National Security

Administration floats Iraq options

The Washington Post reports on the deliberations inside the White House, and says the President will offer his new plan for Iraq and the Middle East the week of December 18th:

As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement, according to officials familiar with the debate.

The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents.

As President Bush and his advisers rush to complete their crash review and craft a new formula in the next two weeks, some close to the process said the major goal seems to be to stake out alternatives to the plan presented this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The White House denied trying to brush off the study group's report and said those recommendations are being considered alongside internal reviews.

But the growing undercurrent of discussions within the administration is shifting responsibility for Iraq's problems to Iraqis. Sources familiar with the deliberations describe fatigue, frustration and a growing desire to disengage from Iraq. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.


On the political front, the administration is focusing increasingly on variations of a "Shiite tilt," sometimes called an "80 percent solution," that would bolster the political center of Iraq and effectively leave in charge the Shiite and Kurdish parties that account for 80 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and that won elections a year ago.

Vice President Cheney's office has most vigorously argued for the "80 percent solution," in terms of both realities on the ground and the history of U.S. engagement with the Shiites, sources say. A source familiar with the discussions said Cheney argued this week that the United States could not again be seen to abandon the Shiites, Iraq's largest population group, after calling in 1991 for them to rise up against then-President Saddam Hussein and then failing to support them when they did. Thousands were killed in a huge crackdown.

The Times reports that progress has been made on a deal that would share the oil revenues of the country, an essential part of any strategy that hopes to restore stability to the region. 

My quick take on the Post story is that the Administration still seems remarkably focused on military solutions to our challenges in the Middle East.  As we've written here, a great deal of what is now emerging in the Middle East needs diplomatic imagination and a new vision for how all the pieces are going to fit together.  For example, the "Shiite tilt" floated above will of course end up strengthening the region's Shiites, including the Iranians and Hezbollah.  How does that strategy jibe with our desire to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and bringing stability back to the region? In a recent Post op-ed, a Saudi advisor made it clear that if the US embarked on a "Shiite tilt," it could end up bringing about a regional Sunni-Shiite war. 

Where is State? Where is Condi in all this? Is the dismissal of regional talks and diplomacy an ideological decision, or one that pragmatically assumes this Administration does not have the credibility or talent to bring about diplomatic progress?  As we evaluate the emerging options from the White House, the prism must be - will it bring stability to the region? And do more than just lessen our domestic political exposure to a worsening situation on the ground in Iraq.

What's the plan Mr President?

The Iraq Study Group's Report has fueled a critical national conversation about our government's strategy for the Middle East and Iraq.  The Bush Administration's approach, despite hundreds of billions spent, ten of thousands of American casualties, and a great loss of our prestige, has left the Middle East much more dangerous and unstable than we found it.  In the next few months we must settle on a new approach that responds to the gravity of the situation there today, as described by the ISG in its executive summary:

The challenges in Iraq are complex. Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al Qaeda, and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability. The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government, yet it is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security, or delivering essential services. Pessimism is pervasive.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized. (add - Iran could become a nuclear power, the Lebanese government could fall, a regional Sunni-Shiite war could break out, oil could soar to unprecedented levels). 

As was widely reported (Times, Post), yesterday Bush threw more cold water the Report, and said he was coming up with a new strategy of his own.  We should welcome the President's change of heart, and his recognition that his current Middle Eastern strategy has failed.  But if he has rejected the two central premises of the ISG Report, two relatively simple steps, then we need to hold his new proposal to the highest standard - how it is proposing to restore stability to what has become the most troubled region of the world? How is it dealing with this reality of the Middle East as expressed in these two paragraphs above?

As I wrote yesterday, I have very little faith that this Administration has the capacity to imagine a different and better path forward.  Their simplistic foreign policy vision seems very ill-equipped to deal with the complexities in front of them (like the rise of the Shiites); Rice has been greatly diminished; and her most important advisory positions are vacant.  The Times' David Sanger has a must-read piece on the ideological battle underlying the Report's conclusions, and captured here:

They start from completely different places,” said Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator who worked for Mr. Baker years ago and left the State Department early in the Bush administration. “Baker approaches everything with a negotiator’s mindset. That doesn’t mean every negotiation leads to a deal, but you engage your adversaries and use your leverage to change their behavior. This administration has never had a negotiator’s mind-set. It divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable. There has been more of an instinct toward regime change than to changing regime behavior.”

So the test for the President in these next few weeks is to show that he understands the gravity of the situation in the Middle East, recognizes that our strategy isn't working, and offers a new strategy, grounded in a new diplomatic approach, that works to restore stability in what has become the most troubled and dangerous region in the world today.

The ISG Report: A Modest Step Forward

The ISG Report is out.  Read it for yourself here

My quick initial take is that the ISG Report is a modest but important step forward.  It's greatest contribution is that it is going to begin a process where America can come to a new and deeper understanding of what is happening today in Iraq and the Middle East.  As I've been writing these past few weeks, I've been very concerned that the debate happening here in the US has been much more focused on lessening our exposure to trouble in the Middle East, rather than imaging and working towards a way that brings greater stability to a very critical and unstable region of the world, one made much more unstable by our recent actions. 

The Report is appropriately sobering. From the executive summary:

In this report, we make a number of recommendations for actions to be taken in Iraq, the United States, and the region. Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. We believe that these two recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another. If they are effectively implemented, and if the Iraqi government moves forward with national reconciliation, Iraqis will have an opportunity for a better future, terrorism will be dealt a blow, stability will be enhanced in an important part of the world, and America’s credibility, interests, and values will be protected.

The challenges in Iraq are complex. Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al Qaeda, and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability. The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government, yet it is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security, or delivering essential services. Pessimism is pervasive.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized.

This last paragraph is particularly important.  For what the Report lays out well is how America can lessen its exposure to the chaos in Iraq and the Middle East.  What it does much less persuasively is lay out a plan for how to bring stability back to the region, rollback Al Qaeda's gains and contain Iran's provocative ambitions.  It calls for a major diplomatic effort, but led by who? By a President who doesn't even talk to the Democrats here in America? By a discredited and weakened Condi Rice, who now has three of her most critical staff positions unfilled, including UN Ambassador?

This part of the Report is more prayer than policy.  It is interesting to note the response from Iraq:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 -- The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East.

Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician.

The report arrives at a time of turmoil within the Iraqi government. Senior politicians from Iraq's two major sects, Sunnis and Shiites, have been assassinated or kidnapped in recent weeks. Entire ministries are under the control of sect-based political parties with their own militias.

Three weeks ago, as many as 150 employees were abducted from the Higher Education Ministry, run by a Sunni, by men in police uniforms who said they were from the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shiites. And last week, powerful politicians loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr walked out of the government, and have yet to return.

U.S. diplomats have been urging Iraq's government to engage in a process of national reconciliation aimed at giving Sunnis a greater role, but the Shiite-led administration has been largely unwilling to do so. It is unclear whether increased pressure, as called for by the group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, will result in Shiite leaders moving forward with a new power-sharing agreement.

The mistrust and divisions within the weak unity government are so deep that it is not certain whether the study group's recommendations -- such as using outside powers to exert diplomatic pressure and building a well-trained Iraqi army -- can be effective, or might instead deepen the political and sectarian rifts.

"The main obstacle and challenge is the current government," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst in Baghdad. "The Baker-Hamilton report is insisting on national reconciliation. This has not been done, only in government propaganda."

For months, the Bush administration has pressured the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take steps toward bringing the warring groups together and tackle Iraq's violent militias and corruption. But the Iraq Study Group recommends withdrawing U.S. support if the Iraqis fail to show advances.

"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government," the report's executive summary says.

For some Iraqis, the statement suggested that the report's authors did not grasp, or refused to acknowledge, the diverse ambitions, rivalries and weaknesses that plague the government. The Kurds have dreams of creating an independent state. The Sunnis appear leaderless, yet seek a political voice. The Shiites are riven by feuds. There are disagreements over partitioning Iraq, over whether to restore members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to their old jobs, over whether amnesty should be given to opponents of the government and the U.S. occupation.

Maliki, who controls no militia of his own, also depends on Sadr for political support, making it politically suicidal for him to attempt to dismantle Sadr's Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent militia in Iraq.

"It comes far too close to having the U.S. threaten to take its ball and go home if the Iraqi children do not play the game our way," Anthony Cordesmann, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mailed analysis, referring to possible withdrawal of support.

Some Iraqis expressed astonishment at a recommendation in the report calling for Iraq's National Police and its police commandos, overseen by the Interior Ministry, to be shifted to the control of Defense Ministry, where the commandos would join the army. There is growing evidence that the majority-Shiite police are infiltrated by Shiite militias and death squads.

Iraqis said that although it might appear to make sense to place the commandos under the majority-Shiite army, which has largely escaped militia infiltration, the recommendation could bring unintended consequences. The Interior Ministry is Shiite-controlled, while the Defense Ministry is headed by a Sunni.

"This is an intervention in the Iraqi structure of the state," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. "This will also be seen as a point for the Sunnis, at the expense of the Shias."

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, said such a shift could force the Defense Ministry into an internal policing role that it is not equipped to address. "The more they get dragged into internal policing, they may become sectarianized," Hiltermann said.

"This demand -- no one will execute it," said Hasan Suneid, a legislator and close aide to Maliki. "It's not realistic."

Other challenges face any attempt to implement the report's recommendations. Iraqis have little trust in the army, which is poorly equipped and trained, to provide security. U.S. troops agree with this assessment.

The ISG Report is a modest but important step forward.  History will view it as a truly vital contribution if our leaders in Washington now focus on the part not well addressed in the report - crafting a strategy to restore stability to this troubled region.

Thoughts on foreign policy and the ISG report

For those wanting a new course for America's foreign policy this is a very important week.  Tuesday UN Ambassador John Bolton resigned. Yesterday the Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to confirm a new Secretary of Defense.  Today the Iraq Sudy Group releases its much anticipated report. 
To help you think through the meaning of these critical new developments, I send along links to several pieces I've written in recent days on America's foreign policy, Iraq and the Middle East.  Please also check our blog daily, as we will be continuing to weigh in on the important events of our time.  And feel free to offer your thoughts about our thinking either on our blog, or to me directly.  

Feedback, of course, is welcome. 

Clemons on Bolton

Steve Clemons over at the Washington Note has a very good piece on the implications of the Bolton resignation.  One of the more interesting things he discusses is how our government is now without an UN Ambassador, Counselor to the Secretary of State and Undersecretary of State.  I'd add while Rice herself seems to be being upstaged and perhaps undermined by the Baker-Hamilton Commission.  All of this comes at a time when representing America to a skeptical world is perhaps more important than its been in a very long time. 

The Bolton departure is another example of how the neocon regime is collapsing, and we are arriving at a juncture we call the end of the conservative ascendency.  The way things have been run is ending.  A new era is being born.  But Bush and his team are still in charge, however intellectually exhausted and politically defeated they are.  How they fill these senior State positions, and whether Rice stays on, is going to be a critical test of how deeply involved this Administration will be in crafting what comes next for American foreign policy. 

For as I've been writing these last few weeks (here and here for example), right now our great tests abroad are diplomatic, political and of our capacity to imagine a different and better course for the world.  We've relearned that the use of force has its limits, a lesson this country learned painfully after WWI and did not repeat after WWII.  The question now is what are the governing principles behind American foreign policy in the 21st century? How do we see our role in the world? What lessons have we learned from our experience in Iraq, and the increasing chaos in the Middle East? Will we have time to start looking more strategically at some of the other challenges we face? Immigration? Latin America? The rise of China? The descent of Russia? North Korea? Global climate change? Globalization itself?

It seems that one of the great services our new Congress could provide for the American people is a robust set of hearings on the great foreign policy facing America in the 21st century.  Help provide fodder for the big debate we must have in the years ahead as we all look to dig out from the mess left behind by Bush and his team.

Bolton Out at UN

Faced with likely defeat in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation vote, US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has resigned his post.  Bolton was never able to get enough votes in committee to be considered by the full Senate and only became Ambassador to the UN when President Bush circumvented Congress with a recess appointment in August 2005.

Bush Administration foreign policy has been defined by unrivaled arrogance, but even so, the Bolton appointment definitely deserves a spot on the greatest hits list.  The appointment was held up beacuse Bolton is openly opposed to the UN, and because of unsettled allegations that he fudged intelligence on Iraq and WMDs, as the top anti-proliferation official at the State Department.  The Bush Administration steadfastly refused to release documents related to Bolton's WMD intelligence work, and Bolton never really renounced his opposition to the UN. 

Bolton joins the list of people who have recently left top posts at the State Department (Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow prominent among them), leaving the Bush Administration diplomatic team understaffed in their stewardship of a failed foreign policy agenda.

The rise of the Shiites

One of the very predictable outcomes of America's taking out of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was an opportunity for Iran and the region's Shiites to exert themselves. Understanding this dynamic is critical to understanding what is happening in the Middle East today. Some thoughts:

- Iran is the global center for Shiite Muslims. Shiites are a minority of the world's Muslims, an estimated 10 percent. There are old, deep and difficult tensions with the majority Sunnis, many of whom do not view the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam. Sunni Muslims run the Arab world, and while many Arab nations have a minority Shia population, Sunni Islam is the politically and culturally dominant form of Islam in the Arab Middle East.

- One of the holiest cities in the Shia faith, Najaf, is in the Shia dominated part of southern Iraq. Many Shia religious leaders have studied and trained in Najaf, including the leader of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeni. There are very strong cultural and religious ties between the Shiite South of Iraq and Iran, even though Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are Shiite Arabs, with small minorities of largely Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Saddam Hussein's government was run by Sunni Arabs, oppressed the Shiite majority and significantly curtailed the public expression of the Shiite faith.

One of the first acts of the revolutionary Iranian government was to end up in a war with Iraq, a war that lasted 8 years and cost more than a one million lives. America sided with the Iraqis in the war to help curtail the expansion of the Iranian, Shiite-led revolution, a revolution that Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was very well aware could radicalize his majority Shiite population. Shiites well remember whose side America was on in this terrible battle.

- The Taliban, and Al Qaeda, are Sunni extemists, and do not see the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam.

- Thus, when our government cleared out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, and created a process that guarenteed the election of the first Shiite-led government in the history of the Arab world, we dramatically reorganized the region's balance between Sunni and Shiite in favor of the Iranians and the Shiites. A clear outcome of our early post 9/11 strategy would be the rise of Iran, growing power for the regions Shiites and a remaking of the Middle East in a way that would not sit well with the region's Sunnis, and that would embolden deeply anti-American and anti-Western elements.

- The regional Shiite, Iranian momentum is growing. Iran has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons despite extraordinary global condemnation. The Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah are in the process of taking down the fragile Lebanese government. Iran has become one of the most significant financial backers of the new Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Shiites who run the Iraqi government refuse to disband their Shiite militias, and have rejected the idea of a regional peace conference involving neighboring Sunni states. There is new evidence that Iranian security services have been training and funding the Shiite militias in Iraq, and have now embedded military advisors in the militias themselves.

It is my view that Iraq is lost, but not to chaos per se, but to a regional set of Shiite leaders now in firm control of the Iraqi government and politics, desperate to right the wrongs of generations and bent on holding and expanding power at all costs. The Shiites have waited over 1,000 years to control an Arab Muslim country, and will use this new base to wage a pitched battle against their Sunni adverseries for the future of Islam and regional control.

- The expected reactions to this American-led reordering of the Middle East have begun. The Israelis went after Hezbollah this summer in large part to send a signal to the Iranians that despite the Americans failings their regional hegemonic desires would not go unchecked. Last week Sunni Saudi Arabia made it clear they are willing to go to war with Shiite-led Iraq if necessary. Finally, Al-Qaeda is developing a very strong base in Western Iraq as a vehicle to help protect Sunni Arabs against the Shiite majority.

A long post, I know. But very little of what I hear from our government seems to understand all this. While so much of our discussion now is about the Iraqis taking more responsibility for their country, in practical terms turning over the reins of power to the Iraqis means turning over the reigns of power to the region's Shiites. It also almost certainly means the strengthening of Iran, the revival of Al-Qaeda, a potential regional war and oil soaring way beyong $100 a barrel. If this is where we are headed our government better start having a big conversation with its people about the consequences of so many bad and niave decisions by the Republicans in charge of our government these past six years. I hope this process begins this week with the release of the Iraqi Study Group report.

More on the need for a new strategy for the Middle East

Paul Richter of the LATimes has a provocative story today, one that echoes many of my posts these last few weeks (here's one, and another):

Mideast allies near a state of panic -
U.S. leaders' visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.
But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy.

Arabs are "trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party's point men on Iraq. "They're trying to figure out their Plan B."

The allies' predicament was described by Jordan's King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America's steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

"Something dramatic" needed to come out of Bush's meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because "I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007."

and this:

"Cheney's trip to talk to Saudi King Abdullah was far less visible than Bush's mission, but helped to make painfully clear the gap between U.S. goals and those of its Arab allies.

U.S. officials said Cheney initiated the trip. But foreign diplomats said that Saudi leaders sought the visit to express their concern about the region, including fears of a U.S. departure and what they see as excessive American support for the Shiite faction in Iraq.

After the meeting with Cheney, Saudi officials released an unusual statement pointedly highlighting American responsibility for deterioration of stability in the region.

The Saudi officials cited "the direct influence of … the United States on the issues of the region" and said it was important for U.S. influence "to be in accord with the region's actual condition and its historical equilibrium," an apparent reference to the Sunni-Shiite balance.

The Saudi statement also said the U.S. in the Middle East should "pursue equitable means that contribute to ending its conflicts," pointing to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The statement "came pretty close to a rebuke, by Saudi standards," said Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "It said, in effect, that the United States needs to behave responsibly."

There have been other signals of Saudi anxiety recently.

On Wednesday, an advisor to the Saudi government wrote in the Washington Post that if the United States pulled out of Iraq, "massive Saudi intervention" would ensue to protect Sunnis from Shiite militias.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al Faisal, warned in a speech in October against an American withdrawal, saying that "since the United States came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

Here is a link to the remarkable op-ed by a Saudi advisor that threatened an Iraqi-Saudi war if conditions for Sunni Arabs in Iraq continued to deteriorate.

Given the growing instability of the Middle East, it is essential that the political leadership of both parties start to talk about a long-term plan to bring stability back to the region. We need less talk about pullback and withdrawals, however important that is, and more about a comprehensive strategy to prevent the Middle East from descending into dramatic regional chaos. Our troops should be used as part of a broader strategy to bring stability back to the Middle East. Pulling them out without this broader strategy simply doesn't seem like a smart thing to do.

I worry that the Iraq Study Group will have missed an important opportunity to help transition our understanding of what's at stake in the Middle East. Perhaps we will all be impressed with their work. But so far what one can see from the leaks is not very promising.

America appears out of touch and weak to the world

From the NYTimes this morning:

...“I am baffled by what I saw,” said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. “This was an expression of the Americans in deep trouble, but Bush’s approach to dealing with the Iraqi problem also bore the signs of someone out of touch with what is going on.”

“I did not see a coherent strategy that really deals with the situation,” Mr. Said said. “I did not see Bush realizing how bad it is.”

The meeting showed that Bush cared about the game, but he did not know how to make the right moves,” he said. “There were no tangible results.” And results, he said, were what Arab leaders were looking for....

So Bush goes all the way to Jordan and meets with Maliki for two hours? The whole thing was such a charade.  In the run up to the Summit, he made the argument that the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq was being driven by Al-Qaeda, something that is patently false.  The ISG report appears to be a big punt, and fails to confront the emerging political reality of the Middle East.  We now appear to have two Secretaries of State, clearly in conflict with one another.  The Saudis have become so concerned about our mismanagement of Iraq that they had an op-ed placed in the Washington Post making it clear they would go to war in Iraq to protect the Sunni Arab population.  

All in all, the governing party's inability to understand or manage this growing international crisis is sending a signal to the world that America has become a weakened and stumbling power.  My own sense is that the way we can show strength to the world is to ask for help.  To admit that we are no longer capable of managing what is now an international problem, and invite the UN, NATO, the EU or others to help create a regional peace process that will put everything on the table. 

Though many may be happy that America will be redeploying our troops in the near future, without a change in the political arrangements inside Iraq and the Middle East we will be essentially staying the course, a course that is now clearly headed towards a regional conflict driven a great deal by Iran's hegemonic ambitions and long simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions. 

Biden on the ISG

I'm still not sure about Senator Joe Biden's "federalism" plan for Iraq, but he is very correct that we need to be talking about political and diplomatic paths forward for the region:

"“I look forward to the release of the Iraq Study Group's report on December 6th and I will reserve full judgment until I see it. But if today’s news reports are correct, I’m concerned the Iraq Study Group may miss the most important point: the need for a strategy to build a sustainable political settlement in Iraq. Bringing the neighbors in and starting to get our troops out are necessary, but not sufficient. We need to give each of Iraq’s major groups a way to pursue their interests peacefully. It would be a fatal mistake to believe we can do that solely by building up a strong central government. That policy has been tried and it has failed because there is no trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people and no capacity on the part of the government to deliver benefits to Iraqis.

"The best way to get a sustainable political settlement is through federalism: maintaining a unified Iraq, but decentralizing the country and giving its groups breathing room in their own regions. A central government would still be responsible for the distribution of oil and border security. We would get Sunni buy-in by guaranteeing them a proportionate share of the oil revenues and we’d bring the neighbors in to support the political settlement. If we do all these things, we can withdraw most of our troops from Iraq by the end of 2007, with a residual force to focus on counter-terrorism. And we can achieve the two objectives most Americans share: to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind.”

Biden's idea on a "Contact Group" to help establish a regional diplomatic dialogue is something worth giving serious consideration to.  You can read more about it in a speech he gave in the fall of 2005 to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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