Following the President’s veto of the Iraq spending bill, Democrats have dropped their demands for pullout timetables. They are talking instead about imposing “benchmarks” to force the Iraqi government to pass an oil-sharing law, disarm sectarian militias, hold provincial elections, and take other important steps. The main dispute now centers on whether these benchmarks will be nonbinding or whether they will be tied to mandatory penalties, such as the cut-off of some U.S. funds.
That’s progress, I suppose. But the Democrats are undermining the prospects of achieving the reforms they claim to want by their insistent calls to start withdrawing U.S. troops ASAP.
Put yourself into the mind of a Kurdish, Sunni, or Shiite politician in Baghdad, and ask yourself this question: Would you be more willing to compromise if you think U.S. troops are in Iraq for the long term, or if you think they’re about to leave?
Hmmm. Let’s see. If the U.S. troops leave now, an all-out civil war is likely to erupt. It will be every man for himself. The nascent Iraqi Security Forces will probably splinter along sectarian lines, leaving Iraqis of all stripes to seek safety from extremist militias. It would be the Lebanese civil war on steroids.
If that’s likely to happen soon, what incentive do Iraqi politicians have to make concessions today to their mortal enemies? If they think the U.S. is seeking an exit strategy, they are far more likely to hunker down, keep their powder dry, and grab every advantage they can in order to give themselves an edge in the coming struggle.
Conversely, if Iraqis think that U.S. troops are in it for the long haul, they will become far less dependent on militias and may be willing to make the compromises necessary for national reconciliation. If U.S. troops, working with Iraqi forces, succeed in blunting the power of the extremist militias, this may create some breathing room for moderate political elements—and they do exist—to come to the fore. Chaos in the streets favors thugs like Moqtada al Sadr. If we can impose a period of calm, it might allow moderates like Ayatollah Sistani to reassert their influence.
In other words, the best bet for getting important legislation through the Iraqi parliament is to stick with General David Petraeus’s security plan. But the Democrats are undermining that plan with their calls for troop withdrawal. Even if American troops make gains on the ground in the next few months, it will be hard to convince most Iraqis to put their faith in the coalition and government forces as long as the message emanating from Washington is that our troops are about to head home.