Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A good start ?

Having a discussion is always better than having no discussion at all, and the recent series of posts and comments on the Abu Aardvark blog included some interesting points for policy-buffs. But that is quite different from initiating a thoroughgoing debate about what Democratic Party policy in Iraq (or the related Mideast region issues) should be, or what kind of changes the party should offer to the electorate. Perhaps it was a start, but there was a disturbing amount of ambiguity and unclarity. For instance:

(1) Were the posts intended to be blueprints for a Democratic Party strategy for Iraq, or were they recommendations for policy in the remaining months of the Bush administration? It appears participants were cross-purposes about this. Lynch presented the discussions as "from within the heart of current Democratic Party thinking about Iraq..." suggesting this was about what the next-administration policy should look like, and commenters clearly thought this was what it was about. But Colin Kahl, in response to a comment, points out that his argument (which was actually the main focus of the other comments) for only a partial draw-down and for using the prospect of further draw-downs as a bargaining tool was only meant to apply to the remaining months of the Bush administration. If that didn't work, then quite probably he wouldn't disagree with the more-complete-withdrawal position proposed by Katulis and the Center for American Progress (CAP). As Kahl puts is: "If there is no political compromise on the two central national objectives (oil and provincial powers/elections) I emphasize by the late summer of 2008, then I suspect that the political environment will force the next administration to move toward a CAP-like position -- and this may indeed be the right position by Jan 09. It is simply not the right position now." So was the debate about what should be a post-Bush policy; or was it about what should be the policy in the waning months of the Bush administration.

For Kahl, what "may indeed be the right position" by the end of the Bush administration wasn't the subject of his piece at all. But the "strategic reset" essay that Katulis referred to clearly was intended to be about next-administration policy. So this was apparently at cross-purposes.


(2) It is true that the "strategic reset" essay correctly pointed out that US policy in Iraq is going to be tied to US policy in the region generally, adding that there need to be changes in that regional policy. In the argle-bargle of the profession, this was expressed as follows:
  • Initiate regional security and diplomatic efforts to contain and resolve Iraq’s conflicts while reshaping the geopolitical balance in the region.
  • Develop a realistic strategy to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and stabilize the broader Middle East.
In other words, be less belligerent overall. But generally the recommendations came down to the application of competent and "quiet diplomacy", the governing idea being that this switch from belligerent to less-belligerent should be done out of the limelight. And as far as the Kahl-Katulis discussion was concerned, it was so far out of the limelight as to be completely invisible. Disappointing for a debate between parties at the heart of current Democratic Party thinking...

(3) Even on key points of existing Bush-administration policy, there was less than the necessary clarity. For instance:

(a) The recent semi-secret meetings at a Dead Sea resort between parties said to include American mediators and people connected with the armed resistance were the subject of three recent posts of mine, but there has been absolute and total silence about the meetings from any Washington sources, whether conventional media or "progressive" national-security experts in the blogging world, or anywhere. Except that yesterday Marc Lynch included in his post a reference to this as having actually occurred, writing: "It is somewhat heartening that this grouping [referring to the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance] is evidently being recognized and courted behind the scenes by Americans (at the secretive Dead Sea reconciliation track 2 meeting, for instance). But it isn't clear that those talks are going anywhere, and even if they do this isn't going to be easily integrated with the currently evolving power structure." He refers to this as a "reconciliation track 2 meeting", where apparently the expression "track 2" explains why nothing in English has been reported about this or about the followup. Having spent much of the last four years denigrating the Sunni resistance, the Americans are now trying to negotiate with them, so this would seem to be an extremely important point in policy discussions. But because it is so important, it is kept under a cloak of absolute silence.

(b) There is one point where Lynch provided an important insight. He writes:
The focus on the provincial elections really seems to be driven by the hope of creating what Kahl calls “better local representation (via new provincial elections) and enhanced powers for provincial councils." But I think it's worth calling this what it is: an attempt to empower an alternative, more compliant local-level leadership in the place of the factions which have claimed to represent the Sunnis by virtue of their armed struggle.
meaning that the focus on local elections is motivated by a desire to sideline the Sunni resistance groups and create a rival and more US-compliant Sunni elite. Lynch warns:
The promotion of alternative elites is always a risky business, one which sets up all kinds of problems down the road - think back to various Israeli efforts over the years to promote local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (or Mohammed Dahlan for that matter), or South African efforts to promote alternatives to the ANC back in the Apartheid era.
An excellent point. The references to the West Bank and Gaza refer to early Israeli promotion of Hamas to act as a rival to Fatah, and more recently to the US-Israeli support for the Dahlan-wing of Fatah as part of a strategy to put an end to Hamas, a strategy that has resulted in the current Gaza crisis. This is a useful parallel to notice. But it is a point that deserves to be highlighted as part of the overall Bush-administration divide-and conquer strategy in the region, as a starting-point for talking about changes from that strategy.

The point being that if the Democrats are going to offer voters a clear alternative to the Bush strategy, at some point it would have to be spelled out in a clear fashion, without all the ambiguity about what is being talked about, without burying the important policy shifts in hush-hush secrecy, and with a much clearer delineation of what the existing strategy is, and how a new less-belligerent policy would differ from that. And how likely is that, you ask.


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