U.S. must proceed with care

By Lee Hamilton
Apr 7 2008

 Our goal for Iraq should be a stable, self–governing state that is not a safe haven for al–Qaida, not a source of instability in the region, and not dominated by Iran or another regional power.

As all the leading generals in Iraq have said repeatedly, there is no military solution to the ongoing conflict. The U.S. must begin a serious dialogue with Iraqi leaders about how to end U.S. involvement responsibly.

The Iraqi leadership should hear from us not an unconditional promise of more assistance, but a demand that they get their political house in order now, and if they do not we are leaving — slowly, steadily and surely. A promised withdrawal could provide us with important leverage to get Baghdad's leaders to act, especially on the key question of national reconciliation. As President Bush negotiates a status of forces agreement, we should make no new commitments without an Iraqi commitment to move toward political reconciliation.

One key is for U.S. forces to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces to hold areas our troops have cleared. Can the ISF preserve and build on recent security improvements? Their performance in recent battles in Basra was not encouraging and reflected the inadequate progress of America's efforts to train them. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the effort to train Iraqis, and other allied armies “arguably the most important military component” of our fight against terrorism.

But even in a best–case scenario, some American troops will have to stay on in a training or advisory role, and a security relationship will likely be maintained over several years.

Our military mission should focus on promoting the territorial integrity of Iraq, not on refereeing a sectarian conflict.

The state of our own military also warrants concern. Army commanders have said that maintaining surge troop–levels in Iraq would put unsustainable levels of stress on U.S. forces and jeopardize their readiness to fight in future conflicts.

On the diplomatic front, we cannot address Iraq effectively in isolation from the region's other major issues and unresolved conflicts.

If we do not engage all of Iraq's neighbors in a multilateral framework, a hasty departure from Iraq could precipitate a proxy war between Sunnis and Shiites, destroying the prospects for the regional stability we seek.

In addition to large numbers of American troops on the ground, the next president will inherit continuing casualties, political gridlock, a largely dysfunctional Iraqi government, a determined al–Qaida presence, and the absence of a major diplomatic effort.

However, he or she will not be able to view American foreign policy solely through the prism of Iraq because too many other challenges await, and the views of the American people toward the war will have to be taken into account.

We are neither losing the war in Iraq nor winning it. Achievement of our redefined goals will take years of effort.

The real question is: Are we prepared to put the necessary resources into Iraq over a period of years to achieve diminished goals?

Our investment in Iraq, in terms of blood and treasure, already has been great. Popular support for our present mission has eroded and quickly will erode further without substantive progress in reaching a political accommodation in Iraq and a reduction in American casualties.

It really does matter how we leave Iraq. The U.S. will have to redefine victory to well below the high standards of democracy President Bush originally envisioned in 2003, with an emphasis on stability and containment of the country's afflictions.

We arrived in Iraq carelessly; we should leave carefully.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)