Iraq: What Now?

A Foreign Affairs Roundtable

Larry DiamondLarry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Squandered Victory. He was a member of the Political Development Expert Working Group of the Iraq Study Group.

James DobbinsJames Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He was an adviser to the Iraq Study Group and is the lead author of the forthcoming Beginner's Guide to Nation Building.

Leslie GelbLeslie Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Stephen Biddle


The prognosis for Iraq looks bad and is getting worse. If the trend does not improve soon, the United States may have no choice but to cut its losses and get out. Recently, many have looked to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to engineer a change in strategy that might arrest this decline, and the ISG's report does indeed contain some useful ideas and worthwhile recommendations. But on the whole, it offers the political groundwork for a complete withdrawal more than it offers a sustainable solution to the conflict.

The report presents 79 discrete recommendations but puts its emphasis on three crucial points: the need for a regional diplomatic conference involving Iran and Syria; the importance of threatening to withdraw U.S. support if the Iraqis fail to make sufficient progress in "national reconciliation, security and governance"; and the value of shifting U.S. military priorities away from combat and toward training and support.

A regional conference is probably a good idea, but it would be costly and have limited potential for terminating Iraq's civil war. Iran and Syria presumably have more influence with Iraq's warring Shiite and Sunni factions than the United States does, and if they used that influence to its fullest to promote reconciliation, it might make a difference. But Iraq's communal groups see grave risks in the compromises that reconciliation requires, and both Sunnis and Shiites have important internal sources of funding and supply that could enable them to continue hostilities even without external support. Neither Iran nor Syria, furthermore, is likely to help the United States in Iraq without some sort of quid pro quo, and if that means U.S. acquiescence in Iran's nuclear weapons program or Syria's reassertion of its influence over Lebanon, then the price could be high indeed.

The threat to withdraw U.S. support if the Iraqis fail to get their act together is a step in the right direction. As the ISG implies, unconditional promises of assistance reduce the Iraqi factions' incentives to accept risky compromises for reconciliation. Only threats and promises conditioned on cooperation can move recalcitrant parties to compromise. But the ISG's approach is one-sided. Iraqis who want the United States to stay might fear a threatened withdrawal, but those who want it to leave would see such a withdrawal as a benefit not a cost, and so remain intransigent. A two-sided threat would be extremely hard to implement, but at least it would address all the relevant players and have a chance of working.

The ISG's recommendations for U.S. military posture in Iraq are the most problematic of the three sets. The ISG proposes that as many as 17,000 troops be transferred to reinforce the longstanding U.S. effort to train Iraqi security forces. Its associated recommendation that these be the best, highest-qualified soldiers for the job would require that these troops be drawn from U.S. combat brigades. This would divert the equivalent of perhaps 4-5 brigades' worth of combat troops (out of the roughly 15 combat brigades present in the country at any given time) into the training mission. And although the ISG does not mandate this, the report's language clearly indicates a hope that by 2008 all combat brigades can be withdrawn and the U.S. presence limited to training and support.

Yet, there are important limits on the Iraqi forces' military potential that have nothing to do with their exposure to U.S. training. In an ongoing civil war, it is far from clear that Shiite units could be motivated to fight Shiite militias or defend Kurds on behalf of a government that many view as corrupt or inept. Sectarian politicians and ministers could thwart attempts to install apolitical senior officers or structure combat formations on non-sectarian grounds. Redirecting thousands of U.S. combat soldiers into training roles will enable more hours of instruction for Iraqis, but it is not clear that the lack of instruction is the binding constraint here.

It is clear, however, that U.S. combat action is what now keeps the lid on the violence level in Iraq's civil war — and the greater the shift of U.S. forces into training, the less of this there will be. The less patrolling U.S. troops do, in turn, the faster the sectarian death toll will rise, and the less ability Washington will have to control the environment. Iraq is dangerous enough now; if any significant fraction of U.S. troops are pulled off the streets, the situation will get worse. And as it gets worse, the Americans left in Iraq will get more exposed, not less.

To support Iraqi forces logistically, for example, requires resupply convoys to run fuel and cargo to Iraqi units. The lower the U.S. combat patrol intensity, the greater the threat these convoys will face from roadside bombs, as guerillas will find it easier to plant them without U.S. interference or clearance, and the greater the threat the resupply effort will eventually face from ambushes as the initiative shifts to the enemy.

The trainers the ISG would embed in Iraqi small units would be especially vulnerable. At best, it would take a long time for U.S.-trained Iraqi forces to reach anything like U.S. combat effectiveness in large numbers. In the meantime, tiny embed units would be too distributed to be effective as combatants. A reduction in full-strength U.S. combat patrolling, meanwhile, would result in even faster growth in the Iraqi civilian death toll. Many Iraqis already blame the United States for sectarian violence and would prefer that their own army or militia be allowed to suppress the enemy with proper ruthlessness. This view will only gain force as the violence gets worse. And with some reason: a primary mission of U.S. embeds would be to prevent human rights abuses by parent Iraqi units, which means that U.S. trainers would indeed be constraining the ability of Iraqi fighters to confront their rivals with maximum brutality. How long would it be before these tiny penny packets of Americans become special targets? And if the civil war's violence escalates enough, there is likely to be an explicit breakup of the "national" military into its component factions (as happened in Lebanon), which would leave thousands of U.S. embeds distributed around the country in small, exposed, vulnerable handfuls as anarchy descends.

This problem applies to all suggestions that involve "in between" troop levels. Although politically popular among Americans seeking a middle ground between escalation and withdrawal, such proposals create military postures that reduce Americans' potential to control the environment and defend themselves even as they leave plenty of Americans behind to serve as targets. One can make a military case for a posture with the largest troop level sustainable, and one can make a case for total withdrawal. But the options in between are likely to prove militarily unstable, with rising casualty rates that will eventually create pressure for the zero option but only after lives are squandered needlessly in the interim.

Still, the ISG was never intended as a purely substantive undertaking. It was designed to play an important domestic political role, and that it might just do. Its report offers a way for the United States to exit the conflict with something like a bipartisan policy, should the president eventually choose to do so. Even if the ISG's suggestions do not resolve the conflict in Iraq, they could help reduce the domestic fallout from defeat — providing cover for a bipartisan decision to withdraw by shifting responsibility for the failure from the Americans to the Iraqis, who will likely be unable to meet the various milestones set out for them as the price of continued U.S. support. But if the president is adamant about refusing to exit absent success as he defines it, no commission report or interagency review will make much difference.

Larry Diamond


The Iraq Study Group offers a comprehensive strategy to arrest the slide toward chaos in Iraq. The scope of the report is laudable: without a grand strategy to deal with the interlocking political, security, economic, and regional components, Iraq will not turn the corner toward stability. The seduction of a comprehensive approach, however, is that everything can seem equally urgent, and thus priorities may be difficult to discern. The ISG report addresses a dozen different challenges and offers 79 specific recommendations. What matters most?

The overriding imperative is "national reconciliation": a political deal on the sharing of power and resources and the full incorporation of the bitterly alienated Sunnis into the political process. Iraq's major groups must reach a new and more sustainable constitutional settlement, one that each finds rather unpalatable — but less so than continued war.

The ISG recognizes that the core problem in Iraq is political, not military: "U.S. forces . . . cannot stop the violence — or even contain it — if there is no underlying political agreement among Iraqis about the future of their country." The 2005 Iraqi constitution was not a charter of national consensus but a Shiite and Kurdish imposition on the Sunnis. In allowing for the creation of a Shiite super-region spanning the entire southern half of Iraq (with roughly 70 percent of the country's oil and gas wealth), in providing for a referendum by the end of 2007 that would enable the Kurdistan Region to incorporate Kirkuk (with most of the rest of Iraq's petroleum wealth), and in assigning to the regions and the provinces apparent control over the future development of oil and gas fields, the constitution gave the Kurds and the Shiites power and resources while leaving the Sunnis out in the desert. The ISG thus observes: "Unless Sunnis believe they can get a fair deal in Iraq through the political process, there is no prospect that the insurgency will end." And if the insurgency persists, so will the escalation of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in retaliation.

For Iraq to be stabilized, the ISG notes, the Iraqi government "needs to act now to give a signal" to the Sunnis "that there is a place for them in national life." The constitution must be rewritten to lodge current and future control over oil fields and revenues clearly with the central government. A fair formula must then be fashioned — and, I would add, internationally guaranteed — to share oil revenue among the provinces and the regions, largely on the basis of population. De-Baathification, meanwhile, must be rolled back so that most of the dismissed Baathists and Arab nationalists (other than Saddam's top loyalists) are brought back into government and public service jobs. Amnesty must be offered to most of those who have waged war. And the referendum on Kirkuk should be deferred and the conflict there submitted to international arbitration. The report might have added explicitly that the constitutional provision for a "Shiastan" super-region must be scrapped.

How does the ISG suggest that the items on this ambitious political agenda be accomplished? First, by "build[ing] a new international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region." I agree with this general approach. I also endorse the effort to reach out to all the regional neighbors, including Iran and Syria. But too much of the media frenzy over the report has focused on this one aspect. Iraq is a crisis that affects not just the region but the entire world. The quest for a solution must not simply be regionalized; it must be globalized, with the proposed International Support Group including the European Union, Russia, China, the United Nations, and perhaps several other European and Asian countries as well. Since such a large group could be unwieldy, core diplomatic leadership should come from the United States, the EU, the UN, and the Arab League.

It would help enormously if Iran could be induced to join. But for negotiations with Iran to succeed — as I explain, with Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani, in the current issue of The Washington Quarterly — they must be bold and comprehensive, addressing all the major dimensions of the conflict between the United States and Iran, including the nuclear question. Even if Iran were to agree to talk, such negotiations would take some time, and there is not a lot of time left in Iraq. The "New Diplomatic Offensive" that the ISG recommends must therefore move forward without Iran if necessary — but if it does and draws together a truly global coalition, Iran will end up being isolated.

The United States can no longer go it alone diplomatically in Iraq. U.S. credibility, energy, and leverage are heavily diminished, if not just about drained. An international partnership to mediate the Iraq conflict would bring fresh perspectives and considerably greater diplomatic and financial resources to induce and reward hard compromises. Without such an international full-court press for an Iraqi settlement, the stalemate will continue and the violence will intensify.

There is one big card the United States has left to play, and the ISG acknowledges it. That is the very fact and scope of the U.S. military presence — which is the principal factor now standing between a very bad, bloody situation and much more catastrophic carnage. It would be irresponsible to pull out immediately and leave Iraq to all-out civil war. But it would be foolhardy to think that Washington can prevent civil war simply by staying the course. Militarily, there is no course left that does not carry huge risks. Over the last nine months, the ISG (and many of its advisers, such as myself) came to conclude that "national reconciliation" will probably come, if it ever does, only when the Iraqi parties who have dug in their heels on oil, federalism, and other important issues perceive that the price of their obstinacy is simply too high. The United States must therefore tie its military, political, and economic support for the Iraqi government to progress on national reconciliation and the standing up of the Iraqi security forces. Although that may seem an eleventh-hour gamble to right a failing situation, that is in fact where the United States is in Iraq today.

James Dobbins


Those looking to the Iraq Study Group for bold new ideas on how to rescue Iraq from full-scale civil war will be disappointed. Those who hoped these experienced and successful individuals would apply realism, pragmatism, and common sense to the terrible dilemmas facing U.S. and Iraqi political leaders will be content.

The ISG's principal recommendations are almost no-brainers. Experience has shown repeatedly that failing states cannot be reconstituted unless neighboring governments act in a convergent fashion to this end. Engaging all of Iraq's neighbors in a last-ditch effort to hold that country together is thus an obviously necessary (but not sufficient) element of any U.S. attempt to do so.

It is equally obvious that the governments most important to engage are precisely the ones that are the most influential and the least helpful. In 1995, the Clinton administration did not take the position that it would not talk to Serbia and Croatia because they were fighting a brutal proxy war in Bosnia. On the contrary, it invited Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman — the two men personally responsible for the genocide that Washington was trying to stop — to Dayton and then worked with them to implement the accord reached there. In 1999, the Clinton administration turned to Russia to mediate the end of the Kosovo air war, despite the fact that Moscow was supporting NATO's adversary. And in 2001, the Bush administration invited all the nations that had been fomenting civil war in Afghanistan for 20 years — Russia, Pakistan, India, and Iran — to work with it to form a regime to succeed the Taliban. In all these cases, Washington talked to the source of the problem.

The need to move toward a smaller U.S. presence and a more limited U.S. mission in Iraq is equally clear. One can make a good case for actually increasing the number of U.S. troops there, and the Iraq Study Group report acknowledges that a temporary increase in troop strength may indeed be desirable. The fact remains, however, that the U.S. presence is wildly unpopular with both the Iraqi and the American publics, and neither is likely to support an even larger U.S. role for any length of time. If one concludes, as the Iraq Study Group did, that the United States has too much at stake in Iraq and the Middle East to simply walk away from the situation it has created, then it is fairly obvious that one must try to move toward a level of engagement that could be sustained for the five to ten years it may take to end the violence and stabilize Iraq.

Although circumstances may compel the Bush administration to adopt the ISG's recommendations, nothing can force it to execute them well. Half-hearted attempts to engage Iran and Syria are all too likely to end in failure, leading to a "we told you so" conclusion on the part of those opposed to the effort in the first place. Similarly, the report provides the administration with an out on troop reductions, which it specifies are to be completed by early 2008, "subject to unexpected developments on the ground." Such developments are, of course, inevitable.

Much more than grudging acceptance of the ISG's recommendations, therefore, will be needed to realize their potential. Success will require the Bush administration and Congress to display the same realism, pragmatism, and common sense in implementing these recommendations as the Iraq Study Group exhibited in reaching them.

Leslie Gelb


The Baker-Hamilton report is both more and less than meets the eye. It's good bipartisan politics, a courageous analysis of the bleak situation in Iraq, and a compendium of useful policy steps. But because it doesn't face up to the full consequences of its own pessimistic analysis and because it dodges the central question of political power-sharing among Iraqis, it leaves the United States without an overall strategy — which will put the country in the position of having to confront the tough decisions all over again six months from now.

The Iraq Study Group's aim was both to establish a needed bipartisan consensus in a Washington torn asunder by politics and to shake up Iraq policy. It accomplished both, which wasn't easy, and its members should feel proud of their achievement.

The report's assessment of where things stand in Iraq — along with the recent testimony of the CIA director and leaked memos by the national security adviser and the departing secretary of defense — destroys the credibility of the "we are winning" White House school of thought and opens the door to an honest consideration of policy. The report concludes that "the situation is grave and deteriorating," that "sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability," and that "current U.S. policy is not working." For the last two years, people uttering such obvious truths have been vilified; now, thanks to the ISG's frankness, the American public and its leaders can start working from the same realistic facts.

One might think that, after painting such a gloomy picture, the ISG would have urged some hard-hitting policy changes. Here, however, it seems to have settled for political compromises instead.

First, the report recommends beginning the difficult process of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. It argues for shifting the U.S. military's mission from combat to support by 2008, withdrawing the combat brigades (about 70,000 troops) and apparently using the remaining 70,000 troops for training Iraqi forces (without explaining why that would work now when it hasn't before), embedding advisers in Iraqi units (which is incredibly dangerous), and force protection. This shift would send two messages: The United States is leaving, and it's staying. The proposal was a way of splitting the difference between the Republican members of the group and their Democratic counterparts. Implementing it would mean that neither Americans nor Iraqis would know which way the United States was really going. It would have been better to have set out a plan for full withdrawal and redeployment within about two years, but with a movable end point.

Second, the report calls for intensive regional diplomacy to help the Iraqis settle their internal differences and bring about regional peace. One element of this is to hammer out Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, most of which the Israelis have already offered. The report says little about hammering the Saudis and others in the region to prepare their own peoples to live in peace with the Jewish state of Israel.

Another element is talking with Iran and Syria, a move long overdue and also long opposed by President George W. Bush. But while the report talks about the strategic goodies that Washington can offer Iran and Syria, it says little about how and why Tehran and Damascus should help in Iraq. All it really says is that they have an interest in preventing chaos there. If so, then why aren't they helping already? The fact is that right now, they don't have such an interest, and there's nothing serious in the ISG's bag of tricks about creating a viable political deal in Iraq that might make these neighbors likely to change their mind.

The third element is getting the present Iraqi government to shape up by establishing milestones. If it cannot meet the targets, the ISG argues, Washington should punish it by reducing aid. On the other hand, if it meets the terms, Washington will still withdraw troops and scale down aid. The ISG's members reached this interesting compromise because they fully realized that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot, in fact, meet the demands made upon it (break up the militias, stop corruption, and bring about sectarian reconciliation). The ISG's members knew they had no real hope of settling things down in Iraq without a political power-sharing arrangement, and yet they rejected the decentralizing plan that Senator Joseph Biden and I advanced (on the grounds that federalism means partition) and didn't offer any plan of their own, save to ask Maliki to do the impossible. Thus, the ISG's members ended up with a contradiction and set themselves and everyone else up for failure at some point down the road.

This failure could ultimately be used for two ends: either to blame Maliki and the Iraqis and grease the skids for full withdrawal, or to halt the whole withdrawal process and put the United States back in the very same strategic box it is in today. The result is likely to be the latter. Six months or a year from now the ISG's report will be a memory and the ball will be back in the hands of the man who got the United States into the quagmire to begin with: the decider in the White House. At that point, Bush is likely to revert to his gut and heart, and decide not to be the president who lost Iraq. That honor he will pass on to his successor.

The ISG has taken Americans to the border of the promised land. To enter, we needed a clear-cut damage limitation strategy; instead, we got the best of Washington: a temporizing one.