As I listened to President Bush's speech, I was hoping to see some sign that the president had a clear objective in Iraq and had a clear understanding of the reality we are confronting there. Unfortunately, I am still looking.
For the president, Al Qaeda and Iran remain the principal threats. That's why our objective, in the president's words, is "to turn back the enemy who threatens" Iraq's future and ours. Who is the enemy in Iraq? Is the enemy only Al Qaeda? If that were the case, the readiness of the Sunni tribes to join with us in Anbar and Diyala provinces in fighting Al Qaeda would augur well for the achievement of our objective. But, of course, the Sunni readiness to join with us in fighting Al Qaeda is not matched by a Sunni readiness to reconcile with the Shia government or to trust the Shia-dominated military and national police forces. Fighting Al Qaeda is important but it won't heal the sectarian divide in Iraq.
And that sectarian divide also militates against the president's argument that success in Iraq will mean that Iraq will join with us in countering Iran's dangerous ambitions in the region. Just as the Sunnis show little or no sign of being ready to reconcile with the Shia, the Shia not only show little or no sign of being ready to reconcile with the Sunnis, but there is also no likely Shia leader who commands any serious following who will be hostile to Iran. Who in Iraq is going to join us in countering the Iranians? Only the Sunnis and maybe the Kurds, but it is the Shia majority that would dominate any central government, such as it is.
So let's at least be honest about what it takes to have any conceivable success in Iraq: without a new political arrangement among Iraqis, there is no prospect of any success. The logic of the surge, at least as the president presented it in January, was to use our increased forces to create a secure environment so Iraqi leaders could feel safe enough to forge political compromises on their future. But that hasn't happened; instead, the purpose of the surge has been redefined. The surge is now designed to create local empowerment and, in the words of the president, "as local politics change, national politics will change."
Why? As we empower local areas, will Sunnis suddenly change their view of Shia and vice versa? There is no evidence yet.
The more likely reality is that as local politics change, they will cement the borders between sectarian groups just as the new walls of separation that we have built in Baghdad neighborhoods are doing. This will provide increased stability only if there is a referee in place to keep the groups separated. Otherwise, as they encroach on each other, conflict will intensify. So, if we are inclined to separate the key sectarian groups forever with our forces, we can preserve some stability in Iraq. Presumably, that is not what the administration has in mind for an ongoing American presence in Iraq.
If the administration wants its new model of power from the ground up to be successful someone has to orchestrate a political mechanism between local areas and the center. This won't be done on an ad hoc basis. And it won't be done without leverage.
So long as we keep the lid on, we make it safe for everyone in Iraq and its neighbors to avoid hard choices. It is time to make a virtue of necessity. The president is trying to suggest that we are beginning a process of drawing down our forces. Make it clear to Maliki and others that their behavior will affect the pace, the location, who we support and help and who we won't as we withdraw. In addition, create a political mechanism for trying to forge understandings either for coexistence or some kind of soft partition along the lines that Senator Biden and Les Gelb have been talking about for the last two years. Why not insist on convening a national reconciliation conference that includes those we are empowering at the local level with sectarian leaders from Baghdad and elsewhere--and don't let it disband until agreement is reached.
Of course, there should be a serious effort to broker understandings between Iraq's neighbors, but the administration seems content only to call on them to change their behavior toward Iraq. Such calls will continue to go unheeded. That is bad enough, but if the administration still lacks a political strategy and mechanism to connect the local areas with the center, then General Petraeus's report in March will either have to admit failure or come up with yet another set of new measures on which to evaluate the surge and to argue for more time.
By Dennis Ross