‘Conditional Engagement’: An Excuse To Stay In Iraq

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Earlier this spring, the Center for a New American Security issued an Iraq policy paper with an identity crisis, a paper that poses as an exit strategy but ultimately advocates a course of action that looks a lot like what the Bush administration and its conservative supporters have endorsed in Iraq.

Shaping the Iraq Inheritance builds upon the core prescriptions of an initial CNAS Iraq report (pdf) released in June 2007. At its core, the “conditional engagement” strategy, as described in the report, tries to carve out a “moderate middle” dependent on simplistic renderings of competing policy proposals on the left and the right. But it is important not to get distracted by the framing mechanism of the four options CNAS presents on Iraq (unconditional engagement, conditional engagement, conditional disengagement, and unconditional disengagement); the core arguments of the CNAS suffer from internal inconsistencies and disconnections from key realities in Iraq and the Middle East.

Although the conditional engagement strategy has thus far attracted little public attention in the Iraq debate, it is worth taking some time to offer constructive criticisms on the proposal in order to more realistically assess U.S. options in Iraq. In a series of posts over the next few days, we’ll offer commentary on the key shortcomings of the CNAS conditional engagement strategy:


1. Conditional engagement does not differ from the Bush administration’s current approach because it fails to define the conditions that would enable U.S. troops to depart Iraq.

The fundamental problem with the conditional engagement strategy is that it fails to clearly define — in precise terms — when the Iraq mission would be accomplished, and when U.S. troops could depart. In a telling chart on page 42, the report stakes out a position that places the strategy in the same space as the current Bush administration policy — supported by most conservatives — a “conditions based” drawdown of troops where the conditions are never really defined beyond vague terms like “accommodation” and “sustainable security.” Two key questions conditional engagement fails to answer are:

– What kind of Iraq does the conditional engagement strategy envision as an end state?

– What are the likely costs — in terms of financial resources, personnel, and time — for pursuing those goals in Iraq?

The report outlines certain important policy goals — “Integrating Sons of Iraq,” “Passing Hydrocarbons Legislation,” and “Bolstering Government Legitimacy Through Elections,” to name just three — but it never fully describes how its proposed means would achieve these ends, and more importantly how that success might translate into the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This shortcoming — failing to precisely define “success” or the desired outcomes of continued engagement — whether conditional or unconditional — makes this the latest in a long list of Iraq strategies merely looking for excuses to stay. The difference here, of course, is that conditional engagement is being presented as a “responsible” exit strategy, with all of the requisite criticisms aimed at positioning it away from the current one.


But ultimately, conditional engagement looks a lot like the current Iraq strategy, something the report ironically acknowledges even as it criticizes the conservative approach on Iraq. According to the report, “The debate [among Anbari sheikhs] sparked by the Democratic victory [in the 2006 elections] helped convince the Anbaris that U.S. troops were not staying forever.” In effect, the prospect of a near-future U.S. withdrawal created the conditions under which tribal leaders could successfully turn their guns on al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups.

Conditional engagement ignores the extent to which the United States has articulated the message that the United States’ commitment to Iraq is not indefinite. Since the 2006 elections, high-ranking Bush administration officials have repeatedly reminded Iraqi leaders that public and Congressional patience had worn thin. President Bush himself told the nation in January 2007 that he “made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited Congressional attempts to force withdrawal to show Iraqi leaders that American patience was running out. Similarly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repeatedly called these efforts “helpful in bringing pressure to bear on the Maliki government and on the Iraqis in knowing that there is a very real limit to American patience in this entire enterprise.”

Using Congressional and public pressure to end the war as a stick, the administration offered continued engagement and support as a carrot for political progress. Unfortunately, according to a recent GAO report (pdf), such progress has not been forthcoming despite the passage of a handful of laws outlined as “benchmarks” by the U.S. Congress. Interestingly, in critically assessing Iraqi government progress on benchmark legislation, Colin Kahl, one of the authors of the CNAS report, wryly observed that “passing a law with the same name as a benchmark is not the same thing as meeting that benchmark.” Kahl failed to recognize, however, that conditional engagement creates incentives for just that sort of legislation: Grandly titled but ultimately ineffective laws that do little to achieve their stated purpose.

Because the strategy’s core objectives are never more precisely defined beyond “sustainable security” and “accommodation,” the bottom line on “conditional engagement” is that it reads more like an argument for staying in Iraq rather than a serious attempt to re-balance our overall national security priorities and put Iraq in its proper place.

More to follow.