Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
In a short piece for his website critiquing the two main competing ideas for President-elect Obama’s future Iraq policy –- the Center for a New American Security’s ‘conditional engagement‘ strategy and CAP’s own Strategic Reset strategy -– the normally astute Reidar Visser makes two critical errors. While we largely agree with his critique of the CNAS strategy, Visser subtly misreads CAP’s strategy while proposing a course of his own that does little to remedy the deficiencies of those he critiques.
First, Visser argues that CAP’s recommendation to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as rapidly as possible is based on a possibly mistaken premise: that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will only make compromises if it no longer can rely on the United States to shield it from the consequences of its actions. But our proposed strategy is not premised on using withdrawal as “leverage” against Maliki; it is rather premised on withdrawal changing the political incentives for Iraqi political actors. Whether or not Iraqis act on these changed incentives is left up to the Iraqis themselves. Rather than presenting a substantive criticism of the logic of CAP’s strategy, Visser relies on the prediction that Maliki will not change his overall behavior. While this continuation is possible, it is beside the point -– as we point out in our recent report on Iraq’s political transition, the United States needs to recognize its limited leverage and accept suboptimal outcomes. We argue that changing Iraqi political leaders’ incentives through the withdrawal of U.S. troops stands the best chance of the remaining bad policy options of leading to broad political accommodation in Iraq.
Second, Visser argues for “singling out the 2009 parliamentary elections as the key to reform and Iraq’s last chance to repair itself.” This advice ignores the failures of 2005, when the Bush administration based its Iraq policy on the premise that elections would serve as a panacea to the country’s violent power struggle. He further advocates that the United States somehow ensure free and fair elections by maintaining a large troop presence in Iraq. Again, if the United States could not accomplish free and fair elections in 2005 with equal numbers of troops, how will things go any different this time? Additionally, Visser posits that ensuring free and fair elections will somehow make the United States “quite immune against accusations of meddling in Iraqi affairs” when ensuring free and fair elections is precisely meddling in Iraqi affairs!
Moreover, Visser ignores his earlier critique of CAP’s strategy that Maliki has consolidated enough of a power base to resist reform. If Maliki indeed has consolidated such as base, will he not also be in a position to win even “free and fair” elections? In the end, Visser’s own recommendation to stick around Iraq just a bit longer -– echoed by so many in the Washington establishment -– suffers from the same problems he identifies with CAP’s strategy, only it provides no incentives whatsoever for Iraqi politicians to campaign or act on accommodationist platforms. It is no more than another attempt to “find the pony” in Iraq.