Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

As Cernig added in an update below, the Bush administration announced that the long-term bilateral agreement that it will try to reach with the Iraqi government will not include a security guarantee to defend the Iraqi government from external and internal threats. The Bush administration put forth a rationale for dopping the security guarantee provision that is based on a respect for checks, balances and the constitutional separation of powers. So it should raise an eyebrow or two.

The administration has maintained that the agreement would not rise to the level of a treaty. The "security guarantee" statement appeared in the announcement because Iraqis wanted it on the table, the administration official said. But, he said, the United States does not believe it to be necessary. "We say, look, if you want a security guarantee, that will be a treaty, and a treaty will have to go to our Senate," endangering the whole agreement, he said.

Nevertheless, this inspired Kevin Drum to remark:

Some rare good sense from the Bush administration. Good to hear.

Allow me to posit a slightly more cynical interpretation (and yes, I blame the rampant jaundice plaguing my eye on seven long years of Bush/Cheney/Rove). First of all, it should be noted that President Bush has made his belief in the unitary executive and contempt for Congressional prerogatives clear on numerous occasions, and via serial signing statements. So this is not likely a principled deference. In addition, since Bush has not faced any consequences for abrogating Congressional powers in the past, it is highly doubtful that he fears a backlash for overreach here.

So what would the real purpose for tabling this particular provision be? Let's look at how the security guarantee was worded in the draft version, or Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship. In that early draft, the US would be pledged to:

Supporting the Republic of Iraq in defending its democratic system against internal and external threats. [emphasis added]

It's the pledge to guard against "internal" threats that would be the sticking point. In recent months, the Bush administration has been pursuing a strategy of cooperating with, arming, funding and assisting Sunni elements in Iraq. This Sunni tilt serves at least three purposes: (1) ganging up on al-Qaeda in Iraq; (2) greatly diminishing attacks on US forces from Sunni insurgent groups; and (3) creating a viable Sunni counterweight to the Iran-friendly, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. It is the third prong of this strategy that could be jeopardized if the US were pledged to defending the democratically elected Iraqi government from internal threats.

In early 2006, Stephen Biddle wrote an article that set forth a blueprint by which the US could regain leverage over the various parties in Iraq. In many ways, the US has adopted Biddle's formula. An excerpt:

...the United States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported Shiite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in order to get the Shiites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely, a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the Sunnis.

If Washington fails to implement this plan, it will continue to have only limited leverage over the parties, each of which sees compromise as risky. The groups fear that if their rivals gain control of the government, they will face oppression, impoverishment, or mass violence. Compromising means ceding some power to rivals, and a miscalculation that cedes too much power could result in the enemy's seizing the rest later, with catastrophic results...

The only way to break the logjam is to change the parties' relative comfort with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence now caps the war's intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties' behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides to compromise.

Now, the Bush administration might not be willing to take this strategy to its extreme conclusion - actually backing a coup to topple the Maliki administration - but there is a value in preserving a credible threat. A security guarantee that commits US forces to defending the Shiite/Kurdish dominated Iraqi government from internal threats could prove problematic when trying to push and pull the levers in such a balancing act. This form of security guarantee would, in effect, insulate two parties from such cajoling.

But would the Iraqi government agree to such a deal absent security guarantees? Maybe if we threaten them.

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