To the Incoming President: On Iraq

To: The New President
From: The National Security Adviser
Date: January 21, 2009

On may 1, 2003, president George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" and triumphantly proclaimed the beginning of a new era in America's relations with the Middle East. As Bush and his advisers worked to define this new era, they rejected the regional strategy launched by another American president on the deck of another U.S. warship: Effectively, Bush repudiated the "oil for security" bargain struck by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Saudi Arabian King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945, as a 60-year mistake. Bush's alternative strategy posited that a "free" Iraq, liberated by U.S. military power, would serve as a beacon in the heart of the Middle East for the development of liberal, and therefore pro-American, regimes throughout the region.

Today, almost six years after the invasion of Iraq, the failures of the Bush strategy are all too apparent, in Iraq and the region more generally. These failures dogged Republican presidential candidates throughout the election campaign, and they played a major role in putting you, a Democrat, in the White House. As your presidency begins, the biggest challenge facing you is figuring out how to strike a new bargain in the Middle East that will extricate the United States from its Iraq quagmire while simultaneously reshaping the region's geopolitical balance along lines favorable to U.S. interests.

Original Sins

The principal reason why Bush's Iraq project failed was not tactical mistakes in prewar planning and postwar occupation but fundamental strategic flaws. Bush believed that our decades-long emphasis on stability, and our corresponding tolerance for authoritarian regimes in America's Middle East policy, had incubated the jihadist threat embodied in al-Qaeda. The primary objective of his post–September 11 campaign, with the Iraq War as its signature initiative, was to remake the region -- both its interstate balance of power and its prevailing modes of governance.

But Osama bin Laden and the trust-fund terrorists of 9-11 did not attack the United States because of authoritarian repression in Saudi Arabia or their hatred of our way of life. Rather, they attacked -- as Robert Pape has persuasively documented in his data-rich study Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism -- in reaction to prolonged deployments of U.S. ground forces in Arab countries, deployments that (well before the invasion of Iraq) caused the United States to be seen as an occupier. America's invasion and occupation of Iraq played right into bin Laden's hands, making the terrorist threat worse than before. And coupled with Bush's disdain for managing shifting geopolitical balances to create a stable strategic environment in the Middle East, the Iraq War has weakened America's regional position in multiple ways.

With a Democrat now in the White House, it is important to recognize how frequently Democrats embraced the same strategic misconceptions as the Bush administration: that the United States can maintain a substantial military presence on the ground in the Middle East (as opposed to naval forces and "over the horizon" long-distance forces stationed outside the region) without paying political and security costs; that forging strategic partnerships with important Arab states does not really matter in the regional balance of power; and that the United States does not have to let balance-of-power considerations affect its dealings with problematic states like Iran and Syria. Remember that it was Bill Clinton's administration that introduced "backlash states" (an early version of the "axis of evil") into the vocabulary of American foreign policy; imposed economic sanctions on Iran; and, in 1998, first defined the aim of U.S. policy toward Iraq as "regime change." Consider also the slow decline in U.S.–Egyptian and U.S.–Saudi relations during Clinton's tenure.

In the post–9-11 period, Democratic foreign-policy "experts" in think tanks and the punditocracy overwhelmingly supported Bush's facile assertion that the United States could uproot an authoritarian regime ruling over a complex, internally divided country in the heart of a strategically critical and volatile region -- and somehow, in the process, make that region "better" while also enhancing America's strategic standing. America's recovery from the Iraq debacle will require rejecting the platitudes of neoconservative fellow travelers who audaciously present themselves as part of the Democratic Party's "national-security wing." Recovery will require disciplined strategic reflection and calculation on your part, not only about Iraq but about the region as a whole.

Hard Realities

Many observers, here and abroad, expected that the Democratic victory in the 2006 congressional elections would prompt the Bush administration to change course in Iraq. Certainly, Democratic endorsement of the Iraq Study Group recommendations provided President Bush with political cover to substantially reconfigure the American role there.

Instead, Bush offered up the "surge," augmenting the U.S. military presence in Iraq by almost 30,000 troops during the first half of 2007. The surge grew out of a dubious proposition: that the deployment of additional U.S. troops would improve the security situation just enough to buy sufficient time and "space" for Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni politicians to reach, within a few months, substantive compromises on the most intractable issues of post–Saddam Hussein politics that had been dividing their communities since 2003.

But the additional manpower that the White House was able to wring from the Pentagon was too small to make a sustained, positive impact on the ground. By the end of 2007, it was apparent that Iraq was continuing its slow slide into communal -- especially Sunni-Shia -- civil war. Under mounting congressional and public pressure to draw down the U.S. military presence, Bush ordered token withdrawals during 2008, citing as justification various flimsy statistical indicators of short-term "progress" in improving security in different parts of Iraq. But for all intents and purposes, he stayed the course through the end of his tenure.

Thus, you come to office with roughly 100,000 American soldiers still in harm's way in Iraq, stuck in a worsening security environment. Bush's strategy was even more profoundly flawed -- and leaves you even larger policy challenges -- when it came to Iraqi political dynamics. The strategy rested on a pair of underlying assumptions about post-Hussein Iraq: that there was a truly national union to be forged in Baghdad on important economic and political issues, and that the United States could induce Iraq's Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni communities to negotiate such a union in accordance with a set of benchmarks defined in Washington. These assumptions were inextricably bound up with the Bush administration's faith-based advocacy of democratization for the region.

In fact, though, Iraq's three major ethnic and sectarian groups have failed to reach compromises on important issues, not because they are unwilling but because they are unable to do so. Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni politicians cannot reconcile positions that are fundamentally irreconcilable, and no measure of U.S. exhortation or coercion will change that reality.

The dominant tendencies in Iraqi politics today are regionalist, not centralist. The Kurdish political establishment insisted on the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan region as part of the original post-Hussein constitution, and the Kurdistan regional government has begun to develop what is, in effect, a separate Kurdish oil industry. Among Iraq's Shia, the most powerful political current today is not Muqtada al-Sadr's centralist populism; it's regionalism.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), with the increasingly apparent backing of Iran, advocates formation of an autonomous "Shiastan" region out of nine southern provinces (which would contain some of Iraq's most important hydrocarbon assets), while the Fadhila Party is pushing for a smaller, three-province region that local politicians in Basra believe they could dominate. Even among Iraqi Sunnis, long considered the most committed defenders of centralism, the reality of Kurdish and Shia regionalism -- and the spreading perception that central and western provinces contain larger hydrocarbon reserves than previously estimated -- is generating a rising interest in a potential Sunni federal region.

The American focus on national reconciliation clearly runs counter to these trends, which has negative consequences for the security and political situations. In particular, the emphasis on capacity building for the central government has provided a widely accepted rationale for American efforts to bolster "national" security forces in Iraq -- efforts that the Iraq Study Group and most prominent Democrats agreed should be a priority mission for U.S. military personnel. But the unpleasant truth is that the United States is not creating national-security forces in Iraq. To this day, U.S. security-assistance programs train primarily single-sect units: Iraqi military units are almost exclusively Shia or Kurdish in composition, and this problem of sectarian identities within individual units is even more pronounced in security forces attached to the Iraqi interior ministry.

The results have been utterly predictable. In an ongoing communal civil war, trying to create a national-security apparatus while giving certain communities privileged standing in that apparatus is not simply going to fail; that kind of disguised sectarianism will only make the security situation dramatically worse -- pouring gasoline on the already raging fire of communal violence. Iraqization is the functional equivalent of empowering Bosnian Muslim forces to provide "security" in the Serb areas of Bosnia a decade ago. The only plausible way to stand up indigenous security forces in Iraq is on a regional -- and openly sectarian -- basis.

In the face of these increasingly assertive realities, the Bush administration, to the end of its tenure, pursued an approach to political reconstitution in Iraq based on the illusion of national reconciliation. Over the course of 2007, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's "national unity" government was increasingly stressed by the departure of Sadrist Shia and Sunni parliamentarians from the ruling coalition. During 2008, Maliki barely managed to hold his position through a series of parliamentary and political crises, but neither he nor the centralist model will likely survive parliamentary elections to be held later this year. The most probable outcome of those elections will be a governing coalition of Islamist Shia -- dominated by SCIRI -- and the main Kurdish bloc. This coalition will be strongly committed to the creation of a southern Shiastan region, maximizing the autonomy of regional governments vis-à-vis Baghdad and developing Iraq's oil and gas industry along regional rather than national lines.

Options and Trade-offs

Given these prospects, a revised American policy in Iraq should aim to leverage the transition from centralism to regionalism to bring about a new regional bargain in the Middle East. This obviously requires a different approach to political reconstitution in Iraq. It also requires strategically grounded diplomacy to draw other actors into closer cooperation with the United States, since striking the intra- and cross-communal deals that would enable such a settlement within Iraq necessitates the application of positive and negative leverage by influential regional states, including Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others.

Pursuing a different approach to post-Hussein political reconstitution and engaging in more robust regional diplomacy will, of necessity, be linked to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. You have committed yourself (and you are under enormous domestic pressure) to begin a drawdown almost immediately. Military withdrawal is also indispensable to repairing America's strategic position in the Middle East -- which requires, among other things, a return to an over-the-horizon military posture, with naval forces providing a constant presence and equipment pre-positioned in the region to support the deployment of ground forces in the event of a crisis.

As you work to recast the American posture in Iraq, what options are available? In broad terms, the Democratic campaign for the 2008 election highlighted three discrete alternatives.

Phased Redeployment. One option is, in essence, the course sketched out in the Iraq Study Group report: a phased redeployment that removes U.S. combat forces from Iraq while leaving a residual force to train Iraqi security forces and strike at al-Qaeda elements as they are detected. As noted, Democrats generally supported the study-group recommendations, and several Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama offered versions of "phased redeployment."

While this option appears measured and minimizes exposure to Republican charges of cutting and running, it is simply not in sync with the regionalist realities of Iraqi politics. In theory, phased redeployment could be linked to either a centralist or regionalist model; in practice, the versions presented by Democratic presidential candidates all prolong U.S. attachment to centralist illusions -- in particular, by committing a residual U.S. force to support further "Iraqization" of security forces (though that will only increase the number of people killed in ethnic and sectarian violence).

Moreover, drawing down the American presence in Iraq might reduce the incidence of U.S. casualties, but any residual forces there will continue to be unwitting recruiters for the jihadist cause. The idea that residual ground forces are needed to strike al-Qaeda is misguided. Conventional forces are unsuited to quick-response missions against unconventional threats. The military has typically not relied on such forces to strike important terrorist targets in Iraq or Afghanistan; when ground units have succeeded in killing or capturing high-profile al-Qaeda figures, they have done so in firefights with terrorists who have effectively been acting as conventional forces. The most effective military options against terrorist leaders are tactical aircraft and "standoff" systems such as cruise missiles, which can be deployed from ships, and special forces, which can be deployed either from the sea or from bases in non-Arab countries such as Turkey, where the U.S. military presence is less likely to engender local terrorist activity.

Withdraw and Contain. A second option is to withdraw U.S. military units from Iraq as quickly as is logistically and tactically prudent, then redeploy some ground forces to nearby bases -- most likely in Kuwait -- to contain regional "spillover" from heightened communal violence inside Iraq. This is, in essence, the strategy advocated by former Senator John Edwards during his presidential campaign.

While this option has the virtue of ending the morally offensive sacrifice of American military personnel in the pursuit of unachievable ends, it has two serious deficiencies. First, unless one is concerned about the projection of conventional military power from Iraq -- hardly a probable scenario -- placing U.S. ground forces in Kuwait or elsewhere in the neighborhood is not likely to contain very much. Second, the experience of stationing a sizable contingent of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia -- from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- refutes the notion that moving U.S. soldiers from Iraq to Kuwait would mitigate local perceptions of the United States as an occupying power. Redeployed American soldiers would continue to serve as catalysts for anti-Americanism and recruitment of jihadist cadres.

Soft Partition. A third option is soft partition: Accept the post-Hussein realities and shift to a regionalist approach, with each of Iraq's three major communities assuming a demographically and politically dominant role in one of three relatively autonomous regions -- Kurds in the north, Shia in the south and east, and Sunnis in the west -- and with Baghdad designated as a federal zone. During the presidential campaign, the most ardent advocate of soft partition was Senator Joseph Biden, who has argued since 2006 that the goal of national reconciliation in Iraq is unattainable. Under Biden's plan, the transition to a decentralized Iraq would be coordinated with a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country and would entail robust diplomatic efforts by the United States with Iraq's neighbors and other players, including convening an international conference and creating a contact group to oversee implementation of soft partition.

Biden is correct that a decentralized state with strongly autonomous regions is the only sustainable long-term political outcome in Iraq, and that getting there will require other states in the region to apply positive and negative leverage. But this option has two significant deficiencies, one strategic and the other tactical, that need filling in before it can work.

At a strategic level, soft partition as presented by Biden does not in itself offer a springboard for the robust regional diplomacy required to achieve a decentralized and stable Iraq. In blunt terms, what is the incentive for Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia to spend money, political capital, and other resources to broker an Iraqi settlement that the United States could endorse? Biden argues that Iran and other regional states will cooperate because instability in Iraq threatens their interests. But these states are already positioning themselves to defend their interests in Iraq unilaterally, as the United States flounders. Biden believes that, in the end, regional actors will need to bail the United States out in Iraq, but this is faith-based foreign policy on a Bush-like scale. At this stage, Middle Eastern states will cooperate with a U.S.–defined agenda for stabilizing Iraq only if their cooperation is part of a broader grand bargain. In other words, the United States will have to give them other reasons to cooperate.

Incentivizing regional cooperation on Iraq will require the United States, before convening an international conference on Iraq or establishing a contact group, to open broad-based strategic dialogues with relevant regional players, including Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

With Iran, the United States should convey its interest in comprehensive rapprochement, through which Tehran would not only cooperate in Iraq but also accept meaningful restraints on its nuclear activities and abandon its support for the terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah. In return, the United States would commit itself not to use force to change Iran's borders or form of government. It would pledge to lift unilateral sanctions and normalize bilateral relations, and to acknowledge a legitimate regional role for Iran.

For Damascus, Washington will need to lay out a "road map" for rebuilding U.S.–Syrian relations, based on reciprocal U.S. and Syrian commitments on economic, political, and strategic issues.

And for Saudi Arabia, the United States will need to be prepared for a serious conversation about modifying U.S. policies on Persian Gulf security and Arab-Israeli peacemaking to recognize Saudi interests and initiatives. At a tactical level, implementing the soft partition while avoiding significant ethnic and communal violence will be both a military and political challenge. The only potentially feasible solution is to deploy a multinational force -- authorized by the United Nations Security Council, organized by either the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and backed by U.S. logistics and transport capabilities -- to patrol regional borders inside Iraq, secure transit corridors between regions, and provide a security umbrella in Baghdad. An international conference on stabilizing Iraq would need to define this force's composition and mandate, while working to secure an accord among Iraqi political leaders on the details of soft partition.

Embarking on such an ambitious diplomatic agenda would be daunting under any circumstances. However, to have a viable recovery strategy in Iraq, you must launch this multipronged campaign urgently. Given the clear imperative to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, you must elicit cooperation on a regional deal for soft partition -- before you have gone so far down the road of a military withdrawal that America's relevance to Iraq's future becomes questionable.

By taking these steps, the United States would not only extricate itself from Iraq; it would also forge a new strategic compact for the Middle East. In 1945, President Roosevelt wisely understood the imperative for such a compact. Though not perfect, his oil-for-security bargain assured the free flow of oil that has fueled six decades of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity around the world; extended as a "peace for security" bargain to Egypt in the 1970s, this framework also safeguarded Israel's survival. President Bush rashly devalued and largely discarded his predecessors' approach. Only a new and broader bargain between the United States and key Middle Eastern states can now bring security and stability to the most strategically critical region in the world.