The Iraq Decisions That the Next President, Whether It’s Obama or McCain, Will Face

In a new book, war correspondent Linda Robinson also assesses the performance of Gen. David Petraeus.

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As this nation prepares to elect a new president, there is a sense that America ' s involvement in Iraq has turned a corner. Much of the credit for the diminished bloodshed and the prospects for political progress has gone to the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who leaves Iraq next month to take up expanded regional responsibilities as head of U.S. Central Command. In her new book, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq, former U.S. News Senior Writer Linda Robinson draws on 11 reporting trips to Iraq and extensive interviews with Petraeus and his team to document the evolution of American actions in Iraq. She offers recommendations on how to move forward in Iraq .By June 2008, Iraq was calmer than it had been since April 2004. The war was not over, but it clearly had reached a new stage. When Gen. David Petraeus took command a year and a half earlier, Iraq was on fire. The majority in the United States believed there was no way to avoid an ignominious defeat such as America had not suffered in a quarter century. Petraeus, with the help of many others, pulled Iraq back from the brink of civil war and created an opportunity for the next administration to bring the war to a soft landing.Accomplishing that will not be easy, but what had seemed inconceivable to most onlookers in 2006 is now distinctly possible—if the 44th American president has the fortitude and wisdom to capitalize on what has been achieved. The new president has the great advantage of starting with a clean slate and no special relationships or past commitments. He can adopt a new policy that builds on the successes achieved in 2007 and 2008 and provides the critical missing ingredients that can be supplied only by presidential authority. The basic conceptual change needed is to shift the paradigm from war-making to peacemaking and to elevate achievement of the elusive political solution to be the policy's central goal.The first decision the new president has to make is whether to pursue a political solution to Iraq's conflict—that is, to help Iraq construct a new foundation for the nation—or to settle for the status quo. He must decide whether the central goal of his Iraq policy is a multisectarian Iraq in which all the groups share political, economic, and military power. That outcome would be the most stable one for Iraq internally and for the region. The Bush administration was divided over how hard to push for this solution, and that division prevented effective policy formulation and implementation. The alternative is to accept the consolidation of an Islamist Shiite sectarian government that might become closely allied with Iran. That outcome is far less likely to produce stability inside Iraq or in the region. The United States loses nothing by attempting to achieve the first outcome, and the upside is enormous.The issue must be framed starkly because the perception exists in some circles that the apparent defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq means that the United States has finished its task in Iraq. The combat task may be largely finished, but to abandon the quest for a stable internal order will almost certainly lead to renewed civil war and regional spillover. The legislative package passed by the Iraqi parliament in February, particularly the compromise on provincial powers, was an important step forward. But the divisions remain deep, and the Iraqi factions are unlikely to resolve the most difficult issues on their own.As a first step, the U.S. president should lay down a number of conditions. He should make it clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that continued U.S. assistance will require the government to take a certain minimal set of actions to prevent Iraq from sliding back into civil war. The most important one is to speedily incorporate all of the vetted members of the Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni neighborhood defense groups, into the Iraqi security forces or other jobs. This is the single best guarantee that the Sunni insurgency will not break out again. More than the previously agreed-upon 25 percent, probably at least half should be incorporated into the Iraqi police force. The reason is that Iraqis overwhelmingly prefer to have local residents in charge of neighborhood security, and the police force is still heavily Shiite.