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.
At its core, the “conditional engagement” strategy, as described in the report Shaping the Iraq Inheritance, 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 CNAS presents on Iraq; the core arguments of the CNAS suffer from four major internal inconsistencies and disconnections from key realities in Iraq and the Middle East.
1. The strategy of conditional engagement does not differ from the Bush administration’s current approach because it fails to clearly define — in precise terms — when the Iraq mission would be accomplished, and when U.S. troops could depart.
2. The strategy assumes that the carrots of continued military, economic, and political support are more appetizing then they are.
3. The strategy doesn’t describe how it would be implemented to achieve its stated ends, however vague those ends are.
4. The strategy is wedded to a narrow, bilateral, U.S.-Iraq prism at the expense of a broader regional view.
What these flaws ultimately reveal is an unrealistic vision for the future of the United States and Iraq, grounded in a narrow focus on U.S. military power as the main determinant of events on the ground. It ignores the complexities of Iraqi politics in favor of a simple military lever American leaders can pull to get the desired outcome. Ultimately, it is less a plan for achieving political progress in Iraq than it is a plan for staying in Iraq.