Special Report

Alternative Futures in Iraq

Vice President Cheney returns from Baghdad with sad news for his boss.

By 5.15.07

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The underlying objective of Gen. David Petraeus's plan to pacify the contested areas of Baghdad was to provide a more peaceful environment in which Iraqi politicians could come to agreement on key matters. High on the list were: the division of oil revenues, dismantling of militias, constitutional review, and return to productive life of former Baathists. Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Iraq last week to press these points home to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- and was stonewalled.

The Vice President had to be satisfied with simply making the White House views known in what has been referred to as "a forceful manner." In turn he was informed that even the two months of parliamentary summer vacation could not be changed.

It is doubtful, however, that even if the hardworking Cheney had been able to infuse the Iraqi politicians with his own "can do" spirit, they would have done anything more than continue the bickering that has characterized their efforts so far. Prime Minister al-Maliki has neither the political clout nor personality to ramrod the necessary steps through the legislature.

V.P. Cheney has returned to Washington with sad news for his boss. The now clearly stated target date of September for serious positive movement on the Iraq political scene seems increasingly beyond attainment unless there is an extraordinary change in the current state of security in Baghdad.

Dave Petraeus and his operational commander, Gen. Raymond Odierno, in spite of the delay in the arrival of the promised additional troops, are slowly tightening control of key Baghdad communities. The objective of the "surge" operation was to secure the city in such a manner as to be able to build a political consensus through a return to a peaceful environment. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear this will happen in the time frame consistent with the demanding American political clock.

In spite of putting on his best face, this is the judgment with which the Vice President has returned to Washington. As usual our troops are doing their job. General Petraeus has ventured everything on producing positive results in an impossible time frame. It wasn't his choice, but it is the political choice of the Democrat-controlled Congress aided by a clutch of war weary Republicans that undercuts a viable military strategy.

What then does the Administration do? There are several scenarios. The left end of the spectrum requires that we stop the pretense that the U.S. has a strong ally in Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi parliament. The American public would be told by the president that the U.S. no longer should act as the protector of Iraq from Iraq. Though clearly self-serving, the escape door already has been opened last week by the Iranian Dep. Foreign Minister offering to discuss future Iranian assistance in a non-precipitous withdrawal of American forces.

That opening could be pursued on a step-by-step basis with the assistance of the newly friendly French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Sunni governments of Saudi Arabia and Jordan would be called upon to act to reinforce Iraqi Sunni interests in essentially the same manner as the Iranians expect to do with the Shia.

The right's opposing scenario has the Pentagon shifting its force allocations and sending Dave Petraeus the additional number of troops he originally requested: 50-60,000, not the total of 30,000 that still won't be in place until sometime in June. Perhaps another 15,000 might be added for good measure. In addition, the gloves would have to be taken off intelligence operations and interrogation in dealing with al Qaeda. Eventually the Iranians would have to be confronted directly by establishing a cordon sanitaire on the border between Iraq and Iran, and Syria convinced to seriously police its frontier.

This approach of course would require a far greater political ability to influence Iraqi Shia and Sunni thinking than what exists now. The long-term assignment of substantial U.S. forces to stiffen even a better-trained Iraqi army would be necessary.

There are several alternative scenarios to these two on each end of the spectrum, but there just doesn't seem to be the political time any longer to mount anything more aggressive than what is currently being done under the current Petraeus plan. In this regard Secretary of Defense Gates opined, " The question is whether the level of violence is such that the political process can go forward in Iraq." Apparently the answer to this question that V.P. Cheney has brought back with him is less than positive.

When General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker do present their assessment in September, will there be the political will on either side of the aisle to accept their judgment and proceed to support it? One thing is certain: The American voters have their own timetable.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.