LEVIN ON IRAQ….Over at TPMCafe, Ivo Daalder says that Senator Carl Levin has been “more right on Iraq for a longer period than just about anyone else.” So what does Levin think our plan should be? In the Washington Post today, he argues that we should make use of the one thing that all three of the main groups in Iraq ? Shiite, Kurd, and Sunni ? fear: an American withdrawal.

The Shiites want us to stay until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to deal with the insurgency on their own. The Kurds want us to remain for the impending future. And the Sunni Arab leaders want us to stay as a deterrent to those who might seek revenge against them for the actions of Saddam Hussein.

We must use that leverage ? the possibility of an American withdrawal ? to achieve the broad-based political settlement that is essential for defeating the insurgency.

I believe that if the Iraqis fail to reach a political solution by the end of the year we must consider a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. This does not mean setting a date now for departure. It simply means conveying clearly and forcefully to Iraqis that the presence of our forces is not indefinite and that our staying there requires them to come together politically, since Iraqi unity offers the only hope of defeating the insurgency.

….The administration should tell Iraqis that if they do not reach a political settlement by year’s end, we will consider a timetable for our withdrawal. Making that clear to them will insert a healthy dose of mind-focusing reality that is their best hope for defeating the insurgents and becoming a nation.

I dunno. This sure sounds like it depends an awful lot on the dubious proposition that everyone in Iraq really wants us to stay. In reality, I’m not sure the Kurds care that much, since they probably figure their militias can hold their own in the north and might even make some territorial gains if American troops left. AP reported last week that Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani is considering issuing a fatwa demanding a U.S. withdrawal after the December elections, and Muqtada al-Sadr would probably be pretty happy to see our backs too. As for the Sunnis, a majority of them appear to support the insurgency and are itching to start a civil war just as soon as they think they can get away with it.

I’m all for a withdrawal plan, and I agree in general that a publicly announced set of benchmarks would help motivate Iraqi leaders to take the training of their own troops more seriously. What’s more, if Levin is right that everyone is afraid of a U.S. withdrawal, then his plan would work.

But if even one group decides they’d be better off with us gone, it gives them every reason in the world to harden their demands and refuse to compromise. In other words, I have a feeling the leverage in Levin’s plan works in exactly the opposite direction of what he thinks: instead of promoting a political settlement, it gives extremist groups a positive incentive to oppose a political settlement. I’d be interested in hearing from others about this, though.

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