Running out of solutions in Iraq

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News “There is no military solution.” It has become something of a mantra for leaders discussing the war in Iraq. We’ve heard it from everyone from Dennis Kucinich to Gen. David Petraeus. But lately, the conventional wisdom seems to have shifted. Emboldened by optimistic reports of an “Anbar Awakening,” many of the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
599454_070911_crocker_05.jpg
599454_070911_crocker_05.jpg

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

"There is no military solution."

It has become something of a mantra for leaders discussing the war in Iraq. We've heard it from everyone from Dennis Kucinich to Gen. David Petraeus. But lately, the conventional wisdom seems to have shifted. Emboldened by optimistic reports of an "Anbar Awakening," many of the war's supporters and opponents are now supporting a "bottom up" strategy for stability, enlisting local forces to fight the insurgency and give the political process time to work. It was clear from before yesterday's testimony that Amb. Ryan Crocker had a much harder case to make that progress was being made on a political level.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

“There is no military solution.”

It has become something of a mantra for leaders discussing the war in Iraq. We’ve heard it from everyone from Dennis Kucinich to Gen. David Petraeus. But lately, the conventional wisdom seems to have shifted. Emboldened by optimistic reports of an “Anbar Awakening,” many of the war’s supporters and opponents are now supporting a “bottom up” strategy for stability, enlisting local forces to fight the insurgency and give the political process time to work. It was clear from before yesterday’s testimony that Amb. Ryan Crocker had a much harder case to make that progress was being made on a political level.

In light of this, New York Times reported David Sanger predicted that Republicans would back the bottom-up strategy, while David Ignatius urged the Democrats to get behind the idea and take credit for it. Of course, the idea that all of this is leading to political reconciliation in Iraq is totally bunk. As Passport has noted, when the idea of “soft partition” was first proposed by Senator Joe Biden back in 2006, White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed it as antithetical to a “federal, democratic, pluralist and unified” Iraq.  He was right. Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley wrote on this Web site last week about the difficulties that empowering local militias could cause for Iraq’s central government. The “soft partition” strategy is the first step in abandoning the goal of political reconciliation in Iraq. Washington’s new mantra might as well be, “There is no political solution.”

Still, it’s easy to see the idea’s appeal. Empowering and befriending local militants takes the heat off of U.S. troops, sidesteps the dysfunctional Iraqi national army and puts the Sunnis in a stronger position for after the U.S. forces leave. After all, the possibility of a post-pullout genocide is a possibility war opponents would rather not think about. There’s certainly evidence that dividing a population into ethnically homogeneous units can create stability: Just look at modern Europe. Of course, it took a half century of total war and genocide to make it that way. (Tony Judt’s Postwar makes the counterintuitive argument that Hitler and Stalin are more responsible for Europe’s current peace and prosperity than anyone else.)

Gen. Petraeus would love to give the surge credit for decreasing casualty numbers in Baghdad. But the Mahdi Army probably deserves more credit for ethnically cleansing Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods of their Sunni residents. By accepting “soft partition,” the Bush administration is essentially banking on sectarian militias to do their job for them.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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