President Bush's decision to increase troop strength in Iraq is aimed at helping Iraqi authorities crack down on sectarian violence so that the Shi'ia-led government can move forward with power sharing arrangements with the Sunni minority. The willingness of the Shi'ia majority to make the compromises necessary remains in question.
Two Middle East experts offered a pessimistic assessment of the future of Iraq at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. They presented their views as lawmakers consider whether to support non-binding resolutions expressing opposition to President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq.
Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dennis Ross, former U.S. Middle East peace envoy under President Clinton, predict years of sectarian violence in Iraq before the majority Shi'ia-led government and minority Sunnis are prepared to make the compromises necessary for a stable, unity government.
Despite his pessimism, Haas says there are reasons to argue in favor of President Bush's decision to send another 21,500 troops to Iraq.
"One is the possibility that it may work, that it may provide the time and space for Iraqi authorities to introduce power and revenue sharing and improve the quality of Iraq's military and police," says Haas. "And the second argument in principle in favor of a surge is that if it fails, if it fails to turn things around, and Iraq descends further into chaos, it will help make clear that the onus for Iraq's failure falls on the Iraqis themselves. And such a perception would be less costly, all things being equal, for our reputation than a judgment that Iraq was lost because of a lack of American staying power."
But Haas says there is a far greater downside to the troop increase plan. And that, he says, involves the degree to which the Iraqi government is willing to make political compromises.
"The premise behind it seems to be that all the Iraqi government requires is few months to get its house in order. But if the Iraqis were prepared to do what was needed, a surge would not be necessary. And if they are not willing to do what is called for, a surge would not be enough. This to me suggests what may be the fundamental flaw implicit in the new policy. The U.S. goal is to work with the Iraqis to establish a functioning democracy, in which the interests and rights of minorities are protected. But the goal of the Iraqi government is different. It appears to be to establish a country in which the rights and interests of the Shi'ia majority are protected above all else," says Haas.
Will More Troops Work?
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing ahead of his confirmation by the full Senate as top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus said he believes the president's plan for a troop increase can work to restore order so that the Iraqi government can establish its authority.
Petraeus testified that the United States would know by later summer if the plan to clear contested neighborhoods of insurgents and militias, hold them with American and Iraqi security forces and win public support through reconstruction was working. He said he would raise the issue of suspending troop reinforcements with his military superiors if the Iraqi government appears not to live up to its commitments.
President Bush has expressed confidence that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will make good on commitments to crack down on militias and give minority Sunnis a greater role in government.
But former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iraqi leaders -- at least at this point -- do not appear to be ready to change their behavior.
"In the case of the Sunnis, they have not made the emotional adjustment to being, in a sense, subordinate to the Shi'ia," says Ross. "In the case of the Shi'ia, the Shi'ia operate on the premise that they are a majority, but they could lose their power at any moment. Because they fear that, they continue to act the way they do."
Ross suggests the best outcome to hope for in Iraq is one that follows the Bosnia example: dividing the country into autonomous Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish areas under a central Baghdad government. He says the displacement of large numbers of Iraqis as a result of the fighting is gradually making that scenario a reality.
"The fact that you have got 100,000 Iraqis a month being displaced says that you are already having population transfers taking place, unfortunately in the worst circumstances. So maybe you try to make a virtue of necessity," says Ross.
Richard Haas disagrees, saying that scenario presupposes that Iraqi leaders are willing to compromise.
"The reason why I am not comfortable with the Bosnian solution is that it may reflect the changing demographic realities, that ethnic cleansing - call it what you will -- is going on in a daily, hourly basis now. I do not believe that creates the basis for an enduring, political and economic framework. Quite honestly, the Sunni minority is not going to
be content. It is not simply a physical question; it is a control over the sharing of resources, sharing of political power and so forth. So unless there is a major political conversion by the majority, it can't simply be a narrow, territorial or demographic solution, which is where the Bosnian parallel, I believe, does not work."
Ross agrees that the Bosnian example cannot work without compromise, but is pessimistic about the alternative.
"The alternative may well be, which is what I have also feared, we may see a 15-year civil war -- a 15-year civil war -- and at that time there may be a level of exhaustion where everybody wakes up and says "all right, now we will agree to some basis of sharing the oil revenues, we will have some kind of extensive autonomy within the provinces, we will have a central government with limited powers," says Ross.
The Threat of Regional Conflict
But Haas argues that may actually be the best outcome that the United States can hope for in Iraq -- that is, for U.S. troops to help keep sectarian violence from spilling over the borders to create a regional war.
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"The idea that the best we can help manage is an Iraq where civil conflict goes on for several years or longer is not a very attractive thing to say before this or any committee. That said, it is my analysis that that is the best outcome, or the least bad outcome, let's be honest about it, that we can realistic hope for."
In the meantime, Haas recommends that the United States redeploy troops to border areas, focus on training the Iraqi military and police, continue working with local leaders to forge compromise and step up diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors.
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