Iraq After the Surge

The U.S. Institute of Peace report, Iraq After the Surge, that’s been bouncing around the web is notable, as Marc Lynch observes, for putting American strategic interests back where they belong, at the heart of any analysis of policy going forward. A thought that didn’t make the final cut of yesterday’s post on the competing narratives of the Surge is how both advocates and opponents shape its success or failure to defend their policy position.

The U.S.I.P. report, on the other hand, identifies five core strategic goals for Iraq outcomes:
-Platform for terrorism;
-U.S. military capacity and credibility;
-Regional stability;
-Iranian influence;
-Single Iraqi state.

It then assesses the impact of three global policy options on those interests:
-Total, unconditional commitment (present policy);
-Reduced, conditional commitment;
-Unconditional disengagement.

Now, there’s some room for debate about the policy options, and the strategic interests, and I’d be interested in any reader feedback regarding any strategic interests they left out, or any creative hybrid policy proposals they might have overlooked. Reasonable people could also disagree about some of their outcome assessments. For instance, I’ve always found the argument that American withdrawal will give Iran a free hand in shaping a Tehran-leaning Shiite state unconvincing, when the various Shiite militias (all of whom Iran supports and supplies to varying degrees) are all out for each others’ blood. It’s like saying that Colombian drug dealers would somehow benefit from the LAPD withdrawing from South Central, when a more likely outcome would be a bloody, market-dampening gang war.

But the value of the U.S.I.P.’s approach is that it demonstrates the ways in which Iraq outcomes and American strategic interests form a complex matrix. No single policy maximizes outcomes across the board, which points to the obvious need to prioritize our strategic interests. For the recent past, the debate over the Iraq War has pretty much pitted those who emphasize the terrorist threat and Iranian influence against those who emphasize regional stability and the toll on the American military and treasury. Eventually, we’ll need to find a way to arbitrate those two diverging visions.

The report’s shortcoming is the way in which, by its very nature, it isolates the variables to Iraq. Any of the options, for instance, when combined with a credible and effective push for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a higher positive outcome for regional stability.

But it’s worth a read, since it offers a strategic approach that has until now been painfully absent from the debate.