The Washington Post editorial board believes that a consensus may be emerging on Iraq. I assume that the consensus approach the editors proceed to describe is the one they expect Jim Baker’s group to recommend. It consists essentially of three prongs. First, talk to Iran, Syria and others in the hope of “forging an international consensus [that word again] on stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq.” Second, try to induce Iraqi leaders to negotiate compromises among warring Shiite and Sunni factions and to disarm ethnic militias. Third, move away from trying to pacify Baghdad, focus instead on fighting the Sunni-al Qaeda insurgency, and in doing so begin moving into more of a supporting role with the Iraqis increasingly in the lead.
As I have argued, the third prong deserves strong consideration since it may represent the only politically sustainable way for the U.S. to remain engaged in Iraq. The second prong is window-dressing. Even the Post concedes that “no amount of U.S. pushing [is likely to] produce political results or diminish the violence in Baghdad, at least in the short term.” Indeed, “the fighting might last years before a new order is established.”
Thr first prong — enlisting Iraq and Syria — is equally “pie-in-the-sky,” and one is tempted to think that no harm would come from following this recommendation, since its futility would soon become apparent. The problem with that temptation is at least two-fold. First, negotiations often take on a life of their own, especially when they are conducted by a Jim Baker type for whom getting a deal can become the true imperative. In that scenario, it may not matter how outrageous the negotiating postions of Iran and Syria are. Second, one fears that the real “imperative” has become getting out of Iraq under the cover of whatever fig-leaf we can grasp. If our “realist” dealmakers aren’t particularly concerned about passing the straight-face test, it won’t matter that the Syrians and Iranians aren’t either.
The real question, I think, is not whether consensus can be reached on some three-step plan; it’s whether an underlying consensus can be reached on a commitment not to give up entirely on Iraq. I’m not optimistic that such a consensus is possible. My hope is that a consensus doesn’t form around the opposite position.
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