The Failed Crocker-Petraeus Testimony and a "Conditions-Based" Strategy for Staying in Iraq
April 10, 2008
I believe there is still a case for staying in Iraq, but I also believe that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus decisively failed to make it. My sympathy lies with the senators and congressmen who tried for hours to get some hint of a clear plan or strategy for the future, and got nothing but “conditions based” statements of uncertainty. In saying this, I do not blame Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus. It is not their function to develop a clear strategy and set of conditions for staying in Iraq. It is the responsibility of the President, and this President seems incapable of that kind of leadership.
We should not be wandering into the void without a clear plan for the future, and with open ended and undefined commitments. Five years into a war, we should have clear and well-defined goals and priorities for the coming years—although these clearly will have to change according to conditions. The Congress, our military, and the American people deserve more than inarticulate Presidential bluster that seems to thinly camouflage a leadership vacuum.
There should be a US strategy, plan, and five-year program budget for the Iraq War, just as there should be one for Afghanistan. This plan should not consist of rigid milestones, and it should be based as soon as possible on Iraqi plans rather than US ones. In fact, the most discouraging single aspect of the Crocker-Petraeus testimony is the lack of any coherent Iraqi plans for political accommodation, effective governance, creating independent Iraqi security forces, and economic development five years after the US-led invasion. We should not have to lead at this point; we should be helping an ally implement its own goals and plans at a pace that it feels is practical and that it can actually achieve.
In reality, however, the present Iraqi government has tenuous legitimacy, and little practical competence. It is led by a compromise prime minister from a minority party and even its leading Shi’ite coalition is a fragmented mess that would probably never have emerged if Iraqis had had the opportunity to vote for open lists and candidates they knew and that represented them at a local and regional level. The shock of 35 years of Ba’ath tyranny, and the long series of mistakes the US made after the invasion, has also left the Iraqi government with a weak and uncoordinated central government with limited planning and administrative capabilities.
Accordingly, one condition-based reason for staying in Iraq is that the US should visibly and constantly press the present Iraqi government hard for clear plans that will give Iraq security and stability. There should be a comprehensive Iraqi plan for moving toward political accommodation with specific proposals for legislation and implementation. There should be a clear Iraqi plan for developing Iraqi forces that goes beyond increasing force quantity and focuses on honest and realistic measures of force quality and specific goals and timeframes for phasing out dependence on US forces. There should be an Iraq five year plan, with a budget for development and one that sets clear goals for phasing out dependence on US and other foreign aid.
Creating such plans will almost certainly take the Iraqi government time, and they probably will not be complete until the next administration takes office. The US will then constantly have to be changed and updated, and there will be a long series of problems and delays along the way. “Conditions-based” planning is very different, however, from no plan at all, and if the US is to persist in Iraq, Iraq must give it the reasons to do so and show it is moving toward true sovereignty and independence.
The US should not, however wait on the present Iraqi government. It needs to define its own strategy, plans, and budgets—and use them to step up the pressure on the Iraqi central government. The US has every reason to set its own goals for political accommodation, and some should be conditions-based criteria for staying in Iraq. The US should only stay in Iraq if there are fair and open provincial and local elections by the end of 2008, and fair and “open list” national elections in 2009. It should be clear to all Iraqis that the US will not favor the current central government in the national elections, or Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq in the provincial and local elections, and it will not stay or support governments that are not based on UN-supervised elections and legitimate representation.
The Congress, the US military, and the American people have every right to go into the coming US election with a far clearer basis for judging what the US is seeking to do in Iraq over the coming years and whether US plans and goals are practical. In practice, this means having well-defined and public US plans for Iraqi force development and for shifting US military forces out of their combat role to a much lower presence and the role of adviser and strategic overwatch. It means the US should have clear plans for phasing out most development aid, and transferring fiscal responsibility to Iraq. These plans will again have to be conditions-based, but the US should make it clear how it seeks to change its role, and what its goals are in terms of timing and cost. In fact, this may be the key to both winning enduring US-domestic support and pushing the Iraqi government into developing and implementing adequate plans of its own.
Finally, one key aspect of defining a strategy and plan for conditions-based success is for the US to also define a strategy and plan for conditions-based withdrawal. It should be made unambiguously clear to the Iraqi government that the US will not stay if Iraq does not hold fair elections, if its not more active in bringing Sunnis and more secular Shi’ites into the central government, does not create truly national armed forces, and does not take more active steps to protect minorities and mixed populations and act to halt sectarian and ethnic cleansing. It should be clear the US will not bail Iraq out from a failure to move toward fiscal responsibility.
It should be clear to both Iraqis and Americans that the US will not back any given party or side in an intra-Shi’ite power struggle, or support the Kurds if they do not seek a fair settlement in defining the nature of Kurdish autonomy and Kurdish-controlled territory. It should be clear that the US will not support any form of “federalism” that fragments the nation, and will not stay in Iraq if central government inaction triggers serious civil-fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite.
If President Bush cannot provide such plans, he will cement his status as a failed President who has at best relied on the competence of the US military and on the systematic waste of America’s political capital. We need real leadership and we need it now. The President, and only the President, has this responsibility.