The Magazine

Reconcilable Differences

The Iraqi parliament behaves like a bunch of politicians.

Nov 12, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 09 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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How much does it matter that the Iraqi parliament has not yet passed an oil law? According to war critics, it is the only thing that matters: Iraqis' failure to complete "reconciliation" by passing "benchmark" legislation as required by Washington is evidence not only that the current strategy has failed, but also that any strategy will fail and the United States should simply leave now. Underlying this argument is the belief that a stable peace in Iraq can occur only after the Iraqis have worked out their own basic problems. This is a remarkably unrealistic claim.

The suggestion is that American forces must keep fighting in Iraq until the Arabs and Kurds have put aside their differences, resolved their internal tensions, and started singing "kumbaya" in Arabic. But even the president's most ambitious aims involved only establishing a stable and peaceful democracy in Iraq--which is very different from resolving all tensions, as anyone who knows anything about democracy can tell you. For the United States, reconciliation should mean persuading the peoples of Iraq to address their problems and power struggles peacefully, through a political process rather than through violence, and to reject and oppose those who seek to use force to gain leverage in the political process. That is exactly what we are now in the midst of doing.

To this day, not all outstanding political tensions have been resolved in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, or Kosovo, yet the civil wars and terrorist campaigns that once threatened to engulf those places have ended, and the competing factions are pursuing their agendas primarily by peaceful political means. After our own Civil War, Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House did not coincide with the resolution of the slavery problem, much less the racial problem generally. Violence and terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations continued to disrupt America's peace for decades--and are not unheard of to this day.

Balancing racial, ethnic, religious, and even regional tensions continues to be part of every national political campaign in the United States. Rather than being settled once and for all, core issues are addressed through politics, and the accompanying violence is limited and infrequent enough that police can handle it. If the standard for a successful end to the American Civil War had been passage of legislation that satisfied all parties, then the war would have been judged a failure. By that standard, even the civil rights legislation of the 1960s hasn't brought complete and final success. But achievement of perfect harmony was not the standard for the United States, and it should not be the standard for Iraq.

Iraqis, like the people of almost any modern state, are engaged in power struggles. Hitherto these struggles have been pursued largely by violence that has destabilized the country and threatened to destabilize the region. In particular, it has created an opportunity for al Qaeda and Iran to establish themselves in Iraq, either directly or through proxies. We are fighting to bring the violence under control as a means of driving al Qaeda and Iranian agents and proxies out of Iraq and keeping them out. Our aim is to create a stable government in Iraq that is able to govern its own people and drive violence down to a manageable level.

We have been remarkably successful in 2007 in reducing violence in Iraq. According to Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, enemy attacks are at their lowest since January 2006 and continue to drop. There has been a 60 percent decrease in IED attacks in the past four months. The reduction in violence is partly a result of the presence of additional American forces and their adoption of a sound counterinsurgency strategy. This has allowed Iraqis to turn against al Qaeda and the Baathist insurgents and form their own local defense groups in concert with the Iraqi government. It even appears to have encouraged some Shias to turn against the Shia militias. Also driving these trends are the Iraqis' rejection of al Qaeda's ideology and, more profoundly, their exhaustion with the struggle--a key development in the winding down of any violent internal conflict. What these positive developments do not reflect is any expectation that Iraq's internal tensions can be quickly or comprehensively resolved. Nor do Sunni Arab tribesmen coming over to the coalition side ask when an oil law will be passed. They ask whether we will continue to help protect them.