Demanding reconciliation won't work

WASHINGTON -- The principal recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are very unlikely to produce success. The report recognizes that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and that the current strategy is unworkable - but then, so does virtually everyone else.

The key problem is that events may be spiraling out of control, and the key to success is not outside action but Iraqi action. As a result, the most important single sentence in the Iraq Study Group's executive summary is its introductory caveat - "if the Iraqi government moves forward with national reconciliation."


Almost any reasonable mix of recommendations would work if Iraqi society as a whole moved forward with reconciliation. But the report does not make workable suggestions for creating or inducing such action.

Simply calling for a weak and divided Iraqi government to act in the face of all of the forces tearing Iraq apart is almost feckless. Efforts to exhort Iraqis into reconciliation are scarcely new.


The only novel twist is to call for the United States to use threats and disincentives to pressure the Iraqi government to act decisively. But warning Iraq that "the United states could carry out its plans, including planned redeployments, even if the Iraqi government did not implement their planned changes" borders on being irresponsible.

Such a policy ignores the lack of a clear Sunni leader and power structure, the diverse ambitions of the Kurds, and above all the divisions among the Shiites. Nouri al-Maliki is personally weak; he is weak because he represents a compromise between two powerful players - Muqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - that are seeking Shiite power and pursuing their own ambitions.

It also ignores the fact that U.S. actions have contributed to the Iraq government's weakness. America destroyed the secular core of the country by disbanding the Baath party. America created a constitutional process long before Iraq was ready, and created an intensely divisive document. America created an electoral system that almost forced Iraqis to vote to be Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and divided the nation on sectarian and ethnic lines. America effectively sent a bull in to liberate a china shop, and the Iraq Study Group now calls upon the United States to threaten to remove the bull if the shop doesn't fix the china.

Calling on outside powers to help the United States and on the United States to "immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region" may be worth trying. Relying on "Iraq's neighbors and key states inside and outside the region to form a support group to reinforce security and reconciliation within Iraq" does, however, come close to a pious hope. The neighbors that are going to try have tried. A conference inside or outside Iraq is still a good idea, but hinging a strategy on its success is foolish.

There is even less reason to rely on Iran and Syria to decisively change their behavior and their present perceptions of their national interest. Why should they react to American weakness in ways that help America?

The executive summary does not come to grips with incentive options. Some kind of U.S. or international consortium that offered a major aid package tied to conciliation could have an impact. There are many areas where aid is needed at the local level; it might be particularly useful in the insurgent areas in the west and in mixed Sunni-Shiite cities. A major aid program to revitalize and expand Iraq's oil exports, tied to fair sharing of the wealth, might help. It is even possible that a relocation plan might ease some sectarian and ethnic adjustments.

The main report does touch briefly upon these issues and recommends a moderate U.S. aid expenditure of $5 billion a year. The executive summary, however, is all tacit threats and no incentives, and there is nothing approaching an aid plan or a workable approach to using aid to quickly bring stability or provide incentives for conciliation.

The study group, by warning of a reduction in U.S. political, military or economic support, is threatening to weaken an already weak government; this is good for its opponents but bad for the United States and Iraq. Vague U.S. troop cuts are recommended by 2008. America is to rush in more qualified trainers and embeds (which it doesn't have), and assign more existing combat forces unqualified for that mission. The plan for dealing with the militias is to form a new U.S. bureaucracy without addressing the need for immediate, day-to-day security in a nation without effective courts and police in most threatened areas.


Another flaw is the lack of a meaningful plan for creating a mix of effective Iraqi military forces, police forces, governance and criminal justice system. The main report also ignores the problems in today's training and force development programs.

Finally, there is no "Plan B." The report does not address what happens if events spiral out of control. The tacit assumption is that they play it our way, or we leave faster. There is no clear plan for what to do if large-scale civil war occurs, or how to deal with regional actors if they become involved in the conflict or take positions the United States opposes. The message seems to be that domestic U.S. policy concerns demand more attention than the nature and pace of events in Iraq or America's longer-term security interests in Iraq, the region and the world.

This does not mean that there are not many good ideas and a great deal of useful and thoughtful material embedded in the main body of the report. But this is not a good or workable plan for the future.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is