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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The elections will open the door to the possibility of new alliances with new parties and constituencies that have entered the system in the provincial elections. That is not to say that it will be easy to form a new national government after the 2009 elections, but the first step is to achieve the most representative parliament possible. Any effort to tackle the bedrock issues with the current government is unlikely to produce a good outcome since the government has proved to be both weak and intransigent.Those bedrock issues include, most important, the division of power between the central government, the provinces, and the regions—a matter that will most likely require constitutional revisions. According to a February 2008 poll, 67 percent of Iraqis want to have a strong central government, but the current Constitution provides for a weak central government and powerful regions. The other issue of enormous consequence is how Iraq's vast oil wealth will be developed and managed. Other key issues are the de-Baathification law, which may need further revision or at least oversight of its lagging implementation, and the troublesome issue of Kirkuk's status, which remains to be resolved in light of Kurdish claims.The third step is to appoint an envoy to assist the new government in reaching agreement on these systemic issues and to discuss the future U.S. security assistance role. It is highly unlikely that the new Iraqi government will be able to navigate its way to lasting compromises without some type of outside mediation or facilitation. The U.S. president should appoint an envoy to offer assistance and to support other conflict resolution efforts, ranging from U.N. mediation to a U.S.-led Dayton process (as used in the Balkans conflict) to less intrusive "facilitation" by a Group of Friends.The future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq should be negotiated with the new Iraqi government, based on the conditions that exist at the time, the needs of the Iraqi government, and its willingness to meet the basic conditions that the United States would seek in return for its ongoing support. Rather than decide unilaterally what is best for Iraq, the decision should be made with its new government—which is also the best way to leverage that assistance. Meanwhile, over the course of 2009, it should be possible to continue troop withdrawals at roughly the current pace to about half of the current level. Most of the remaining troops should be able to transition to largely noncombat advisory missions. The United States needs to continue the current cautious pace of withdrawal in order to avoid jeopardizing the gains made.A residual troop presence of 50,000 to 60,000 troops may be needed for some years, depending on the security conditions in Iraq and the progress toward a political settlement. A long-term Balkans-type peacekeeping presence may be needed. Over time, it may be possible to recruit other allies or the United Nations to help with this task. To alleviate nationalist sensitivities and lower its profile, the United States should reduce its large headquarters and move out of the remaining palaces it occupies. Dispersion of troops is still required at the present time to provide a security blanket and to mentor and advise Iraqi troops. Iraq can benefit from having high-level advisers assigned to its top operational commands, as is currently the case. But there is no reason that the large U.S. command structure cannot be reduced.The final piece of a new policy should be a robust and inclusive regional diplomatic initiative. No peacemaking and peacekeeping initiative inside Iraq can succeed without a simultaneous and equally concerted effort to establish a regional security framework. The immediate goals should be to induce support for the Iraqi government and to minimize armed intervention by Iran and other actors. The regional dialogue begun by the Bush administration should be continued and elevated with more frequent, higher-level meetings and an accelerated agenda. In addition to the focus on foreign fighters, border security, refugees, and resources, the regional process should seek concrete measures to reduce the chances of a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict and Kurdish-Turkish conflict. The strongest cards to limit Iranian intervention in Iraq are Iraqi nationalism and a continuing U.S. presence to balance the inevitable Iranian influence.