Accommodating reality in Iraq

There are two schools of thought in Washington about how to make peace in Iraq: the Bush administration's, and almost everyone else's. With the war in its fifth year and the troop-surge strategy for the moment producing more U.S. casualties than progress, some have the humility to admit that their plans for fixing Iraq may not work.

The problem is that while Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus' new strategy to broker a patchwork of local peace deals might eventually work, bottom-up change is notoriously slow. It's highly desirable, yet unlikely to produce results fast enough to satisfy war-weary, election-year America.

Outside the administration, many lawmakers and experts believe that the last great hope for peace in Iraq is for the United States to use its waning military and political clout to bring the various warring Iraqi factions, backed by Iraq's neighbors, into talks that could yield some sort of a peace deal. Some call for a "Dayton II" for Iraq (after the agreement that ended the Bosnian civil war after three-and-a-half years), while others dub it "Bonn II" (after the international confab that put together a government for post-Taliban Afghanistan).

One of the earliest advocates of such a "lock them in a room and force them to make peace" plan was Joseph R. Biden (D-Delaware), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose sensible views on Iraq get too little attention, perhaps because of his Democratic presidential bid.

Biden argues that neither the Shiite-dominate Iraqi central government nor the U.S. military are likely to succeed in imposing peace. The lesson of Dayton, he says, is that giving much more autonomy to local leaders—as allowed under the Iraqi constitution—does reduce violence. Biden believes Iraq's neighbors can also be persuaded that such a federal state is the only outcome that has a hope of surviving. (Another intelligent variant of the Bonn II proposal was mapped out in December by the International Crisis Group.)

By the time the Iraq Study Group recommended the Bonn II plan late last year, it looked like an idea whose time had come. A diplomat with the talent of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the study group co-chair, might have pulled it off. President Bush rebuffed Baker's offering, possibly because it was fatally advertised in the media as an exit strategy drafted by the family consigliere to save his old pal's son from a Iraqi quagmire. Now, the political situation in Iraq has worsened to the point where even the president is having second thoughts. Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has finally met with Syrian and Iranian officials, the meetings appear to have been superficial. And some believe that for a Bonn II process to work, the U.S. and Iraq's neighbors would have to agree among themselves on a peace plan before trying to sell the plan to the various and warring Iraqi factions.

There's no point in locking everyone into a room unless you've got an agenda that the neighbors could support and that might have a chance of success. But getting such an agenda would require a degree of international unity that seems unlikely to materialize. Many who believe Bonn II must nevertheless be tried fear it may be too late.

Meanwhile, administration officials have quietly concluded that Bonn II is a nonstarter at the moment. First, there are too many political players, and the major Sunni and Shiite political parties are further disintegrating into violently competing factions. Second, it's not clear that the major political leaders could deliver their populations for any deal they did mange to strike. Instead, the U.S. strategy is to try to broker local deals (like the one that has helped turn Sunnis in Al Anbar province against Al Qaeda elements and has reduced violence there), and hold local elections in hopes of producing a new leadership class with credibility. This is an implicit admission that the current plan for Iraq isn't working—but at least it's a realistic assessment. Moreover, it has some of the core logic of the Biden decentralization plan with one big advantage: If it works, and if relative calm allows local elections to be held in places like Al Anbar, it will allow the U.S. to devolve power to someone other than a local thug. On the national level, the administration is urging the elected Iraqi central leadership to hurry up with its urgent national tasks: passing an oil law, revising the divisive constitution and revoking the onerous de-Baathification law. But it no longer expects peace to break out anytime soon.

If you listen carefully, you'll notice a linguistic shift that reflects this growing pessimism—or realism—on Iraq. "Political reconciliation" used to be a favored Beltway buzzword. Now "reconciliation" is widely considered too ambitious a goal for Iraq, and you're more likely to hear the term "political accommodation" instead.

Depending on the ideology of the speaker, this translates in one of two ways. It could mean, "Peace probably isn't achievable, but getting something of a cease-fire that will give the Americans time to withdraw with some shred of dignity just might be." Or it could mean, "Peace probably isn't achievable, but if we can just reduce the level of violence and U.S. casualties, the American public will be willing to keep troops in Iraq as a bulwark against terrorism." On both sides of the Iraq divide, hope is now the scarcest of national resources.

Sonni Efron is a member of The Times' editorial board.

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