Congress Begins to Lay Groundwork for a Post-Surge Strategy in Iraq

On June 25, 2007 Senator Richard Lugar bluntly told the Senate that prospects that the current troop surge in Iraq “will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President are very limited.” Shortly thereafter, Senators Voinovich and Warner offered similar critiques. However, the strongest evidence that Congress may be considering a post-surge strategy is that it has already been quietly laying the groundwork for just such a fundamental change in course.

On June 27, The Washington Post revealed that Congress has appointed its own military fact-finding commission headed by retired General James L. Jones, requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provide an assessment of political progress in Iraq, and moved to revive the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Taken together, these steps suggest that Congress is giving itself a viable option for dramatically breaking from the troop surge strategy now in place.

Even as the White House has recently launched a full-court press to try to downplay expectations concerning General David Petraeus’s September assessment, that report could prove “pivotal.” Here’s how things could play out. If General Petraeus provides a positive report showing significant progress in reduced violence and/or political reform in Iraq and the independent findings from General Jones and the GAO confirm such progress, that development will buy additional time for the troop surge. In that case, Congress will likely back off.

However, odds are against substantial progress being achieved by September unless Iraq achieves major political reform. Such reform is unlikely. The current Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a sectarian government that continues to pursue a narrow sectarian agenda, even when humanitarian interests are involved. Senator Lugar revealed, “The Shia-led government is going out of its way to bottle up money budgeted for Sunni provinces. Without strident intervention by our embassy, food rations are not being delivered to Sunni towns.”

Its repeated unfulfilled promises notwithstanding, the Maliki government has demonstrated little willingness to change course. As such, the Maliki government is arguably the biggest problem responsible for the present state of affairs in Iraq. An approach that winds up mainly advancing Shia aspirations for dominance is not a recipe for building a stable Iraq. Maintaining or tightening existing Sunni economic and political disenfranchisement will push Iraq further down the violent path of fragmentation, in spite of the presence of additional U.S. troops. Continuing instability will create additional avenues by which outside actors, particularly Iran, Syria, and Al Qaeda, can undermine Iraq’s evolution and threaten critical U.S. regional interests.

Given its sectarian nature, the Maliki government is not a viable part of the solution to Iraq’s political problems. A Bonn-style conference that produced Afghanistan’s transitional post-Taliban government offers perhaps the best chance for creating a legitimate national Iraqi government. Such a conference, hosted perhaps jointly by the United Nations, Arab League, and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), would bring together Iraq's major factions, neighbors, and the United States. In March, the Arab League called for far-reaching political reform in Iraq. It proclaimed “that the Iraqi Government should be a national government for all Iraqis—a real national unity government—and respecting the will of the Iraqi people in all its components to decide their political future.”

Nevertheless, such a conference is not likely anytime soon. The U.S. remains committed to Prime Minister Maliki. As a consequence, urgently needed political reconciliation is unlikely and General Petraeus probably will not be able to report the kind of significant progress Congress is seeking. That is where the revived Iraq Study Group will come in.

Given Congressional dissatisfaction with the White House’s continued inability to stabilize Iraq, Congress will turn to the Iraq Study Group for a new strategy. Once the Iraq Study Group develops its recommendations, Congress will likely tie additional funding for the American role in Iraq to mandatory implementation of the Iraq Study Group’s major recommendations.

In any standoff with the White House, Congress will likely attempt to position the White House as opposing a broad-based bipartisan consensus on strategy. Barring substantial progress in Iraq, the White House would be in an especially weak position to argue against major changes in strategy, particularly changes backed by Republicans and Democrats alike. In such a situation, it would risk political isolation.

What that means is that September will likely prove a turning point on Iraq strategy. Unless General Petraeus can demonstrate substantial progress—progress that would be verified by General Jones’s and the GAO’s independent assessments—the troop surge would be replaced by a new approach that could likely be termed “managed disengagement.” The likely objectives of such a course would include a framework that would lead to a new political solution in Iraq to reduce sectarian tensions, possible creation of a temporary council on national reconciliation, a focus on ensuring that Iraq would not remain a safe haven for Al Qaeda, a regional arrangement to minimize the risk of Iranian domination of Iraq, the redeployment and withdrawal of U.S. troops, and development of a strategy to rebuild U.S. credibility in the region.

The Maliki government would very likely attempt to head off such Congressional action. Toward that end, it would send top officials to lobby the Congress, seek commitments for long-term U.S. assistance, and ask for delays in U.S. troop withdrawals. It might offer symbolic gestures toward political reconciliation. However, in the absence of far-reaching political reforms, including the outlawing of sectarian militias and full political participation for Sunnis, such efforts would likely not prove persuasive. The key test will be whether Congress is convinced that the Maliki government has a reasonable prospect to stabilize Iraq. If it does not make significant progress toward political reconciliation by the time General Petraeus issues his report, Congress will likely have lost all confidence in it.

At the same time, critics will likely assail the post-surge strategy as “surrender”, “appeasement of terror,” and “defeat.” They will likely predict a disaster of all-out civil war, possible genocide, Iraq’s becoming new base for radical Islamist terrorism, and/or Iraq’s being transformed into an Iranian satellite. The on-the-ground situation in Iraq coupled with the bipartisan consensus around the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations will blunt their efforts to thwart a post-surge approach. Congress will assert that all prior approaches had failed. It will assert that the Iraq Study Group’s bipartisan approach offers perhaps the only real opportunity to stabilize Iraq, foster reconciliation among Iraq’s peoples, and secure critical U.S. interests in the Middle East.

As the Congress seriously examines a post-surge future, various Members will likely argue that a significant share of the war funding that has now reached approximately $100 billion per year should be redirected to domestic priorities in the form of a “peace dividend.” However, any “peace dividend” is likely to prove only very modest, if that.

A post-surge future will not mark the end of a U.S. presence in Iraq nor a substantial reduction in U.S. Middle East commitments. In the near-term, the U.S. will likely seek to strengthen its allies, particularly Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates, ensure open access to the region’s oil supplies, and devise a strategy for containing possible Iranian regional hegemony. In addition, the U.S. will likely seek to overcome serious deficiencies in its military capacities that were exposed in Iraq, particularly those that concern addressing the challenges of insurgencies and terrorism.

Finally, the start of a post-surge strategy in Iraq is not likely to end the increasingly divisive domestic debate over the fundamental objectives U.S. foreign policy. Neo-isolationists will likely attempt to seize the initiative in setting the direction of U.S. foreign policy, as the neoconservative approach continues to lose credibility from the fall-out of the situation in Iraq. Given the risks presented by radical Islamist terrorism, growing Iranian power, and geopolitical priorities including the need to revive the trans-Atlantic alliance, mitigate the growing Russia-U.S. divide, and facilitate China’s peaceful evolution, a post-surge situation will likely produce the return of the kind of pragmatic Realist approach to foreign policy that prevailed under Presidents Truman through Reagan.
Unless something has changed in tha past day the best they can now hope for is a chance meeting with Al-Sadr and his commanders. If this is another "Go it alone" operation it will follow in the foot path of the previous ones. The best defintion of insanity is when a person keeps trying the same thing repeatedly and fails in all attempts and now is attempting the same strategy again. The new Iraqi Army is nothing more than some young men who are being trained but have very little practical experience. Just like in Vietnam, they are fighting and facing some family members too.

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