A task force assembled by the Brookings Institution, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and Ken Pollack wants to make Iraq an offer it can’t refuse. Unfortunately for the task force, Iraq can easily refuse it, and probably will. It’s like putting a severed horse’s head in the bed of a ravenous wolf: not only won’t it scare the wolf, but its family will just devour the thing.
The task force included five mismatched experts: Pollack, a smart guy who still hasn’t repudiated his unfortunate 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq ; Fred Kagan, the American Enterprise Institute neoconservative who invented the surge in 2006; J. Scott Carpenter, a former Bush administration Iraq official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Raad Alkadiri, an actual Iraqi who served as an adviser to the pro-withdrawal Baker-Hamilton Commission in 2006; and Sean Kane, a youngster from the US Institute of Peace.
The task force issued a report this week titled "Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward." It’s flawed at best, and outrageously misguided in its worst sections.
Its main recommendation is that the United States cannot allow Iraq to fall apart, collapse into civil war or emerge as an aggressive regional power after 2011, when the United States forces depart. But it also argues for the importance of extending the deployment of many—perhaps "tens of thousands"—of American troops in Iraq long past the 2011 deadline set under the terms of the US-Iraq security agreement signed in 2008 between Prime Minister Maliki’s government and the Bush administration. And worst of all, it says: "Iraq should ideally be a strong, prosperous US ally."
To rope Iraq in as an "ally," the report suggests that the United States make a take it or leave it offer to Iraq: either accept the continued presence of American troops, or you get nothing from the United States: we’ll walk away and leave you to your own devices. In one of its paragraphs, the task force sounds like Groucho Marx, who said that any club that would admit him as a member isn’t worth joining:
Any Iraqi government that is not interested in some kind of adequate American military presence after 2011—or a US military presence that can continue to act as the guarantor or Iraqi stability and its continued development as a democracy—is not a government that the United States should want to support.
Take that, Maliki!
The report suggests that the United States must "retain its military presence in the region," "retain an American military presence in Iraq," "preserve its role as Iraq’s principal military partner" and "preserve its role as Iraq’s principal source of weaponry, training and support," including "tanks, APCs/IFVs, artillery, multi-role fighter aircraft, helicopters, SAMs warships." It helpfully points out that "major arms sales make Iraq militarily dependent on the United States."
Chas Freeman once told me, "We didn’t invade Iraq. We invaded the Iraq of our dreams." Similarly, the Brookings report wants to deal not with the real Iraq, the one that actually exists, but a dreamy one that wants to be a US "ally." And if Iraq doesn’t want that, if Iraq won’t agree to a new, US-designed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that lets troops stick around, then the United States won’t help Iraq at all, ever. The United States "must have a new SOFA," says the report. And it adds:
The Iraqis must understand that the entire US military, economic, and diplomatic aid relationship with Iraq is tied to the signing of a new SOFA that meets American needs. The United States must be ready to walk away from Iraq altogether if the government of Iraq is unwilling to agree to such a SOFA.
Yes, it really says that.
The new Iraqi government, heavily influenced by Iran—especially with the addition of the Sadrist contingent, along with Maliki’s own intimate relations with Tehran—isn’t likely to look with favor on the idea of becoming an American "ally" with an open-ended US military presence!
To its credit, the authors of the Pollack-led report recognize that Iraqi nationalism is a growing force. But, unfortunately, they see Iraqi nationalism as a counter to Iran, whereas real Iraqi nationalists also see Iraq as a counter to America’s hegemonic interests in the Persian Gulf. In the section on Iran, the task force warns that Iran "continues to play a destabilizing role in Iraq," and that Iran’s objectives in Iraq are a "very significant threat to American interests." But, it adds hopefully:
In the specific case of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States has a critical ace in the hole that it lacks on every other policy issue with Iran: Iraqi nationalism.
And that’s true. If there is any check on Iranian influence in Baghdad, it’s Iraqi nationalism. But the Brookings task force, by demanding that Iraq accept a humiliating role as American "ally," arms purchaser and troop-hoster, seems almost to have designed an approach calculated to inflame Iraqi nationalism in an anti-American direction.
Pollack and his colleagues seem distressed about the fact that President Obama and the White House staff seem to have stopped thinking about Iraq, and they’ve put forward this report as something that they’ve dropped into the White House suggestion box. It’s true that Obama seems not to want to think about Iraq. If he does start thinking about it, however, he ought to toss out the Brookings Institution study and instead sit down with his team and figure out how to work with Iran on stabilizing Iraq.