The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq

  • A Trip Report
    Aug 6, 2007

    Everyone sees Iraq differently. As one leading US official in Iraq put it, “the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.” It is scarcely surprising that my perceptions of a recent trip to Iraq are different from that of two of my traveling companions and those of several other recent think tank travelers to the country.

    From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq’s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence. It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq's ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq's politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development. So far, Iraq’s national government has failed to act at the rate necessary to move the country forward or give American military action political meaning.

    The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.

    These trends are uncertain, and must be considered in the context of a long list of serious political, military, and economic risks that are described in detail. The report also discusses major delays and problems in the original surge strategy. The new US approach to counterinsurgency warfare is making a difference, but it still seems likely from a visit to the scene that the original strategy President Bush announced in January would have failed if it had not been for the Sunni tribal awakening.

    Luck, however, is not something that can be ignored, and there is a window of opportunity that could significantly improve the chances of US success in Iraq if the Iraqi government acts upon it. The US also now has a country team in Iraq that is far more capable than in the past, and which may be able to develop and implement the kind of cohesive plans for US action in Iraq that have been weak or lacking to date. If that team can come forward with solid plans for an integrated approach to a sustained US effort to deal with Iraq’s plans and risks, there would be a far stronger and more bipartisan case for strategic patience.

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Anthony H. Cordesman