Cordesman’s Survey of Options for Iraq: A Bleak yet Still Too Optimistic Picture


I will be on the “Sam Seder Show” on Air America Radio at 10:30 am EST today — chatting with Sam about all things foreign policy here from Vienna, Austria.
But on a less optimistic note, take everything that the normally unsentimental, cold-eyed Anthony Cordesman writes below and worsen it by an order of magnitude. Then you get my view.
Cordesman really does give the optimist’s last hope in the report he sent out today — and even that plants a bleaker than bleak picture. Cordesman is a must read.
I can’t post the survey itself but am happy to forward to those who request it by email:

A Survery of Options for Iraq: The Almost Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Anthony H. Cordesman

Cover Note
The US needs to act or it will be defeated in Iraq. Iraq is already in a state of serious civil war, and current efforts at political compromise and improving security at best are buying time. There is a critical risk that Iraq will drift into a major civil conflict over the coming months, see its present government fail, and/or divide or separate in some form.

The US cannot simply “stay the course,” and rely on its existing actions and strategy.
It needs new options to reverse the drift towards a major civil war and political failure. The military and police development effort falls far short of Department of Defense claims, must be reinforced and will take years to make fully successful. the economic aid and development program has failed, and new incentives are needed to offer any serious hope of Iraqi political compromise and conciliation.
The US cannot wait to see if its existing strategy and actions will work. They will not. The situation is spiraling out of control, and the US must either strongly reinforce its existing strategy or change it. It also needs detailed plans and options for “Plan B,” the possibility that it may have to withdraw its troops and possibly most or all of its civilian presence from Iraq.
The attached study surveys the options suggested to date, examines their risk-benefits. The options it examines range from options designed to make the current Coalition and Iraqi government strategy work to options for US withdrawal. Some options might well increase the odds of success. Many other options, however, set goals not only are probably unworkable, but would impose demands on US policy and Iraqi action that would make things worse and further erode the chances of success. The US must make hard choices between the almost good, the bad, and the ugly. to succeed, it must look beyond bright ideas, partisanship, and political rhetoric.

This survey also makes it clear that any meaningful level of success will be contingent on Iraqi actions, not those of the US or other outside powers.
No mix of options will allow the US to succeed unless Iraqis can succeed in creating a more effective form of political compromise that wins the support of most Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds; that the successful development of Iraqi security forces will take three to five years and not 18-24 months, and new initiatives are needed to provide economic incentives for unity. It also suggests that the US should avoid unilateral options and seek to negotiate new incentives with the Iraqi government and its allies.

No mix of options for US action can provide a convincing plan for “victory” in Iraq.
The initiative has passed into Iraqi hands. US and outside action can encourage progress towards political conciliation and compromise, and improved security, but cannot force it upon Iraq’s leaders or the Iraqi people. The US must also face the fact that the real world chances of emerging from the present crisis with anything approaching Iraqi stability, security, pluralism, and unity on any terms are at best even. Stripped of both optimistic spin and dire pessimism, the realities in Iraq offer hope and opportunity, but they cannot promise success.

It’s hard to imagine a worse picture than Cordeman paints — but it is worse.

— Steve Clemons


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