At this late date, the United States has only one card left to play in Iraq: the threat to leave immediately. Except for Sadr, virtually no one in Iraq's political class wants that to happen. We must wield that threat as dramatically as possible, and, if Iraq's leaders don't respond, leave as fast as we humanly can.
The vehicle for this last-ditch effort would be a conference of Iraq's leaders and Iraq's neighbors (along with Russia, which has more leverage over Iran and Syria than we do). The goal would be revising Iraq's constitution to guarantee Sunnis a generous share of the nation's oil wealth (which is practically Iraq's only source of wealth). This is precisely the guarantee that Shia leaders refused to offer after they won the January 2005 elections. And it is the only way to convince Sunnis to accept a new Shia- and Kurd-dominated Iraq. To give Shia leaders an incentive to agree, the United States should offer the biggest carrot possible: not just a continued U.S. troop presence, but a temporary troop increase and a dramatically larger, World Bank-overseen development effort. We should also offer the biggest possible stick: If the conference ends in failure, the United States should begin its full withdrawal that very day. (We'd leave some troops in the neighborhood for operations against Al Qaeda.)
My response: Bienart’s plan might have been a good one a year or two ago. Back then you could argue that Sunnis really were just upset about oil wealth. Now however we’re dealing with a civil war. Sunnis are fighting because they rightly fear for their lives.
But no matter, let’s say Maliki concedes – losing all support from his base in the process – Sadr won’t and he controls the most powerful militia. The militias in turn have the support of regular Iraqis because they’re providing the security and basic services which the central government and US troops couldn’t. So the grand bargain doesn’t disband the major Shiite militias and of course the Sunnis can’t be expected to disband theirs until that happens (have to defend themselves!). The only thing the plan does is destroy Maliki’s political career. And if they do accept the bargain our reluctant soldiers are then stuck dying… for what exactly? Train Iraqi soldiers who will never confront the Iraqi militias because the political leadership depends on those militias? I’m sorry but that’s not worth 70+ dead Americans a month.
Tom’s rating: 5/10
Probability of being instituted: 3/10
Pony plan rating*: 9/10
*See Matt Yglesias:
Anyone who defends Bush's strategy is going to wind up looking bad, because after continuing to fail for a while it will be abandonned in favor of withdrawal. Anyone who advocates withdrawal is going to wind up looking bad, because eventually it will be implemented and bad stuff will happen down the road. Consequently, what you need to go is suggest a pony hunt in some territory where you're sure the administration won't go looking (calls for a regional conference are the center-left version of this) that way when the stay-the-course-until-eventually-you-leave cycle plays out, you get to claim that if only they'd followed my advice the war would have been won. Meanwhile, blame for defeat will be located primarily not on George W. Bush, but on the stab-in-the-back crowd on the left who made it politically impossible for Bush to find the pony.