Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why I Favor Negotiations with All Iraqi Factions

We have made many past attempts to bring peace and security to Iraq and all have failed. The January, 2005 elections did not bring security. The new Constitution did not bring security. Nor did the December elections under the new Constitution. The problem in all these cases, I believe, is that we were trying to impose our answers on Iraq instead of letting the Iraqis find their own. Joe Biden's recent proposalfor a de-facto partition is at least an honorable attempt to find an alternative to staying the course or abandoning Iraq, but it suffers the same shortcomings as the others -- it is an attempt to impose what we believe is best for Iraq instead of letting the Iraqis decide.

The Iraqis are now slowly and painfully groping toward their own answers, and this is a promising development but these, too, are attempts by one faction to impose its own solution on the others. Thus Prime Minister al-Maliki's proposed amnesty is a step in the right direction, but so long as he tries to set the terms of the amnesty he is unlikely to find many takers. If some insurgents are offering a truce if the U.S. agrees to withdraw, that, too, is a promising development but, again, they are offering a truce on their own term that is unlikely to be accepted. The trouble with these proposals are that they are ultimatums, proposals that say take it on our terms, or leave it. Not too surprisingly, the response is usually to leave it.

Far more promising are reports that some insurgent groups (seven, most sources say) are seeking negotiations. Negotiations, unlike ultimatums, are flexible. Negotiations do not insist on a pre-determined outcome, but leave that to be decided. Negotiations between the government and seven insurgent groups are a promising start, but not enough. They ignore the most elementary rule of war and diplomacy (that admittedly gets ignored all the time); you cannot negotiate a peace that excludes a major belligerent. If peace is what is wanted, all belligerents must take part in negotiations; otherwise, admit what is being negotiated is not a peace, but an alliance against the excluded parties.

In Iraq, it seems safe to say that all Iraqis ultimately want peace, albeit on very different terms. Neighboring countries want peace (violence and upheaval in one's neighborhood are always alarming). And we want peace. There is only one set of true irreconcilables, the foreign jihadis, who want to stir up as much violence and chaos as possible. Thus I fully agree that we should not negotiate with Al Qaeda in Iraq and other such groups; there is nothing to negotiate about. But we should work to bring together all Iraqi factions, as well as all neighboring countries to negotiate the future. No preconditions to negotiations, and no preconceptions about what the outcome should be (other than peace). If all other factions except the foreign jihadis make peace, the war will not end because the worst faction of all will still be fighting. But it will be greatly shrunken, and the much-shrunken jihadis can be defeated.

The biggest problem may appear to be that even excluding the foreign jihadis, many Iraqi factions are extremist and either will not want to negotiate, or will insist on unacceptable terms. That is where still having armed forces in Iraq can but used to good advantage. In offering all factions a seat at negotiations and a role in shaping Iraq's future, we are holding out a carrot. Carrots are always most effective when backed by sticks (and vice versa). Our military forces are the stick. Whoever refuses to participate in negotiations or participates but is being manifestly obstructionist should be penalized -- with stepped-up military pressure against insurgents, or with the withholding of military support for government forces. But that should be the limit to our role. Beyond insisting that the parties negotiate and make peace, we should not try to impose our own vision on Iraq. Rather, we should let the Iraqis work out for themselves their country's future.

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