Consensus on Iraq Exists – Build on It

Monterey County Herald, May 13, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta

In the recent battle over funding of the war in Iraq, both the president and the Congress have made clear to the country that they can effectively check each other and get nothing done. We know they can fight, but can they govern?

To arrive at a consensus on Iraqi strategy, both will have to do something that neither has been willing to do in the current partisan warfare — set aside the politics of divide and conquer, and take the risks of leadership.

The history of this country has been built on leaders willing to make tough decisions for what they believed was right for America.

President Reagan worked with a Democratic Congress to save Social Security. The first President Bush worked with a Democratic Congress to enact the 1990 Budget Agreement to reduce deficits. President Clinton worked with a Republican Congress to enact welfare reform.

This nation is at its best when leaders are willing to work together to find solutions. It is at its worst when they are locked in mindless gridlock, distrust and stubbornness. This appears to be the case with Iraq.

For the president, instead of working to bring the country together in the face of a worsening situation in Iraq, he rejected the bipartisan recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and decided on a “surge” of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops. He attacked the Democrats for setting a target for troop withdrawal, saying it was the equivalent of defeat and an attempt to second-guess the military commanders.

The reality is that before the “surge,” none of the top military commanders — from Gen. John Abizaid to Gen. George Casey to Gen. Peter Pace — supported sending more troops to Iraq. As an American general told the Iraq Study Group, “If the Iraqi government does not make political progress, all the troops in the world will not provide security.” The president obviously second-guessed his own commanders.

In addition, when Gen. Casey said last Oct. 24 that the United States should be able to complete its training and equipping mission and withdraw all combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008, neither the president nor anyone else suggested that setting that target was a signal of defeat. On the contrary, it provided an encouraging goal for the beginning of a U.S. drawdown.

The Congress, on the other hand, has provided a perception that it will end the war, stop the “surge” and bring home the troops with or without the president.
The reality is that it never had the votes to accomplish those goals and that the president as commander in chief had the power to deploy the forces and veto any withdrawal of troops.

Both the president and the Congress have postured on perceptions that appealed to their political base but did not represent the reality of what they could really accomplish. In some ways, they have painted themselves into a corner where any compromise now looks like a loss of conviction.

If they really care about the troops, they have no alternative but to find a common strategy. The worst thing that the president and the Congress could do at this point is to deepen the divide in this country over the war. Our troops do not just need funding in order to stay alive. They need a clear mission, a clear strategy and most of all, a unified nation.

To achieve that goal will require an extraordinary effort by both the president and congressional leadership. They will have to risk offending some in their political bases and they will have to end the battle over perceptions. They will have to face the reality of Iraq.

Some say the president will never agree to this because he views any change in policy as a sign of weakness. But if the “surge” fails to work, the president may face the disgrace of losing the votes of his own party in future funding battles.

Some say the Congress has nothing to lose by simply continuing to confront the president on an unpopular war. Yet, if there is extended gridlock and the war continues to drag on, it is likely that the Democrats will bear some of the blame and responsibility for the war and its consequences. That could hurt their chances for holding a majority in the Congress.

So out of their own self-interest, and more important, in the interest of the nation, an effort should be made to establish a bipartisan and unified strategy on Iraq. To do that, both should begin by looking at the areas where there is agreement.

1. The mission
Despite all the mistakes that led to this war, the fact is we are there and now share a common mission. In the words of the president, the goal of U.S. policy is an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” Neither party wants Iraq to implode — chaos in Iraq could lead to Sunni-Shiite clashes across the Islamic world, growing terrorism, and seriously damage U.S. leadership in a global world.

2. The reforms
Iraq cannot govern, sustain or defend itself without enacting reforms on national reconciliation, security and governance. Every military commander, including Gen. David Petraeus, has made clear that security cannot be achieved or sustained without the political reforms essential to ending the civil and sectarian warfare. Reforms such as provincial elections, distribution of oil assets, constitutional amendments, amnesty and a de-Baathification law to reintegrate past officials into public life are essential to stability.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has committed to achieving these reforms but has failed miserably. Without strong pressure from the United States, the Iraqi government will continue to fail.

3. No open-ended commitment
The Iraqi government must assume responsibility for Iraqi security by increasing the number and quality of Iraqi Army Brigades and by improving the training and effectiveness of the Iraqi police forces. President Bush has made clear that there is to be no open-ended commitment and that as Iraqis stand up, the U.S. will stand down. While the president has resisted hard timelines, he has also acknowledged that the United States must transition from a combat role to a support role and that the Iraqis will have to assume the primary responsibility for their own security.

4. A U.S. presence in the region
Neither political party has made this clear, but the likelihood is that there will be a significant U.S. military presence in the area for some time to come, regardless of what strategy is put in place. In addition to the training, Iraqi combat units need U.S.-supervised on-the-job training along with intelligence, transportation, air support and logistics support. Even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would have to maintain a considerable military presence in the region similar to what we did in Korea and Bosnia.

5. International diplomacy
While the Bush administration initially resisted a broad international effort, it is apparent that it now recognizes the importance of engaging Iraq’s neighbors. The United States should continue to pursue the effort to build a strong international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region, including both Syria and Iran. Despite the well-known differences between the countries, they share an interest in avoiding the horrific consequences that would flow from a chaotic Iraq.

So if there is an agreement between the president and the Congress in these areas, why not construct a strategy that recognizes this consensus? In many ways, this is what happened within the Iraq Study Group. Once there was a common understanding of the realities and shared objectives, both the Republican and Democratic members developed a set of unanimous recommendations. It would be well for the president and the Congress to follow the example and recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

Can this happen? For the sake of our troops and our nation, the time has come for the president and the Congress to stop fighting each other and do what they were elected to do: govern.

LEON PANETTA is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group. His column runs every other month in Commentary.

© 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
All Rights Reserved.