Breathing Room

September 1, 2006 Tags: DiplomacyIraq War

Breathing Room

Mini Teaser: With even the president backing away from a stay-the-course strategy on Iraq, Biden's call for federalism is gaining increasing attention. He amplifies here on the idea, how he arrived at it and what its philosophical foundation is.

by Author(s): Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

All future U.S. aid would be clearly and unambiguously tied to the protection of minority and women's rights. We should insist other donors set the same standard. Aid would be cut off in the face of a pattern of violations. President Bush is now silent on protecting minority and women's rights. If they are not upheld, there can be no hope for eventual democracy in Iraq.

The president also should insist that other countries make good on old commitments--to date, just $3.5 billion out of some $14 billion pledged by other countries has actually been delivered--and provide new ones. He should focus on the Gulf States. They have a tremendous stake in avoiding a civil war that becomes a regional war--bringing in Turkey, Iran, Syria either directly or through proxies and pitting Shi'a against Sunni. And they're enjoying windfall oil profits. They should step up and give back.

There will be no lasting peace in Iraq without the proactive support of the international community, particularly the country's neighbors. This is the fourth element of the plan--a regional security conference, convened by the United Nations, where Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, pledge to respect Iraq's borders and behave cooperatively. Iraq's neighbors have a strong interest in not seeing Iraq descend into a civil war that could engulf them. But they also might be tempted to interfere in its weakened affairs. We should create an ongoing mechanism to keep them in line. For two years, I've called for a standing Contact Group, to include the major powers, that would engage the neighbors and enforce the commitments they make at the international conference. The recent outbreak of violence centered on Lebanon makes this admittedly more difficult, but arguably even more necessary if we are to achieve a lasting cease-fire based on a commitment to disarm Hizballah and extend the Lebanese government's control over the totality of its territory.

The political settlement envisaged here would reduce sectarian violence and provide each community with a cooling off period, giving us our best chance of getting our troops quickly--and safely--out of Iraq. The continued presence of 130,000 American troops risks creating a culture of dependence. It drains vital resources from the larger War on Terror, and it risks putting an intolerable strain on the all-volunteer armed forces. We cannot sustain this large a force in Iraq without sending troops back on fourth and fifth tours, extending deployments from twelve to 18 months, and fully mobilizing the Guard. That would do serious long-term damage to our military. Thus, as a fifth element of the plan, the president would direct U.S. military commanders to redeploy almost all U.S. forces from Iraq by 2008.

Phased redeployment is also necessary because while the Iraqi patience with military "occupation" is running out, we still have not reached the tipping point--Iraqis want us to leave, but not immediately. At the same time, the widespread perception in the Middle East that we intend to stay in Iraq and control its oil feeds the insurgency and provides a recruiting boon for Al-Qaeda. Our military leadership has publicly acknowledged as much. Thus, we need to make clear that we do not intend to stay in Iraq forever. To help address this problem, I proposed and the Senate recently approved an amendment to this year's Defense Authorization bill that prohibits the construction of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.

The goal, in short, is to reconcile the increasing pressure to leave with the need to ensure that we do not leave behind chaos. The political settlement I propose, coupled with a phased redeployment--with targets but no hard deadline, and subject to change if conditions required--can do just that.

Even in a best-case scenario, Iraq's violence will not disappear overnight. Therefore, the plan proposes maintaining a small residual force of perhaps 20,000 troops in northern Iraq, assuming the Kurds welcome our presence; in Kuwait, in the unlikely event they don't. The force could strike any concentration of terrorists, help keep Iraq's neighbors honest, and continue the training of its security forces. Some U.S. troops and police would also need to participate in a multinational peacekeeping force deployed to the major multi-sectarian cities, as in the Balkans. At present, securing the participation of many other countries in such a force is a non-starter. But a political settlement--and a regional conference and Contact Group to demonstrate international resolve--could change their calculus and willingness to participate.

ONE OF the consistent criticisms advanced against this plan for Iraq is that it amounts to partition. The opposite is the case. Iraq is coming apart at the seams. It is on the verge of violently partitioning itself. Only a dramatic change of course will keep the country together. This plan--what might be seen as a "division within unity" approach--is consistent with Iraq's constitution and new unity government. It is also consistent with--and I believe necessary to--the goal of keeping Iraq unified within its existing borders, preserving America's interests and bringing most of our forces home.

More and more Americans are rightly frustrated that the debate on Iraq among policy-makers and politicians has ossified into a Hobson's choice between "staying the course" and "cutting and running." This plan offers a third way forward. Yes, it comes with its own risks. But to those who reject it out of hand as unrealistic or unattainable, my answer is simple: What is your alternative?


Essay Types: Essay