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Iraq - Seeking a Way Out

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On May 1st, Senator Joe Biden and foreign policy expert Les Gelb proposed a modified version of the three state option for Iraq. “The idea… is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” While relatively unnoticed by the media, their proposal gives the American people Iraq an additional option for Iraq, for a total of four.

Option 1: Fund the Three-State Solution. The Biden-Gelb proposal has five parts: “The first is to establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad… The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multisectarian and international police protection.” “The second element would be to entice the Sunnis into joining the federal system with an offer they couldn't refuse.” In other words, to guarantee reasonable oil revenue to the Sunni region.

“The third component would be to ensure the protection of the rights of women and ethno-religious minorities by increasing American aid to Iraq but tying it to respect for those rights.” This is intended to mitigate the possibility of ethnic cleansing. “Fourth, the president must direct the military to design a plan for withdrawing and redeploying our troops from Iraq by 2008 (while providing for a small but effective residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest).” “Fifth, under an international or United Nations umbrella, we should convene a regional conference to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and its federal system.”

Option 2: Invest More Resources in Counterinsurgency. An entirely different option would be to massively invest in counterinsurgency operations. Several recent articles argued that where the United States actually engages in counterinsurgency within Iraq, it is successful. (The operating definition of counterinsurgency warfare is “20 percent military, and 80 percent political.”) While effective, this has not been a widespread U.S. initiative. Indeed, the articles suggested that where counterinsurgency occurred, it was done “despite an absence of guidance” from the Bush Administration, which disapproves of the word “insurgency” and, therefore, doesn’t formally support counterinsurgency.

While counterinsurgency seems to be the only good news coming out of Iraq, there are problems with this approach: fully embracing this option means the U.S. would have to send more troops to Iraq, rather than withdraw them. It also means spending more money on repair of the Iraqi infrastructure, rather than rapidly reducing our expenditures. And, it suggests changing the role of the military from conducting combat missions to conflict resolution, overseeing the pacification of large sections of Iraq.

The Bush Administration has been trying to get other nations to invest in counterinsurgency. This hasn’t been successful, because those nations take the position that since we broke Iraq, we should fix it. This leaves the Bush Administration with a basic dilemma: they want to hand off Iraq to someone—our “allies” or a “stable Iraqi government”—but that entity doesn’t exist.

Option 3: Admit Iraq is a Quagmire and Withdraw Troops. The third option is to leave Iraq ASAP. While increasing numbers of Democrats take the position that the US should withdraw troops within the next twelve months, their proposals differ in significant details. Most call for repositioning troops nearby, in Kuwait or Dubai, so that if Iraq imploded we could respond. There’s also disagreement about what happens to the “enduring bases” we’ve built.

Interestingly, while President Bush has resisted a timetable for withdrawal, the net effect of recent Pentagon policies has created something comparable. Since January, American troops have been withdrawn from most Iraqi hot spots and relocated into the highly fortified enduring bases. In many cities, security is now the responsibility of Iraqi forces advised by a few American military personnel. Meanwhile, Iraq has lapsed into civil war.

Option 4: Stay the course. The fourth option is to “keep on keeping on,” at least until the end of the Bush Administration. The President continues to use rhetoric like “stay the course,” “complete our mission,” and establish an Iraq that is “free and self-governing and democratic.” While these are noble words, the fact remains that it has been three years since Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. It’s painfully obvious that not only has the mission not been accomplished, but also the White House wasn’t clear what that mission was. Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq has gotten worse, not better.

There is no optimal solution for Iraq. It is broken and the Bush Administration not only doesn’t know how to fix it, they won’t even acknowledge that it is broken.

In this environment, the Biden-Gelb Iraq proposal deserves serious consideration. It’s not “stay the course” and it’s not “cut and run.” This option may not work, but it’s certainly better than pretending that everything will be okay, if we just hang tough.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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