving of the force of 140,000 American troops during 2007, though without adopting a rigid timetable; that's close to what Democratic Sens. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) have called for. While it's not clear where President Bush stands, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday that he believed that Iraqi forces would be ready for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal by June.

Mr. Bush is more likely to resist the study group's proposal for a new U.S. diplomatic offensive in the region. That's because it would include contacts with Iran and Syria, along with Iraq's other neighbors, possibly through an international conference. We believe that such a diplomatic initiative, aimed above all at encouraging an accord among Iraq's warring parties, is long overdue. But whether it occurs ultimately is less important than what happens inside Iraq: Outside actors, including the United States, cannot impose order or broker a political solution unless and until the warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions choose to do so.

That's where the potential trouble for a new U.S. policy may begin. The study group proposals, like those being developed by the Bush administration, assume that the army and government of Mr. Maliki are worth a continued, if slowly diminishing, commitment of U.S. military support -- with an inevitable cost in American lives. But are they? Mr. Bush has made his bet: After meeting with Mr. Maliki on Thursday, he called him a "strong leader" and "the right guy for Iraq." Yet a leaked memo by Mr. Bush's national security adviser spells out doubts shared by many Iraqis and Americans. Though Mr. Maliki has frequently committed himself to a pluralistic and democratic Iraq, he has been either unable or unwilling to rein in Shiite militias or prevent his own government from pursuing a sectarian agenda. In fact, it may be that Mr. Maliki's government, the army or the political system as a whole are headed toward dissolution; the Bush administration needs a plan for that possibility.

But writing off the government now is not in the U.S. interest. The best remaining option for the United States lies in a long-term effort to bolster Iraq's political administration and army so that it defends the current constitution and slowly gains the ability to take on the enemies of the United States. First among those are the Sunni extremists linked to the Baath Party and al-Qaeda, which continue to inflict more than 70 percent of American casualties.

Giving up on the government, as advocates of a rapid withdrawal suggest, would simply concede the country to those enemies, as well as to Shiite extremists, and betray those Iraqis who believed in the U.S. vision of a democracy at peace with its neighbors. It would mean the destruction of American allies in Iraq and throughout the region. Mr. Bush, who commonly is accused of being out of touch with reality, made one statement last week that struck us as pretty rational: "This business about a graceful exit," the president said, "simply has no realism to it at all."

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