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A Partnership on Iraq

By Lee H. Hamilton
Sunday, March 25, 2007

President Bush staked out his position on Iraq in January, and the House has now staked out its own. Deep divisions between these positions signal a stalemate among our political leaders. There is no unity of effort. Yet the president and the Democratic majorities in Congress will remain in office for nearly two years. They must seek a bipartisan consensus in the months ahead; otherwise, our efforts in Iraq will falter.

The American people have soured on the war. They clearly are looking for a responsible transition for U.S. forces out of Iraq. The House supplemental spending plan outlines a transition, as do proposals pending in the Senate. Moving forward, the president and Congress must become partners, and not antagonists, toward this end.

A strategy of sustained pressure on the Iraqi government to advance national reconciliation, provide security and improve the lives of the Iraqi people offers the best chance of advancing stability. U.S. military forces have performed valiantly, but they cannot by themselves accomplish these goals -- only Iraqis can. As President Bush told the nation on Jan. 10, "only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people."

To that end, the House bill lays out the steps that the Iraqi government must take. These benchmarks are not new. They have been widely agreed upon by the White House and the Iraqi government, as have target dates for completion. At issue is the conditionality of U.S. support. Time and again, Iraqis have missed deadlines. Time and again, deadlines have been extended, and U.S. political, economic and military support has continued and even increased.

The House bill breaks this cycle. By compelling the president to report Iraq's performance to Congress, the House provides a necessary mechanism to track progress. By tying continued U.S. support -- including the presence of U.S. troops -- to benchmarks, it uses the strongest possible leverage to press Iraqi leaders to meet their commitments.

The House outlines a 2008 target date for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. It sets a direction for policy but leaves implementation to the president. The residual force it authorizes gives the president considerable flexibility to protect U.S. interests with a substantial presence of U.S. troops. The president manages the war and makes the decision about the force level needed to defend U.S. military forces and civilians in Iraq, conduct counterterrorism operations and train Iraqi security forces. This transition is flexible, not fixed. It is responsible, not precipitate.

Even with the more assertive congressional role outlined in the bill, determinations on Iraqi benchmark performance and certifications on the readiness of U.S. military units are left to the president. He has the authority to waive limitations on troop deployments. The president must retain this flexibility and authority as commander in chief.

But more needs to be done. Just as a narrow focus on a "surge" of U.S. forces will not bring stability to Iraq, neither will a narrow focus on the readiness of U.S. forces and the conditions of U.S. support. What we need is a "surge" of political, economic and diplomatic engagement as well.

The Senate leadership's resolution speaks appropriately to the importance of a comprehensive approach and a diplomatic offensive in the region. The administration's efforts to engage all of Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- in a regional forum represent a good first step. These efforts must be energized with high-level contacts. They must be sustained through careful preparation and follow-through, as well as the creation of an international support group on behalf of national reconciliation in Iraq and stability in the region.

Congress and the administration should also place greater emphasis on training Iraqi security forces, both police and military. Unless their training becomes the primary mission of U.S. forces, it will be difficult to withdraw U.S. combat troops.

The House bill is a step forward. Yet it is only one step in a process that will unfold in many ways over several months. With our young men and women in harm's way, the debate will be understandably passionate.

It is my hope that out of this debate a better policy on Iraq will emerge: That is how our Founders designed the system to work. The president must respect the views of the American people and the role of Congress, and Congress must respect the president's responsibility for carrying out foreign policy.

To bring the war to a responsible conclusion, our leaders have an obligation to come together. They must find a bipartisan consensus and rally public opinion behind it. The best way to move forward in Iraq is to unify America's effort.

The writer, a Democratic representative from Indiana from 1965 to 1999, was co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.

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