The intense focus on Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker obscures the essential irrelevance of the report they will make to Congress on Monday and, in a larger sense, the irrelevance of U.S. troops to Iraqi politics. The pacification of a few pockets of resistance can scarcely reconcile Iraq’s warring factions or salvage the American enterprise. The future of Iraq hinges on the outcome of its raging civil war, not on any recalibration of U.S. military strategy.
Both the White House report and a study by the Government Accountability Office released this week reveal the chasm that separates U.S. and Iraqi conceptions of reconciliation. For Americans, reconciliation is a product of bargaining, through which members of Iraq’s Sunni minority participate in the governance of the state and get their fair share of the resources. Proponents of the troop “surge” had hoped that an augmented American presence would give responsible elements of Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions the political space to forge a national compact.
Yet the U.S. definition of reconciliation is just one more cultural artifact that Washington has tried to force down Iraq’s throat. As it turns out, Iraqis across the sectarian divide view reconciliation differently. The Shiites tend to emphasize the notion of justice and demand that their suffering under previous regimes -- not only under Saddam Hussein’s -- be compensated. For this, they need not only to assume power but to subordinate Iraq’s Sunni population. For the Shiite-run government, justice must precede reconciliation.
The United States’ newfound Sunni allies also have a view of reconciliation at odds with Washington’s noble fantasies. Out of self-interest, many Sunni tribes have turned against elements of Al Qaeda that are trying to impose an onerous Islamist order and appropriate the resources of the Sunni heartland for their transnational cause. But the revolt of the Sunni tribes has not changed their perspective. For Sunnis, reconciliation still means restoration. They don’t want to be included in power-sharing agreements; they want to regain control of the state. Dethroned elites do not easily surrender their dreams of a reversal of fortune.
Hovering over this contested terrain are the Kurds, whose own definition of reconciliation means recognition of their autonomy and openness to further territorial gain. Although the Kurdish entity is often seen as a model of success, the Kurds’ ambitions still necessitate cleansing the north of its remaining Sunni Arabs and using its oil wealth for their own parochial mandates. The Kurds are unlikely to acquiesce in any scheme that restores Sunni privileges.
Though the Bush administration makes flamboyant claims about the modest results of its surge policy, the large presence of U.S. ground forces has had little effect on Iraqi politics, or even on the insurgency. The surge has redistributed insurgent activity but not suppressed it. Ironically, violence touches more of the country than before, with a corresponding erosion of societal stability and government credibility.
Indeed, continued adherence to the surge strategy, part of which has involved embracing the Sunnis as allies, may prove not just irrelevant but potentially dangerous to the territorial integrity of Iraq. The sight of President Bush landing in Anbar province, the heart of the anti-Shiite Sunni insurgency, and recent administration calls to shift U.S. financial resources to Sunni areas cannot but erode the remaining goodwill of the Shiite community. As U.S. forces target Shiite militias, reverse the de-Baathification program and insist on incorporation of Sunni elites in the officer corps and the police, they are likely to alienate the Shiite majority.
The surge may end up suppressing Al Qaeda in the short term while ensuring the long-term failure of America’s mission to produce an inclusive Iraqi polity capable of managing its affairs. The truth is that the U.S. has gotten itself into a no-win situation. Washington cannot play both sides of the fence. It must take sides. But either way, American interests will suffer.
As the cacophony of voices in Washington debate the success and shortcomings of the surge, Iraq is moving at its own pace, on its own path. A new Iraq may yet emerge that accommodates all its confessional and ethnic diversity, but tension, civil war and chaos will presage the arrival of such a state. And there is very little the United States can do to chart that path.
Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.