A Layered Conundrum in Iraq

There’s been much discussion of the relationship between security and political progress in Iraq. Until about a year ago, the thinking was largely that advances on the political front would iron out wrinkles in the security environment. Since the fighting was fueled by competition over power and resources (the basis of politics), once the political problems were resolved, there would be fewer flashpoints to fight over. Then, with the advent of Surgeism, the thinking became that once the security environment was stabilized, political leaders would take advantage of the relative calm to make peace among themselves. The thinking was that it was hard for to make deals with other leaders whose followers were busy killing your followers.

These are oversimplifications, and there is some merit in both arguments. The relationship goes both ways. But in two comments, yesterday and today, you can see how the question of our staying indefinitely affects the security environment and the political environment in different ways. Here’s Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch describing the prerequisite for sustaining the tamping down of violence, particularly in Sunni areas:

“They have to be convinced that we’re not leaving. That’s the issue. If they were to think we’re leaving we’d have also [sic] sorts of trouble,” Lynch said, clambering over a makeshift earthen bridge across the canal.

There’s a perfectly intelligible logic here. If people think you’re leaving, they’re going to start hedging their bets, and making deals with centers of power outside the national government that have large enough constituencies to influence a post-America Iraq. So from a tactical level–trying to control violence in a particular region, say–the point is to convince the Iraqis that we’re not going anywhere.

But then you take that to the strategic level: forcing political factions who don’t like each other into cooperating and compromising on sharing power at the national level. Tom Friedman describes the situation this way:

As one U.S. official in Baghdad pointed out to me last week, “at no point” since the testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker “have you had the four key Iraqi leaders in the same country at the same time.” They saw the hearings as buying them more time, and so they took it.

“We have created a real case of moral hazard in Iraq,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University. “Because all the key players think the Americans are going to bail them out, they have no incentive to make any real concessions to one another.”

So if we’re not staying forever, we won’t get cooperation in leveraging local and regional forces into deals like the “Anbar Awakening” and they’ll start hedging their bets. If we are staying forever, the Iraqi national leadership says “What’s the hurry? Let’s see what’s happening in Tehran…” Something that’s helpful at one level is destructive at the other. And the two levels are closely interrelated.