I criticized Colin Kahl’s “Conditional Engagement” Foreign Affairs article for not really grappling with the regional dimensions of the Iraq situation, but but the longer report on Iraq he wrote with Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley for CNAS does go into. I largely agree with what they have to say on that subject with the perhaps not-so-minor proviso that in other sections of the paper they define curbing Iranian influence as one of our objectives there.
To me the point of regional diplomacy would be to get beyond a situation where the US and Iran see each other as engaged in a zero-sum conflict over influence in Iraq. At the moment, both countries want to see Iraq stabilized. But Iran wants to curb US influence in Iraq. And the US wants to curb Iranian influence in Iraq. And as long as Iraq’s most important neighbor and the global hegemon are both contending for influence in Iraq, it’s hard to see how Iraq can be stable even if both the U.S. and Iran have a second-order desire to Iraq a stable Iraq.
In other thoughts inspired by the report, the fact that the security gains in Iraq have sustained themselves longer than I would have guessed several months ago had lulled me into a bit of complacency. But the checklist of things the CNAS trio wants to see happen in Iraq is a stark reminder that despite the improvement there are literally dozens of ways in which the situation might fall apart again with or without our involvement. The report also helped clarify my thinking on where I disagree with the authors. In particular, I’m much more inclined to what they call “conditional disengagement” — which would basically focus on heading for the exits but with the proviso that any responsible leader would have to be open to modifying that plan under certain conditions.
Conditional engagement as CNAS lays it out could work, and certainly seems preferable to the Bush/McCain stay forever policy, but to me it’s still unduly invested in the idea that the United States should be risking a lot of people’s lives (and spending a lot of money and killing people, etc.) in an effort to micromanage the politics of Iraq in a way where I think the prospects for success aren’t great and the American interest is hazy.