`Plan A-Plus' for Iraq: Get neighbors involved

May 01, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- OK, so now the Democrats have made their point by passing an Iraq spending bill that calls for troop withdrawals as early as July. And now the president will veto it.

After all this bipartisan posturing, can we finally have a serious debate about Iraq?

Now is the moment when Republicans and Democrats must focus on what must be done to prevent an even greater Iraq disaster. There will be no time for Plan B if the current White House Plan A fails. But Plan A - as currently directed by the White House - simply cannot work.

Many within the administration and the military grasp this. Many Republican senators know it. But responsible Republicans have failed to press the White House for a better Iraq strategy. Many Democrats seem more eager to see President Bush fail than fight for a workable plan.

Here's the awful truth. This isn't just Mr. Bush's war. Not anymore. White House mistakes on Iraq were huge, but this is now our war too. We all will be stuck with its terrible consequences - a failed Iraqi state, more Islamist terrorism and threats to Mideast oil - if it fails.

Plan A claims a surge will buy time for the Iraqi government to shape up. In other words, the surge is only a tactic. No matter the great talents of Gen. David Petraeus and the guts of American troops, military action alone cannot stabilize Iraq. Our withdrawal depends on whether the Iraqi government can fashion a power-sharing accord between Shiites and Sunnis, as General Petraeus told Congress last week. Republicans and Democrats talk about setting benchmarks for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Democrats talk about making war funding dependent on his meeting those benchmarks. But Mr. al-Maliki is too weak to do so. His party has far too few seats to get laws through the national assembly that are crucial for Shiite-Sunni power-sharing.

And setting timelines for U.S. withdrawal makes Shiites and Sunnis even less willing to meet benchmarks. They know that once the Americans start to leave, the fight for power in Iraq will start in earnest. So they are reluctant to make concessions as they gird for the bigger battles to come.

Iraq's neighbors - Iran, Syria and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates - sense this bigger war is coming, and more aid is flowing from these countries to Shiite and Sunni militias inside Iraq. General Petraeus was right when he said a troop pullback this fall would lead to more sectarian killings. So if Plan A won't work, and setting timelines won't work, what else to do?

Go for "Plan A-Plus."

Thoughtful Republicans and Democrats in Congress must press Mr. Bush for a plan that puts Iraq's troubles into a wider strategic context. Right now the entire Mideast is expecting a wider Iraq war, and this psychological dynamic makes the fighting inside Iraq worse.

The only way to change that dynamic is for the White House to embark on a serious diplomatic offensive in the region. That offensive would be aimed at convincing Iraq's neighbors that their interests require them to help stabilize Baghdad. It would require broad and comprehensive talks between the United States and Iran - an approach still resisted by Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

In such an offensive, Washington has strong cards to play. Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states are worried that a U.S. withdrawal would lead to Iraq's collapse and suck them into a deadly proxy war in that country. But U.S. diplomacy over Iraq has been insufficiently serious to produce a regional accord on stabilizing Iraq.

A round of regional talks was held in Baghdad in March, and another will be held this week in Egypt. Without greater U.S. boldness, they will go nowhere. Democrats and Republicans who put our security ahead of politics must try to get this message across to Mr. Bush.

Some thoughtful Democrats, such as Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, who just returned from a trip to Baghdad with Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, believe that setting a withdrawal date could help get Iran to the table. Mr. Sestak, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, also argues, as do many senior officers, that a date is vital because our military is being ruined by the extended strains of the Iraq war.

These arguments are powerful. But I believe a timeline is a card best played as part of a regional negotiating process. To set a timeline before such talks would weaken the U.S. hand and intensify the fighting inside Iraq.

However, if Republicans don't want a timeline, responsible Republicans in Congress need to tell the president that they can no longer support him on Iraq unless he embarks on a major Mideast diplomatic offensive, with the full weight of the White House behind it. No more "Cheney vs. the rest" on Iraq policy.

Without a Plan A-Plus, Congress may have no choice but to set deadlines. It's time for thoughtful Republicans to act.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

Clarence Page's column will return Friday.

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