Monday, December 11, 2006

Biddle's points on Iraq

There has been renewed interest in what Stephen Biddle had to say about Iraq in the latest issue of TNI ever since the George Will column of last week and his invitation to the White House today to brief the president. The full symposium is still available at National Interest online.

Some of what he wrote:

In a better world, some multinational institution would broker the deal and provide the peacekeepers. This is not going to happen in Iraq. So if the civil war termination script is going to be followed here, the United States is going to have to do the heavy lifting itself.

Current U.S. policy, however, undermines our prospects for this in at least two ways. First, we have little leverage for compelling the mutual compromises needed for real power sharing. Each camp sees potentially genocidal stakes in power sharing: the downside risks if the deal fails to ensure their security could be mass violence at the hands of communal rivals. Against such enormous stakes, major leverage will be needed to convince nervous parties to accept the risks; U.S. offers of development aid or trade assistance or political recognition are trivial by comparison. And this thin gruel is getting thinner as the United States begins to cut even the modest aid we now provide—the Marshall Plan this is not. Such weak leverage will never persuade Iraqis to take the huge risks involved in real compromise.

Second, we are apparently unwilling to play the role of long-term peacekeeping stabilizer. Though disliked by many Iraqis, in principle U.S. forces could still do this. In recent months American efforts in suppressing Shi‘a militias and our comparative sectarian evenhandedness in places such as Tal Afar and Baghdad are persuading Sunnis that we are potential defenders against Shi‘a violence. Though Shi‘a are wary of American motives, three years of U.S. combat against Sunni guerillas give us the bona fides to keep Shi‘a trust if we play our cards right. We can be neutral—the problem is that we are not willing to stay. Who would trust a deal enforced by a peacekeeper who announces its intention to leave as soon as it can hand its job over to one of the combatants in an ongoing civil war?


Iraq today is a race between progress toward a settlement and acceleration of inter-communal tensions fueled by sectarian killing. Success requires that a settlement precede the loss of tolerance; defeat will occur if killing outpaces compromise. And to obtain the former rather than the latter will almost certainly require that Americans be willing to accept a long-term role in policing any ceasefire.

For now, the trends in these metrics are not promising: Compromise has been slow and grudging; while the death toll occasionally falls, the overall trend is sharply upward; and Americans are displaying diminishing tolerance for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Time is thus not on our side. Current U.S. policy is not yielding an aggressive pace of communal compromise in Baghdad; we risk letting the war slip out of control if we cannot find a means of accelerating the deal-making, and soon. And the longer the fighting goes on and the more Americans die without intercommunal accommodation or a ceasefire, the slimmer the political prospects for a significant long-term American troop presence. If a truce comes soon, trends in U.S. support for Iraqi deployments might reverse; if not, they surely will not. We still have a chance, but this window will not stay open forever. And this implies that we must aggressively seek out new forms of leverage to move this process along soon—before it is too late.

US doesn't have the will to do what it would take to terminate the civil war and gain the necessary leverage. Democrats on the Hill certainly won't endorse this approach. The question now is how to get the decent interval between withdrawal of US forces and the inevitable collapse.
But I don't get what Biddle's solution is--one that at least is politically feasible, not what works well on paper.
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