Kerry on Iraq

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I was all prepared to like John Kerry’s advice to George Bush on Iraq in the New York Times today, and much of it is sound if sprinkled with, perhaps, wishful thinking. But this part is just wrong:

[Bush] should also say [in his speech tonight] that the United States will insist that the Iraqis establish a truly inclusive political process and meet the deadlines for finishing the Constitution and holding elections in December. We’re doing our part: our huge military presence stands between the Iraqi people and chaos, and our special forces protect Iraqi leaders. The Iraqis must now do theirs.

As the International Crisis Group has detailed, there is no conceivable way that the Iraqis can hammer out a constitution by this August 15 deadline—and if the constitution is done hastily, or wrong, or ineptly, that will create far greater problems in the country than we’re seeing now. There is a clause in the interim law that allows the government to extend the constitutional drafting process until February 15, 2006; that seems like a reasonable extension, but if the Iraqis need longer, they should be able to take longer. A constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if not everyone’s happy with it. It’s also curious that Kerry thinks the insurgency will fade away if a constitution is drafted; honestly, the last thing we need is more wishful thinking that all Iraq’s problems will fade away with yet another milestone. Remember how the handover was supposed to solve everything? The January 30 elections?

At any rate, Kerry’s big idea here—besides bringing international troops in, which may or may not work—is to set firm deadlines for withdrawal. In general, I think this is the wrong idea; at the very least, a drawdown of this sort, done before certain military goals are achieved, needs to be accompanied by a reduction in those goals, as Daniel Byman has warned. If the Army is really on the verge of breaking and/or the Iraqis want us out, then a withdrawal will happen, otherwise, it can only happen if we’re willing to acknowledge that a stable and democratic Iraq is not a feasible goal. There’s no use straddling this point. It is not at all likely that a national security force can be trained in six months, as Kerry hopes, and if the government does decide to rely heavily on Shiite militias and Kurdish peshmerga for security, then Afghanistan-style “organized anarchy” is in the cards for the future. Not democracy or pleasant stability.

At any rate, I still prefer Kerry thinking seriously about the problem to a president still stuck in denial about Iraq, even if the Democrat’s ideas are painfully misguided. The truth, I guess, is that there are no bright ideas for Iraq. Sometimes you are just screwed. Either the U.S. stays on for years and hopes it can muddle through the reconstruction phase, or withdraws prematurely and hopes the region doesn’t disintegrate and implode. As such, I’d be less interested in hearing bright ideas from the president tonight and more keen on hearing him say what, exactly, he hopes to achieve in Iraq—including whether he expects the United States to keep permanent military bases in the country—and why, exactly, he believes those goals can or cannot be met. But over the past four years we’ve yet to hear anything remotely honest from George Bush, which is why I’m not even going to bother watching the speech.

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