The Next Iraq Debate

Quietly, but unmistakably, the debate over Iraq shifted significantly last week. First came a non-binding sense of Congress amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, introduced by Joe Biden, that passed the US Senate 75-23 on Wednesday. The Biden Amendment urges support for “an Iraqi political settlement based on federalism.” Next came Thursday’s Democratic debate, in which Tim Russert asked the candidates if they would pledge to, if elected, have all troops out of Iraq by January of 2013. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama nor John Edwards would do so, though all of them promised a significantly reduced troop presence. Taken in reverse order, these things mean that:

  • The debate over a complete withdrawal from Iraq is over, and the doves lost. It actually wasn’t news that all of the top-tier Democratic candidates favor leaving some troops — albeit a relatively small number of them — in Iraq, but it was striking to see the candidates all acknowledge that, even at the end of a full term in office, they can’t promise to pull out completely. Some people may still think that the best thing would be to get every last American soldier and marine out of Iraq, but the next president is not going to agree.
  • Support for some kind of devolution of political power in Iraq from the national government to regional governments is becoming the consensus position in Washington.

The plan that Biden himself supports, co-authored by Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, explicitly involves a drawdown of troops, just as the frontrunners’ plans do. (Clinton voted for the Biden Amendment; Obama missed the vote, but his office has said he would most likely have voted for it, too.) Specifically, the Biden-Gelb plan calls for “withdraw[ing] and re-deploy[ing] almost all U.S. forces from Iraq” within a year, but keeping “a small residual force — perhaps 20,000 troops — to strike any concentration of terrorists, help keep Iraq’s neighbors honest and train its security forces.”

The Biden Amendment did not include this part of the Biden-Gelb plan; if it had, it’s highly unlikely that it would have received the support of half the Republican caucus. The Biden Amendment is a minor rebuke to the Bush administration, which clings to the hope that the government in Baghdad can rise to the challenges before it, but few Republicans are willing to firmly oppose the White House on the topic of troop levels — witness the easy defeat of efforts by Congressional Democrats to hamstring the troop surge.

There happens to be a somewhat different, and far more detailed, plan for soft partition, as presented in a paper for the Brookings Institution by Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon. Where the Biden-Gelb plan involves empowering regional governments primarily through diplomatic pressure, Joseph and O’Hanlon envision a much larger role for US troops in implementing a soft partition. In their plan, US troops would continue with population-protection operations (particularly in ethnically- and religiously-heterogenous areas), run convoys to relocate some populations from heterogenous to homogenous areas, and help set up security check-points along internal borders. They write that “it is better to err on the side of too many troops, not too few” and argue that safely implementing a soft partition would require around 150,000 troops — close to current levels — for 12 to 18 months, with roughly 50,000 troops staying in Iraq for several years thereafter.

Barring a major political breakthrough in Baghdad, a soft partition offers the best hope for stability in Iraq, and the support it commands in Washington is likely to keep growing. The Democratic nominee for president has probably already endorsed something like it. The Republican nominee is likely to do so, too, as he’ll have to present an argument that he can finish the job that the Bush administration could not.

Those who are eager to reduce the American footprint in Iraq, which includes most Democrats, are likely to favor something close to the Biden-Gelb plan, which promises immediate troop reductions. Those with serious qualms about the potential consequences of a speedy drawdown, which includes most Republicans, are likely to prefer something like the Brookings plan, in which American troops take an active role in laying the groundwork for success. These are the contours of the next Iraq debate. The presidential candidates should be prepared to engage it.

John Tabin is a columnist for Brainwash.

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