In my judgment, our course in Iraq has lost contact with our national security interests in the Middle East and beyond. Our continuing absorption with military activities in Iraq is limiting our diplomatic assertiveness there and elsewhere in the world. The prospects that the "surge" strategy will succeed as originally envisioned by the president are very limited within the period framed by our domestic political debate. And the strident, polarized nature of that debate increases the risk that our involvement in Iraq will end in a poorly planned withdrawal that undercuts our interests in the Middle East.
The current debate in Washington has not been conducive to a thoughtful revision of Iraq policy. Our debate is being driven by partisan political calculations and understandable fatigue with bad news - including deaths and injuries to Americans. We have been debating and voting on whether to fund American troops in Iraq and whether to place conditions on such funding. We have contemplated in great detail whether Iraqi success in achieving certain benchmarks should determine whether funding is approved or whether a withdrawal should commence. I would observe that none of this debate addresses our vital interests.
I believe that the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved by doing so. Persisting with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our interests over the long term. I do not come to this conclusion lightly, particularly given that Gen. David Petraeus will deliver a formal report in September on his efforts to improve security. I do not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been progress in security. But three factors - the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military and the constraints of our domestic political process - are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time.
Few Iraqi leaders are willing to make sacrifices or expose themselves to risks on behalf of the type of unified Iraq that the Bush administration had envisioned. In contrast, many Iraqi leaders are deeply invested in sectarian or tribal agendas. Even if U.S. negotiators found a way to forge a political settlement among selected representatives of the major factions, these leaders have not shown the ability to control their members at the local level.
In this context, the possibility that the United States can set meaningful benchmarks that would provide an indication of impending success or failure is remote. Equally unproven is the theory voiced by some supporters of a withdrawal that removing American troops from Iraq would stimulate a grand compromise between Iraqi factions. American strategy must adjust to the reality that sectarian factionalism will not abate anytime soon and probably cannot be controlled from the top.
The president and some of his advisers may be tempted to pursue the surge strategy to the end of his administration, but such a course contains extreme risks for U.S. national security. The resulting contentiousness with Congress would make cooperation on national security issues nearly impossible. It would greatly increase the chances for a poorly planned withdrawal from Iraq or possibly the broader Middle East that could damage U.S. interests for decades.
The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq. A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy.
Our security interests call for a downsizing and redeployment of U.S. military forces to more sustainable positions. Numerous locations for temporary or permanent military bases have been suggested, including Kuwait or other nearby states, the Kurdish territories, or defensible locations in Iraq outside of urban areas. All of these options come with limitations. But some level of American military presence in Iraq would improve the odds that we could respond to terrorist threats, protect oil flows and help deter a regional war. It would also reassure friendly governments that the United States is committed to Middle East security. A redeployment would allow us to continue training Iraqi troops and delivering economic assistance, but it would end the U.S. attempt to interpose itself between Iraqi factions.
It is essential that as we attempt to reposition from our current military posture, we launch a multifaceted diplomatic offensive that pushes adversarial states and terrorist groups to adjust to us. A first step is working with like-minded nations to establish a consistent diplomatic forum related to Iraq that is open to all parties in the Middle East. Such a forum could facilitate more regular contact with Syria and Iran with less drama and rhetoric than has accompanied some meetings. Just as the six-party talks have improved communications in Northeast Asia beyond the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, stabilizing Iraq could be the occasion for a diplomatic forum that contributes to other Middle East priorities.
But the credibility and sustainability of our actions depend on addressing the two elephants in the room of U.S. Middle East policy - the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil. The implementation of an effective program to remedy these conditions could be as valuable to our long-term security as would be the achievement of a stable, pro-Western government in Iraq.
We cannot allow fatigue and frustration with our Iraq policy to lead to the abandonment of the tools and relationships we need to defend our vital interests in the Middle East. The administration and Congress must suspend what has become almost knee-jerk political combat over Iraq. We need to move Iraq policy beyond the politics of the moment and reestablish a broad consensus on the role of the United States in the Middle East.
RICHARD G. LUGAR, a U.S. senator from Indiana, is the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. His comments were adapted from a speech given Monday night on the floor of the Senate.
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