Report 60 / Middle East & North Africa

After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq

Slowly, incrementally, the realisation that a new strategy is needed for Iraq finally is dawning on U.S. policy-makers.

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Executive Summary

Slowly, incrementally, the realisation that a new strategy is needed for Iraq finally is dawning on U.S. policy-makers. It was about time. By underscoring the U.S. intervention’s disastrous political, security, and economic balance sheet, and by highlighting the need for both a new regional and Iraqi strategy, the Baker-Hamilton report represents an important and refreshing moment in the country’s domestic debate. Many of its key – and controversial – recommendations should be wholly supported, including engaging Iran and Syria, revitalising the Arab-Israeli peace process, reintegrating Baathists, instituting a far-reaching amnesty, delaying the Kirkuk referendum, negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. forces with Iraqis and engaging all parties in Iraq.

But the change the report advocates is not nearly radical enough, and its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis. What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region: in essence, a new multinational effort to achieve a new political compact between all relevant Iraqi constituents.

A new course of action must begin with an honest assessment of where things stand. Hollowed out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi state today is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and a political class that, by putting short term personal benefit ahead of long term national interests, is complicit in Iraq’s tragic destruction. Not unlike the groups they combat, the forces that dominate the current government thrive on identity politics, communal polarisation, and a cycle of intensifying violence and counter-violence. Increasingly indifferent to the country’s interests, political leaders gradually are becoming warlords. What Iraq desperately needs are national leaders.

As it approaches its fifth year, the conflict also has become both a magnet for deeper regional interference and a source of greater regional instability. Instead of working together toward an outcome they all could live with – a weak but united Iraq that does not present a threat to its neighbours – regional actors are taking measures in anticipation of the outcome they most fear: Iraq’s descent into all-out chaos and fragmentation. By increasing support for some Iraqi actors against others, their actions have all the wisdom of a self-fulfilling prophecy: steps that will accelerate the very process they claim to wish to avoid.

Two consequences follow. The first is that, contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion, the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict. The report characterises the government as a “government of national unity” that is “broadly representative of the Iraqi people”: it is nothing of the sort. It also calls for expanding forces that are complicit in the current dirty war and for speeding up the transfer of responsibility to a government that has done nothing to stop it. The only logical conclusion from the report’s own lucid analysis is that the government is not a partner in an effort to stem the violence, nor will strengthening it contribute to Iraq’s stability. This is not a military challenge in which one side needs to be strengthened and another defeated. It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached. The solution is not to change the prime minister or cabinet composition, as some in Washington appear to be contemplating, but to address the entire power structure that was established since the 2003 invasion, and to alter the political environment that determines the cabinet’s actions.

The second is that it will take more than talking to Iraq’s neighbours to obtain their cooperation. It will take persuading them that their interests and those of the U.S. no longer are fundamentally at odds. All Iraqi actors who, in one way or another, are participating in the country’s internecine violence must be brought to the negotiating table and must be pressured to accept the necessary compromises. That cannot be done without a concerted effort by all Iraq’s neighbours, which in turn cannot be done if their interests are not reflected in the final outcome. For as long as the Bush administration’s paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodelling the Middle East, or waging a strategic struggle against an alleged axis composed of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas, neither Damascus nor Tehran will be willing to offer genuine assistance. Though they may indeed fear the consequences of a full-blown Iraqi civil war, both fear it less than they do U.S. regional ambitions. Under present circumstances, neither will be prepared to save Iraq if it also means rescuing the U.S.

In short, success in Iraq, if it still can be achieved at this late date, will require three ambitious and interrelated steps:

A new forceful multilateral approach that puts real pressure on all Iraqi parties: The Baker-Hamilton report is right to advocate creation of a broad International Support Group; it should comprise the five permanent Security Council members and Iraq’s six neighbours. But its purpose cannot be to support the Iraqi government. It must support Iraq, which means pressing the government, along with all other Iraqi constituents, to make the necessary compromises. It also means agreeing on rules of conduct and red-lines regarding third party involvement in Iraq. This does not entail a one-off conference, but sustained multilateral diplomacy.

A conference of all Iraqi and international stakeholders to forge a new political compact: A new, more equitable and inclusive national compact needs to be agreed upon by all relevant actors, including militias and insurgent groups, on issues such as federalism, resource allocation, de-Baathification, the scope of the amnesty, and the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. This can only be done if the International Support Group brings all of them to the negotiating table, and if its members steer their deliberations, deploying a mixture of carrots and sticks to influence those on whom they have particular leverage.

A new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran, an end to efforts at regime change, revitalisation of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and altered strategic goals: Polite engagement of Iraq’s neighbours will not do; rather, a clear redefinition of Washington’s objectives in the region will be required to enlist regional, but especially Iranian and Syrian help. The goal is not to bargain with them, but to seek agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which everyone can live.

There is no magical solution for Iraq. But nor can there be a muddle-through. The choice today could not be clearer. An approach that does not entail a clean break vis-à-vis both Iraq and the region at best will postpone what, increasingly, is looking like the most probable scenario: Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, an intensifying and long-lasting civil war, as well as increased foreign meddling that risks metastasising into a broad proxy war. Such a situation could not be contained within Iraq’s borders. With involvement by a multiplicity of state and non-state actors and given that rising sectarianism in Iraq is both fuelled by and fuels sectarianism in the region, the more likely outcome would be a regional conflagration. There is abundant reason to question whether the Bush administration is capable of such a dramatic course change. But there is no reason to question why it ought to change direction, and what will happen if it does not.

Baghdad/Amman/Damascus/Brussels, 19 December 2006

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