Stephen Biddle, Michael O'Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack ("How to Leave a Stable Iraq," September/October 2008) argue that the situation in Iraq has improved but that progress could be jeopardized by withdrawing U.S. troops too rapidly. They propose a policy of strategic patience that would delay major troop withdrawals for several years, until after the next round of Iraqi provincial and national elections. Although Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack are right about the tenuous but real security gains in Iraq, they are wrong about the effects this military progress has had on the political realm and about the likely consequences of their recommendation. Their approach would almost certainly mean that troops would remain at high levels for far longer than they suggest, because the kind of political progress they anticipate -- and which would, they argue, allow U.S. troops to withdraw from an Iraq that has achieved "sustained stability" -- will likely not materialize.

The problem lies in the fundamentally flawed belief that providing more security is the key to achieving political compromise. Restoring basic levels of security from the low point of 2006 was indeed essential. But now, contrary to what the authors argue, improved security is making the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki less likely to make meaningful compromises, since Maliki currently sees little downside to not doing so. The Iraqi government simply does not share American assessments of the negative consequences that would result from failing to achieve reconciliation. And as long as the U.S. military protects Iraqi leaders from the consequences of their choices, they are probably correct. Ironically, their feeling of security has led them to insist that a security agreement with the United States include a commitment to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2011, likely rendering the policy Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack advocate no longer viable.

Today, a credible commitment to a more rapid withdrawal, which the authors view as a potential disaster, is more likely to facilitate Iraqi political accommodation than to endanger it. There are no guarantees, of course. Iraq is currently a house of cards, with a plethora of unresolved issues of contention threatening to undermine stability at any moment. But a carefully managed, responsible drawdown of U.S. forces is more likely to produce meaningful political accommodation than is an endless store of strategic patience.

There are three key areas in which Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack fail to grapple with the political logic, rather than the security logic, that drives events in today's Iraq. First, they argue that troop drawdowns should be minimal until after the Iraqi provincial and national elections, the latter of which are currently due in 2010, after having been postponed. These elections are extremely important to Iraq's future, but they are a deeply unconvincing pivot for U.S. strategy. Why assume that these elections will be a magic bullet, solving Iraq's political problems? After all, in 2005 a series of elections were similarly sold as pivotal moments; at the time, U.S. troop levels were comparable to those today and the violence had yet to spike to the horrifying levels that followed the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing. Yet the outcome was sectarian voting, six months of political paralysis over the selection of an acceptable prime minister, and then descent into civil war. What if elections this time simply produce a new political standoff: a different but equally contentious parliament, new resentments at the local level, and worse governance as less experienced politicians take the reins?

There is little reason to think that the U.S. presence will empower nonsectarian or more pro-U.S. actors in the elections. Indeed, if the United States has not begun significant withdrawals by the time they are held, it will likely give a major electoral boost to nationalists, who will use the continuing U.S. "occupation" to win votes. In 2005, voting was driven not by security concerns but by an electoral law that favored sectarian parties. Improving the representativeness of elections would require changing the electoral law and guaranteeing effective international supervision, and that would require precisely the kind of political accommodation that continues to elude Iraqi politics -- and which no amount of U.S. prodding has been able to deliver. In fact, the current power holders will use the fragmentation of Iraqi politics and the state's growing resources to their electoral advantage. For example, many Iraqis see the Shiite-led government's military campaigns in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan as "shaping operations" meant to weaken the rival Shiite movement of Muqtada al-Sadr before the provincial elections; others view Maliki's tough line in negotiations with the United States as an attempt to seize the mantle of Iraqi nationalism for the elections. On the Sunni side, the return of the Iraqi Accord Front to Maliki's government likely represents a bid to gain controlof state patronage and resources ahead of the elections. Already, the Iraqi electoral commission is sounding the alarm about its inability to guarantee fair elections.

The United States should of course push for fair, internationally supervised elections and help provide security on election day. But U.S. grand strategy cannot be held hostage to elections that are unlikely to fundamentally change Iraqi politics for the better.

Second, Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack argue for reconciliation to be done "slowly, via small steps" rather than as "a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal." They argue that "the increasing stability, along with the security that the improving [Iraqi security forces] give to the Maliki regime, offers a reason to believe that such bargaining can eventually succeed if the United States stands firm." But in fact, the slow and steady approach to Iraqi political accommodation they advocate is a recipe for indefinite delays. In the past, even when Iraqi politicians have reached formal agreements, they have gone on to drag their feet over implementation, stripping the agreements of their intended meaning and generating even greater frustration. This is best exemplified by the failure of the Iraqi government to integrate the tens of thousands of former insurgents in the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, despite constant U.S. pressure and dire warnings of the consequences.

Rather than moving the Iraqis toward compromise, Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack's approach would create a multitude of perverse incentives for Iraqi politicians to produce just enough progress to keep U.S. forces engaged but never enough to allow them to leave. Political progress would continue to dance just out of reach, with its failures always offering a reason for the United States to delay the drawdown of its military forces.

Third, Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack neglect the fact that Iraqi politics have recently been collapsing into renewed stalemate and strife, despite the continuing presence of U.S. troops and the improving security environment -- a direct refutation of the case for strategic patience. The inability to reach agreement on a provincial-election law during this summer's emergency session of parliament amid deep conflict over the future of the divided city of Kirkuk demonstrates the intensity of the ongoing conflicts and the inability of the Iraqi political system to contain them. Perhaps the only point of consensus in this fragmented landscape is the demand that U.S. troops withdraw.

It is true that many previously disenfranchised groups now want to join the political process. But it is equally relevant that their efforts to do so have been systematically frustrated. The Sunni Awakening groups failed to find a spot in Maliki's cabinet, have failed to gain positions in the Iraqi security forces, and now face a serious crackdown on their leadership and the prospect of a long delay in the provincial elections. The United States raised the expectations of the Awakening groups, but it has proved unable to deliver results from a Shiite-led Iraqi government that sees no reason to compromise. No student of politics should need to be reminded of the dangers of unmet and rising expectations among disenfranchised groups. Should the Awakening groups' frustration boil over, leading to renewed violence, the authors would no doubt see this as yet another reason to postpone further withdrawals.

Iraqi politics today are characterized by an odd combination of fragmentation and centralization. The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance has largely collapsed, and Sunni politics are riven by sharp conflict between the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Awakening movement. Power is devolving to local and tribal groupings with parochial, rather than national, interests. At the same time, Maliki is drawing on the country's growing oil revenues and newfound sense of security to attempt to consolidate his power. The two processes are linked, because fragmentation helps the ruling coalition survive despite its narrow base by making it harder for any opposition coalition to form and easier for the government to selectively repress and co-opt its opponents.

In short, the refrain that the United States has made progress on security but must do better on political progress misses the point. For Iraqi leaders who do not wish to share power, the failure to translate security into political progress is a feature, not a glitch. There will be no significant political progress until the incentives of Iraqi leaders change, which will not happen as long as the United States continues on the current -- and Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack's proposed -- course. It is time to acknowledge the limits of the United States' ability to exert leverage over Iraqi politics. The primary drivers of Iraqi politics are Iraqis, not Americans, and a stable political order must rest on the alignment of their interests and not on the exercise of U.S. power. It is not simply that the United States cannot militarily or financially sustain the commitments required to achieve a perfect solution; it is that the U.S. military presence actively impedes the essential political accommodations needed to create a stable, broadly representative Iraqi political order.

A U.S. commitment to draw down U.S. troops over a defined period, as the Iraqi political leadership itself now demands, would give Iraqi politicians a self-interest in political accommodation -- accommodation reached not to meet foreign demands but to ensure their own survival. A clear and credible public declaration of the United States' intention to withdraw would shift the incentives of all the major political actors. And a responsible exit strategy would then offer plenty of opportunity to shape the transition and guard against the likely dangers. In contrast, a policy built on U.S. troops staying in Iraq, whether to enforce local cease-fires, maintain pressure for political accommodation, or moderate the fears of Iraqi politicians, is a problem masquerading as a solution.

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  • MARC LYNCH is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of Voices of the New Arab Public.
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