‘Conditional Engagement’ Based On Unfair And Unbalanced Framing Of U.S. Policy Options

Our guest bloggers are Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center.

(Parts one, two, three, and four in this series.)

We’ve already identified four substantive shortcomings with the Center for a New American Security’s ‘conditional engagement’ strategy for Iraq. Conditional engagement fails to define conditions for its own success, misreads internal Iraqi politics, fails to explain how its means would achieve its vague ends, and offers little more than a ‘checked box’ on regional diplomacy. Moreover, conditional engagement presents itself as the ‘alternative’ to the Bush-McCain Iraq strategy, when in reality it has much in common with that strategy.

CNAS attempts to present its paper as a ‘moderate’ strategy, conveniently situated between the clearly unsustainable conservative policy and supposedly ‘irresponsible’ plans for a clear redeployment. The phrase ‘sustainable stability,’ an apparent substitute for laying out a concrete end-state for a conditional engagement strategy, appears no fewer than seventeen times in the paper.


But the bulk of the effort to convince readers that conditional engagement is the only responsible way forward in Iraq rests largely on the shoulders of straw men. It pigeonholes competing Iraq strategies into an overly simple conceptual framework — namely whether or not ‘engagement’ or ‘disengagement’ is ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional.’ This move allows the report to split hairs between the Bush-McCain strategy and its own, while ignoring a fundamental strategic choice in Iraq: whether or not U.S. troops should ultimately leave Iraq in a specific time horizon, as an increasing number of Iraqi leaders — and a substantial majority of Iraqis themselves — would like.

At its core, the conditional engagement strategy as presently articulated is an empty shell positioned as a ‘moderate’ compromise between extremes. Either so-called conditional disengagement does not offer, in the authors’ view, the right incentives, or, as in ‘unconditional disengagement,’ it leads to a complete disaster of genocide and regional war.

In its discussion of ‘unconditional disengagement’ -– a position that seems to include most advocates of redeploying most or all U.S. troops from Iraq –- the report builds its finest straw man. The authors state that advocates of ‘unconditional disengagement’ believe “nothing the United States does in Iraq can be of positive and lasting value” or they simply hope against hope withdrawal will force Iraqis to settle their own political disputes.

This description mischaracterizes proponents of redeployment, in particular the Center for American Progress’s own Strategic Reset (pdf) plan. Perhaps that’s because the CAP strategy, along with most other redeployment or withdrawal proposals, doesn’t fit into the report’s neat boxes of ‘engagement’ and ‘disengagement.’ For example, while Strategic Reset advocates military disengagement from Iraq, it also advocates renewed political and economic engagement within Iraq, particularly at the local level.

As we’ve noted earlier, like most conservative plans on Iraq, the authors of the conditional engagement strategy seem to be fixated on military power at the expense of political, diplomatic, and economic tools. Since the United States obviously has the most capable military force in Iraq, it logically follows from this view that our military actions will be the primary determinant of the political out come there. In framing the question of American engagement in Iraq primarily in military terms, the CNAS report overlooks other means of engagement and mischaracterizes the positions of redeployment advocates.


Having found competing strategies either too hot or too cold, the authors come to the convenient conclusion that conditional engagement is the ‘just right’ policy for Iraq. Like its slim pickings on regional diplomacy, the report goes about evaluating alternatives backwards. It assumes conditional engagement is the preferred strategy, and goes about creating a scheme for evaluation from this faulty initial premise. Rather than evaluating strategies on the terms of conditional engagement, the report should have taken into consideration aspects broader than simply military components of U.S. power.