What About Those Other Iraq Deadlines?

By Leon E. Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a member of the Iraq Study Group (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/04/07):

WHAT has been particularly frustrating about the debate in Washington over Iraq is that everyone seems to be fighting one another and forgetting the fundamental mission of the war.

Whether one is for or against the war, the key to stability is to have an Iraq that, in the words of the president himself, can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” Achieving that goal is largely dependent on the political reforms that Iraqi leaders have promised but failed to put in place in their country.

As a member of the Iraq Study Group, I found that every military commander we talked to felt that the absence of national reconciliation was the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq. As one American general told us, if the Iraqi government does not make political progress on reforms, “all the troops in the world will not provide security.”

Instead of dividing over the strategy on the war, the president and the Congress should make very clear to the Iraqis that there is no open-ended commitment to our involvement. As the Iraq Study Group recommended, Iraqi leaders must pay a price if they continue to fail to make good on key reforms that they have promised the Iraqi people.

In calling for a specific withdrawal date, the House and Senate versions of the supplemental spending bill send a clear message to the Iraqis (even if they do face a certain veto). The worst mistake now would be to provide money for the war without sending the Iraqis any message at all about their responsibility for reforms. Both the president and the Congress at the very least must make the Iraqi government understand that future financial and military support is going to depend on Baghdad’s making substantial progress toward the milestones Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly committed to.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, little progress has been made. Consider efforts toward stabilizing democracy and achieving national reconciliation:

The Iraqis promised to achieve, by the end of 2006 or early 2007, the approval of a provincial election law (so far, no progress); approval of a law to regulate the oil industry and share revenues (while the Council of Ministers has approved a draft, it has yet to be approved by the Parliament); approval of the de-Baathification law to reintegrate officials of the former regime and Arab nationalists into public life (no progress); and approval of a law to rein in sectarian militias (no progress).

By March, the government promised to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments (no progress).

By May, the prime minister committed to putting in place the law controlling militias (no progress); the approval of the amnesty agreement (no progress); and the completion of all reconciliation efforts.

By June, the Iraqi government promised to hold provincial elections (no date has been set).

As for security issues, things are not going much better. The Iraqis have increased security spending over 2006 levels as promised, but they are falling behind on the number of battle-ready Army units.

By April, the Iraqis want to take over total control of the Iraq Army (not likely based on current progress).

By September, the Iraqis want to be given full civil control of all provinces (to date they control 3 of 18 provinces).

By December, the Iraqis, with United States support, want to achieve total security self-reliance (too early to tell, but does anyone really find this likely?).

Yes, there have been some notable successes. For example, the Baghdad government has made good on its promise to appreciate the Iraqi dinar to combat accelerating inflation, and has increased domestic prices for refined petroleum products.

But particularly in terms of reforms needed to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites, progress has been minimal. And unless the United States finds new ways to bring strong pressure on the Iraqis, things are not likely to pick up any time soon.

In seeking support for the so-called surge and the supplemental spending bill, the Bush administration argues that American forces have to provide temporary stability to enable the Iraqi leaders to negotiate political solutions. True, but after a while this becomes an excuse for inaction on the political reforms that are essential to stability itself.

This is why the Iraq Study Group report made clear that “if the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government.”

Until the Bush administration and Congress can jointly convince the Iraqi government that this threat is real, there will be little chance of reaching the one goal on which Republicans and Democrats can agree: a safe, stable and prosperous Iraq.