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MIT political scientists list key points on Iraq

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The Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, is scheduled to issue its report today (Dec. 6). To mark its release, we asked four MIT foreign policy experts to summarize key points the United States should consider in addressing the Iraq situation.

Barry R. Posen is the MIT Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

  • The United States should set a date certain for the disengagement of its combat forces from Iraq and announce it. The U.S. presence there stimulates nationalist and religious resistance from Sunni and Shia and at the same time protects all the parties from the full consequences of their political intransigence toward each other. The United States pays a high blood and money price to referee the current low-grade civil war, and to the naked eye is making no progress in ending it. Instead, Iraqi efforts to kill Americans, and to kill members of opposing factions, proceed apace. The purpose of a date certain is to fix the attention of the various parties in Iraq on the fact that they will soon be responsible for their own affairs, including security. They must be faced with a choice between compromise and a disastrous, unconstrained civil war. This does not mean that they will choose compromise, but they are not choosing compromise now. There is no magic formula, but the disengagement date should be soon enough so that it seems real to the parties, and delayed long enough so that we can plan and conduct the disengagement carefully. I like Jan. 1, 2008.
  • The United States and other interested parties should look into the possibility of setting up an international trusteeship for Iraqi oil revenues. Some of the fighting in Iraq is about these resources. It is reasonable to consider how to make this fighting pointless. Most Iraqi oil is sold outside the country; it should be a simple matter for others to collect the revenues, and ensure their fair distribution within Iraq.
  • There is a real risk of an unrestrained Iraqi civil war once U.S. forces leave, so there is an associated risk of outside intervention into that civil war and the emergence of a more general regional war. A conference of interested parties--regional states and other powers--should be convened to try to contain any civil war to Iraq, and if possible to limit its duration and intensity. The United States, and perhaps some of its allies, should be prepared to offer benefits to those who cooperate in this endeavor and to inflict costs on those who do not.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies and coauthor and coeditor of "Terror, Insurgency and the State" (Penn Press, 2007).

  • The United States must recognize that it now may be an impediment to stability. The colossal amount of killing, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was stirred by the invasion and a ferocious counterinsurgency strategy that has failed.  This is what Iraqis think.  They are acting on that belief by repairing relations with Syria and Iran.  If we cannot speak to those neighboring countries and honor the wishes of the elected government in Baghdad, then we need to get out of the way.  That means a rapid draw down in forces over the coming year.
  • We should not abandon Iraq altogether, however, and should be willing to invest many tens of billions in reconstruction--accountable and under control of Iraq--once the killing subsides.  We need to apply political and diplomatic muscle to moving Arab countries, Turkey, and, if possible, Iran, to take leadership roles in quelling the violence, which will involve tradeoffs.  We need to empower the United Nations to do more, and support another peace interlocutor, possibly the United Kingdom, if needed.
  • We must also be mindful of the longer term issues that could keep Iraq roiled for many years.  Things we can do to stabilize Iraq would include giving up regime-change fantasies and improving relations with Iran, dedicating all U.S. resources to a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and working with Turkey, Syria and Iran to improve the lot of their Kurdish populations and reduce the possibility of Kurds in Iraq seceding.  More broadly, we must also reject the anti-Muslim invective that is growing in American and European societies.

Barbara Bodine is a visiting scholar at the MIT Center for International Studies. A former career member of the Senior Foreign Service, she has spent much of her 30-year diplomatic career in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.

  • The partition of Iraq is neither inevitable nor advisable.  First, it is not the option of choice within Iraq or by Iraqis, including many Kurds, who realistically prefer a Quebec-like status within a functioning Iraq to an enclave status adjoining a failed state, or two.  Second, it is not possible, despite the grotesque sectarian violence. Iraqi society remains a mosaic of nearly 30 ethnic and sectarian groups. There are no traditional borders as there were in pre-Tito Yugoslavia. Iraq has never been three states. Third, it would not solve the violence and could exacerbate it.  Competition for control of resources and major multi-ethnic/sectarian cities--Mosel, Kirkuk, Basra and Baghdad most notably--would be fierce.  Precedents on population transfers as political solutions are not promising--Cyprus, Mandate Palestine and India/Pakistan come to mind. Fourth, it is not an option favored by any of its neighbors.  Talk of partition in the United States demoralizes whatever is left of an Iraqi national center and does not provide a realistic or workable solution.
  • Regarding regional players: This train has left the station. Most notably and recently, Iraq and Syria have re-established relations; President Jalal Talabani has visited Tehran. All of Iraq's neighbors recognize the danger a failed and violent Iraq poses; none want to see it fragment.  They would welcome a regional, diplomatic and political approach led by the United States. They will try to shape one on their own if we do not.  Any credible regional effort must include Iran and Syria. We have to recognize that we are in no position to dictate terms to the Iraqis or to its neighbors, but we do have sufficient fundamental shared goals--the survival of the Iraqi state and society--to provide a basis for constructive discussion. A regional format does not, in a sense, require that the United States change the substance of its policies toward Iran and Syria. Our concerns over WMD, terrorism, etc., need not be compromised. What the format does is provide the opportunity to change the structure of the relationships, to break out of a self-imposed isolation and open normal diplomatic channels to discuss these critical issues directly.
  • Go big; go long; go home; get real:  The basic maxim of counterinsurgencies is that they are won politically but can be lost militarily.  We have tried to win militarily and have lost politically. There is no tipping point on trained Iraqi military or police units that will bring order to Iraq absent the creation of a legitimate, not just electorally legal, government.  An army or a police force untethered to an accepted state are at best hollow and quite possibly rogue.  While only the Iraqis can create that legitimacy in the eyes of their own people, unannounced drop-ins by the U.S. president, unilateral debates on timelines and benchmarks and public speculation on our loss of confidence in the Iraqi prime minister suck the air out of any legitimacy this or other governments may hope to create.  If we treat Iraq as a passive article in U.S. decision-making, the government will be seen as no more by its own people.

Cindy Williams is a principal research scientist of the MIT Security Studies Program. Formerly she was an assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office.

  • End the futile attempt to create a unity government in Iraq. Work instead toward a loose confederation with weak central authority, regionalized military forces and regional collection and control of taxes. Have an outside authority collect and divide Iraqi oil income by region, based on population.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2006 (download PDF).

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