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Iraq, Reconciliation and … Robots

Read this great New York Times piece for a taste of how intractable the difficulties with reconciliation in Iraq are. To fully understand it, let’s imagine that instead of human beings, Iraq and the United States were populated by super-intelligent machines. Were you a RationalBot8000, you would say to your Iraqi counterpart, RationalBot8001, that the diminished violence of the past year and a half should be consolidated by the thorough incorporation of weakened former enemies. You, the 8000, found a way to work with the 7999-models that made up the Sunni insurgents/Sons of Iraq/Awakening Councils, despite their proven capacity for bloodshed. And so the 8001s should be able to work with the 7999s and the 7999.1s in the Baath Party. The 8001 should say that all that makes sense, so bear with him while he gets on it.

But that’s not the way it’s going, and for obvious reasons. Here are the objective circumstances. Iraq is a weak nation with a fragile government and a tense, teetering peace. Its government has the benefit of its rejectionist factions being weaker for the moment and a provincial election that provided a basis for a broader-based governing compact — one that wasn’t based purely on sectarian interest. But no faction — Power-That-Be or Power-That-Isn’t — believes its situation to be permanent. The Big Strategic Fact is that the United States will be out by December 2011, and instead of broadening the sectarian basis for governing, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is acting intransigently toward the Awakening Councils and the Baath Party. It’s pretty easy to see that if those two glide paths continue onward, Iraq will spiral downwardly before and after the United States leaves. At least some RationalBot7999s will believe it to be in their interest to see Maliki continue his intransigence on reconciliation, as it will provide them a pretext to dislodge him in the future.

There hasn’t been a U.S. ambassador in Baghdad since February. Chris Hill arrived on Friday. The Times points out out that at least some messages between Maliki and the United States have been communicated through the White House “war czar,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who I understand is going to be a Bush administration holdover who isn’t leaving office this year. That’s, to say the least, sub-optimal, and Hill’s arrival will undoubtedly augur a U.S. interlocutor who isn’t halfway around the world. Hill’s task has to be to persuade Maliki — and, to different degrees, Maliki’s counterpart leaders in the opposing Iraqi factions — to view U.S. troop withdrawals as deadlines for expanding the base of the government. It would be a post-Status of Forces Agreement update of the “Conditional Engagement” strategy proposed last year by Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security. Hill would have at least two important Pentagon allies for that strategy: Kahl and Brimley, who are now officials in the policy directorate there; Kahl even has the Iraq portfolio.

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