Edition 5 Volume 5 - February 01, 2024

Bush's new Iraq policy

More of the same - an interview with  Geoffrey Aronson

There is no good outcome; there are no easy answers; and there definitely is no magic bullet.

Debatable aspects of Bush's strategy -   Safa A. Hussein

Without a regional dialogue that includes America, Iran and Syria, the current diplomatic and political efforts will have little effective outcome.

Bush's agenda for victory -   Ali Asghar Kazemi

Iranian diplomacy seeks to communicate with the US in order to avoid a confrontation.

Victory demands troops -   Danielle Pletka

At the root of the failure to devise better strategies is a fundamental flaw: No plan other than the president's seeks victory.

More of the same
an interview with Geoffrey Aronson

BI: The Bush administration started the year announcing its new policy in Iraq, comprising mainly a surge in troops. Can this really be described as a "new " Iraq policy?

Aronson: No. It's more of the same. We've been there already, and the British were there 40 or 50 years before. It's just playing with words.

BI: Is it desperation on behalf of the administration?

Aronson: It's the latest chapter in an ongoing disaster, a new wrinkle in a descent into more violence and policy incoherence.

BI: So a troop surge will not do any good?

Aronson: It will benefit some people to the extent that American efforts will be viewed as failing even more than they are today. I don't think those President Bush intends to benefit will benefit.

These include elements who have no stake in what might generally be deemed a successful US effort in Iraq, whether domestic Iraqi elements of various sectarian colors, or neighbors.

Here you might include the Iranians, though there is a point to be made about Iran having an interest in Iraq not becoming completely destabilized. Nevertheless, I think that to the extent that the US is seen to be suffering and losing in Iraq, the majority view in Iran is that that's to Iran's advantage.

BI: So what exactly should the US be doing in Iraq?

Aronson: That is a good and important question. There is no good outcome; there are no easy answers; and there definitely is no magic bullet.

But it's also an unfair question. Those who usually pose the question, pose it to show that there are no easy answers so the option they've chosen is at least as good if not better than any of the other suggestions for changing the status quo. This is not necessarily brain surgery. There is no idea out there that hasn't been thought of, considered and apparently rejected by the Bush administration.

Having said that, what does one propose? I think one needs to take two or three steps back and first of all understand the dimensions of the debacle that we are now encountering in Iraq, where the US is, to all intents and purposes, at war with basically every faction in Iraq except the Kurds. The US has no friends and allies, Washington's policies are emboldening what it itself describes as its primary regional threat, Iran, and there is no strategic purpose to the use of US power in Iraq today. It's absolute strategic incoherence.

So the answer comes from those assessments. How do you restore some strategic coherence? To answer this, one has to answer what the purpose of US troops in Iraq today should be. Should they be a party to increasing sectarian strife there, yes or no? Depending on your answer, you determine direction. Should they provide strategic security for the state of Iraq, yes or no? If yes, how to do that? Does one do that only by guarding the borders or by guarding borders as well as engaging Iraq's neighbors in order to pacify the environment?

So it's not a simple prescription and unfortunately policy in that part of the world has been simplified into incoherence. I prefer not to play that game and I have no ready recipe.

BI: There was one specific recommendation made by the Baker-Hamilton report, which was to engage countries this administration has specifically shunned, namely Syria and Iran. Could that be constructive?

Aronson: Well, we've come to a point where the simple idea of speaking to one's enemies or antagonists in itself has become controversial. It goes without question that the purpose of diplomacy is to speak to one's enemies. And in the pantheon of enemies the US has faced over the decades I would put neither Iran nor Syria in the top ten. We've sat down with people with far more American blood on their hands.

The purpose of diplomacy is to prevent the use of force as an instrument of policy. Rarely is the use of force and the use of force alone a credible instrument.

There is a sense that this administration has put diplomacy on autopilot to suggest that America's antagonists in the region know exactly what they need to do and therefore should simply do it. But this is, first, very simplistic and one-dimensional, and secondly a prescription for failure.

BI: Do you see any signs that this administration is learning from its mistakes or even showing awareness that it has made mistakes?

Aronson: Far too little, too late.

BI: And do you think that over the last two years that this administration is with us, there will be any significant changes in its Iraq or regional policy in general?

Aronson: Well, it's on the road to becoming at lot worse. The instability and destabilizing effect of US policy in the region as a whole is becoming more pronounced.

BI: Looking a little further ahead, are alternative policies being formulated for future administrations?

Aronson: The willingness on the part of the US political establishment to critically engage the Bush administration on policy in Iraq has just begun, five or six years or, depending on how you count, ten years after the fact. That in a sense is to be expected. People generally speaking are prepared to give the US president the benefit of the doubt however fantastic and ill advised his claims happen to be. And we've just been through that period.

Having passed that threshold, we are now only at the beginning of a context in which people can see as legitimate any critique of Bush administration policy. The road from that recognition to a practical program that can be effected is, I fear, not a short one. The need to mobilize sentiments and make operational this vague sense of unease that the president's policies have invited... I don't go to sleep at night assuming there will be a credible opposition point of view greeting me in the papers the next day.

And in fact there isn't. There is no defined strategy. There's a competing mixture of ideas and legislation and so forth. In the meantime the policy machine is grinding on, and I'm afraid that that will continue for quite some time.

BI: What will happen with a change of administration?

Aronson: That's two years down the road. That's a long time. I hesitate to predict where we will be in Iraq then, although I don't think we'll be in a better place, and I don't think the Iraqi people will be in a better place.- Published 1/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace and is a consultant to the EUCOPS mission to the Palestinian Authority.

Debatable aspects of Bush's strategy
 Safa A. Hussein

The year 2024 was not good for Iraq. After the stunning elections of 2024 and the formation of the so called "national unity government", political gains were overwhelmed by the sharp increase in violence. Neither Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national reconciliation initiative nor the American security plan, "Together forward", worked as planned. After the American mid-term elections and the release of the Iraq Study Group report, Iraqi politicians as well as others were anxious to see how these events would affect American strategy toward Iraq and the Middle East.

Following the Amman agreement with Maliki, President George W. Bush presented his new strategy for the war in Iraq. It combines military, diplomatic, political and economic actions. The plan closely coincides with an Iraqi-prepared security plan that Iraqis are more confident can work. It takes into account the main reasons behind the failure of the previous security plan, namely that it was too defensive and suffered from poor coordination between intelligence agencies and security forces, lack of unity of command and responsibility on the part of Iraqi security forces and the lack of a mechanism to coordinate and allocate needed resources for security operations.

However, there are some debatable aspects to the new strategy. Firstly, it seems to be more of a limited security plan or, at best, a first phase of a counter-insurgency policy rather than a long-term strategy to defeat the insurgency in Iraq. It is limited in its objective, duration and field of operation: the stated mission is to reduce the violence in Baghdad within the next few months. These limitations seem alien to the principles of counter-insurgency, which require long-term comprehensive campaigns.

Yet both Iraqis and Americans accept these limitations. Iraqis have long emphasized that Baghdad security is "the" key to success in Iraq because of the city's large population and status as Iraq's economic center and media focus. In addition, both Iraqis and Americans seek short-term results. Bush understands that the Iraq war is unpopular and that the US must get results soon. PM Maliki realizes that being elected is not enough, that his government must provide security and good governance to earn its legitimacy and that he needs breathing space to do critical tasks. After all, such a short-term plan does not clash with a long-term counter-insurgency policy. It can simply be its first phase.

Secondly, the strategy calls for the deployment of an additional 20,000 troops mainly in Baghdad. These new forces do not know the complex patterns of violence, sectarianism, local security forces and ethnic relocation in Baghdad. This could complicate the situation further, may generate hostile public responses and will strengthen insurgent and jihadist claims in the area. Still, the troop increase was received in Iraq with less noise than expected.

Thirdly, the Americans stress that no political restrictions should bind the troops. This is a reference to clearing operations in the Sadr city section of Baghdad, the stronghold of Jaish al-Mahdi, the major Shi'ite militia affiliated to Muqtada al-Sadr. Currently three armed groups in Baghdad are involved in sectarian violence: the terrorists and insurgents (al-Qaeda and several other groups), JAM and several smaller Sunni militias.

Clearing operations in the 2.5 million-populated Sadr city will almost certainly mean a major confrontation with JAM, which can now draw upon up to 60,000 fighters nationwide. Such a confrontation can absorb much of the resources of the operation and may well increase its duration. Since JAM provides an element of security for the people of Sadr city as well as for other Shi'ites whom the government does not currently protect, Shi'ites may perceive the operation's objective as exposing them to insurgent attacks, and this could turn them against the government.

This approach, too, clashes with the principles of counter-insurgency. A wiser approach might be to perform extensive clearing operations in hot areas while simultaneously carrying out surgical strikes based on accurate intelligence against both Sunni and Shi'ite death squads, accompanied by continuous synchronized political efforts to explain the mission to political leaders of militias on both sides and reassure them that there will be ongoing efforts to reintegrate militia members into society.

If such a combined political and military effort is achieved accurately and successfully, there will be a chance to prevent escalation of these operations into full-scale confrontation with the militias or any discrediting of the plan as being sectarian-biased by politicians. This will set the right environment for the government to engage both Sunni and Shi'ite militias politically and eventually disarm them.

Lastly, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice initiated the diplomatic part of the strategy by attempting to rally support from the so-called moderate regional states, the stakeholders in a stable and unified Iraq. However, Iran and Syria were excluded. These two countries are the most important destabilizing players in Iraq. They use the Iraqi card to resist America, while other Arab countries use Iraq as a conflict point with Iran. The presence of more American forces in the Gulf may increase regional tensions and this in turn could lead to more violence in Iraq rather than pacifying the country.

Without a regional dialogue that includes America, Iran and Syria, the current diplomatic and political efforts will have little effective outcome.- Published 1/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. Prior to joining the Transitional Government he served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force and worked in the military industry as director of a research and development center. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

Bush's agenda for victory
 Ali Asghar Kazemi

Because democracies are vulnerable to public opinion, they have overwhelming difficulties fighting terrorism. Some argue that a democracy, in order to fight terrorism, is forced to copy its methods and thus become oppressive itself. This assertion suggests that the adoption of repressive measures is inevitable in dealing with the growing dangers of terrorism. The fact that the United States has thus far failed to achieve its objectives in Iraq is an inevitable consequence of this phenomenon.

America's opponents seem to be well aware of this vulnerability and have already taken advantage of it to make trouble for the United States. This has so far caused the defeat of the Republicans in the US Congress and may pave the path for Democrats to conquer the White House in the next presidential elections.

The US president's so-called "new strategy" appears to be conscious of this reality and is trying to place more responsibility on the shoulders of Iraqis themselves on the assumption that, despite their lack of appropriate training and equipment, they will be in a better position to counter violence in their country. Those who criticize the new plan as ambiguous should read the hidden intentions behind it. In fact, the new strategy is a simple agenda focusing more on peripheral aspects of Iraq's turmoil than the crisis itself and viewing Iran and Syria as major sources of trouble that should be contained at all costs.

From an etymological point of view, the new policy is not a change in strategy but merely a readjustment of military tactics to respond to new operational requirements generated by overall American strategic objectives in Iraq and the Middle East. As regards the Iraqi crisis, this entails removing all factors inhibiting the success of combined forces in their formation, deployment and engagement against terrorist activities.

No doubt the Americans had some kind of assessment of potential and actual foreign intervention in Iraq's internal affairs before they went in. But at the beginning they preferred not to exaggerate the matter, fearing this might encourage US opponents to further aggravate the situation. Thus, the United States initially chose the diplomacy of tolerance and restraint in order to persuade Iraq's two important neighbors, Iran and Syria, to engage in dialogue for the attenuation of ethnic and religious violence. But this approach failed and in some instances proved counter-productive. This in turn led to growing public discontent over increasing American casualties in Iraq, which finally caused the Republican defeat in the US Congress.

Hence the Republican US president had to do something to rescue his legacy and the long-term credibility of his party on the one hand, and to respond to the public demand to disengage from the Iraq quagmire on the other. But the Baker-Hamilton document offered a set of bipartisan policy recommendations that could not wholly satisfy both objectives, while the new Democrat Congress could hardly place itself at the service of Republican success.

The American president's authority as commander-in-chief exceeds congressional authority: he can decide any strategy deemed to promote American national interests. Thus, Bush and his new team decided to set out new strategic guidelines:

  • Sending an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq in support of this new policy.

  • Authorizing commanders in the field to confront Iran's growing threat to destabilize Iraq.

  • Pursuing foreign agents throughout Iraq and blocking border infiltration.

  • Initiating a naval build-up in the Persian Gulf region and a show of force to increase pressure on Iran.

  • Forming a coalition of regional Arab states against the growing threat emanating from Iran's nuclear ambitions and aggressive strategy.

  • Putting additional pressure on Iran through a UN Security Council sanctions resolution under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the Charter.

  • Containing the growth of fundamentalism and searching for ways to deal with the Islamic regime without inflicting systemic harm on the fragile regional and international security order.

Despite the ongoing rhetoric of Iran's controversial president, the overall reaction of the Iranian leadership to the new American strategy has been rather cautious and restrained. Caught in a critical dilemma, the Islamic regime now seems to be alert to the hidden intentions of the new US policy and is trying to distance itself from Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's pompous slogans that could cost it its very survival. Public opinion, including right wing fundamentalist supporters, is increasingly discontent, restless and critical of the government's performance in domestic and foreign affairs.

Iran, itself a victim of an aggressive war with extensive human and material losses, feels extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment virtually encircled by the United States. The US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been even more alarming had the Americans succeeded quickly in Iraq and not encountered a serious challenge by insurgents. But the Americans failed to assess the consequences of their Iraq intervention and now seem to be embarking on yet another venture that has already caused widespread alarm within the US. The American public is worried about a potential new entanglement in Iran whose outcome is not clear.

The continued turmoil and insurgency in Iraq, which initially offered some benefits for Iran, is now liable to become very costly for the Islamic regime and to endanger its very existence. Given that Iran has a lot of common interests with the newly established Shi'ite majority in Iraq, rationally it should do everything in its power to attenuate the ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal conflicts there since it is itself very vulnerable on these matters. This proposition is especially true with respect to Iran's controversial nuclear activities; UN Security Council scrutiny may yet produce even harsher resolutions.

Iranian leaders, while continuing to deny any interference in Iraq, are seeking to attenuate the hostile atmosphere through friends of the US and other intermediaries. They now seem quite aware of the unyielding American position with respect to the nuclear issue and are taking US "regime change" policy very seriously. Active Iranian diplomacy in recent weeks seeks to demonstrate the capacity and political will to communicate and if necessary negotiate with the United States in order to avoid a confrontation and hostilities.

The success of Bush's new agenda in Iraq and the wider Middle East depends on whether it can be realized without necessarily engaging in another war with Iran or Syria. Otherwise we should expect a further increase of terrorist activity and thus a significant decline in American status and prestige in the world.- Published 1/2/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of law and international relations in Tehran.

Victory demands troops
 Danielle Pletka

Members of the US Congress, distressed with the flagging popularity of the Iraq war, have spent the first month of 2024 scrambling to offer the public the exit strategy it seeks. Bereft of a serious and comprehensive strategy for several years, the American public now has a surfeit of offerings from their elected representatives. Competition, in the form of an array of imaginative and realistic ideas, is good. The congressional plans themselves? Not good.

Joseph Biden, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (both Democrats) initially partnered with a Republican war critic, Senator Chuck Hagel, to offer a non-binding resolution opposing any further infusion of troops into Iraq, calling on the Iraqis to sort out their political woes with "compromises necessary to ending the violence in Iraq", while focusing on "territorial integrity", "counterterrorism" and "accelerate[d] training". For good measure, the senators called for a "regionally-sponsored peace and reconciliation process". How any of this is supposed to come to pass is entirely mysterious. Ways and means are not discussed.

John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with a hawkish Democrat and a dovish Republican, offered what might be labeled the loyal opposition plan. (Hagel would be unlikely to claim the "loyal" opposition mantle, having vowed to "do everything I can to stop the president's policy.") This non-binding resolution urges President George W. Bush to reconsider sending more troops, encourages "political compromises" by Iraqi leaders and, wait for it, stresses "focus on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq", "counterterrorism", and "training". A "regional, internationally sponsored peace and reconciliation process" also gets a nod.

In late breaking news, Warner and Levin announced that they are to join forces, though their "compromise" plan is not yet public. But the quest to lead the forces of retreat will not end there. Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has yet to offer her own non-binding resolution, but has stressed a cap on troop levels. Her Illinois rival Barack Obama has chimed in with a slightly bolder (though unconstitutional) ban on additional troops, a phased redeployment (read: withdrawal) and benchmarks for Iraqi politicians that emphasize economic and security goals, and the much-beloved exhortation for political compromise (which Obama labels "accommodation"). Senator Russ Feingold prefers the tougher, but less clearly unconstitutional threat to cut off funds for the war.

Setting aside the likely resolutions in support of President Bush, we can expect more blueprints for Iraq, many featuring daring offers of enhanced training and regional peace conferences. But defining oneself in opposition to (or indeed in alliance with) the president of the United States and advocating more meetings in hotels does not constitute "planning".

At the root of the failure to devise better strategies is a fundamental flaw: No plan other than the president's seeks victory. Yes, it is crucial that the Iraqis compromise politically, and indeed, territorial integrity is important. Training the Iraqis is vital if the United States is ever to exit Iraq. And fighting terrorism is America's top foreign policy priority. But the prerequisite for all these important pieces to fall into place is security for the people of Iraq.

There is no question that incompetence contributed to the manifest lack of security in and around Baghdad. In order to move forward, however, we must learn from those mistakes. Lesson one: If the Iraqi people cannot trust the Americans or their own armed forces to deliver day to day security, they will turn to the militias and tribes and gangs that will. Lesson two: A light military footprint and efforts to propitiate Sunni insurgents and their sponsors encourages violence. As the United States military learned from success at Tal Afar, victory facilitates compromise, and more men mean victory.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not a great man, nor even a great leader. But he is the democratically elected leader of Iraq. At the best of times, democratic leaders do not compromise with their opponents and abandon their constituents. And these are not the best of times in Iraq. Maliki must deliver services to Iraqi Sunnis and begin to embrace an Iraqi reconciliation process that emphasizes justice over amnesty. He must disband the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades and the other sectarian militias. But he cannot do those things until the citizens of Baghdad can go to school and work and prayer without risking death.

Some, like Obama, have suggested that it is not worth an American effort "to babysit a civil war". Ignoring the consequences of a raging civil war inside Iraq (and the ensuing power vacuum, likely terrorist ascendancy, implications for the broader battle against Islamic extremists and more), Obama and others who harp upon the feckless Iraqis and their primitive sectarianism fail to appreciate the currents beneath the Sunni-Shi'ite fighting.

On the surface, Sunni death squads and Shi'ite gangsters appear to be tolerated by their respective communities because alongside the ethnic cleansing, casual crime and occasional kidnapping, these men effectively act as neighborhood watch committees. But any serious review of the ample intelligence regarding these mini-armies reveals a tightly linked nexus with terrorism underpinned by Saudi money, Syrian fighters and al-Qaeda. Towering above these venomous meddlers, the Islamic Republic of Iran pours money and arms to Iraq's extra-legal militias. The pragmatic Iranians, who are as uninterested in a stable Shi'ite Iraq as they were in a stable Sunni Iraq under Saddam, support both Sunni and Shi'ite killers.

Like the United States, Iraq's neighbors and the terrorists have stakes in what passes for civil war inside Iraq. Unlike the troop-cappers and conferencers and tribunes of redeployment and training who now dominate the US Congress, they do have a plan. It involves ensuring chaos, undermining democracy and waiting until the benchmarks have passed, compromise is impossible and American will is worn down. And if congress is any indication, they are half way there.- Published 1/2/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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