CONDITIONAL ENGAGEMENT….Via Marc Lynch, Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley of CNAS offer their view of the way forward in Iraq:

President Bush and his successor have only three basic choices on strategy for Iraq: unconditional engagement, conditional engagement, or unconditional disengagement.

….The Bush administration and its supporters continue to call for a strategy of unconditional engagement in Iraq….This strategy will continue to be ineffective because it does not pressure Iraqi leaders to take the political risks needed for real reconciliation. A policy of unconditional engagement in Iraq is all carrots, and no sticks.

Too many critics of the war favor a policy of unconditional disengagement from Iraq….This strategy ignores the very real contribution American forces are making to preventing a resurgence of civil war in Iraq. It also shares the flaw of the administration’s approach in offering few incentives for Iraq’s leaders to accommodate.

….A policy of conditional engagement — a nuanced middle position between “all in” or “all out” — offers a better chance of producing lasting progress in Iraq. Under this strategy, U.S. negotiators would make clear that Iraq and America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi government over the long-term, but only so long as Iraqis move toward political accommodation….Implementing this approach requires a credible threat to abandon allies if they don’t move toward accommodation, while providing a credible promise to continue supporting them if they do move in this direction.

First: I really, really wish they’d skipped the “nuanced middle position” language, which just sets my teeth on edge. Maybe Kahl and Brimley feel the need to reassure everyone that they’re neither warmongers nor hippy pacifists, but in the end this is just preening. It has precisely nothing to do with whether their position actually makes sense.

But that little micro-rant aside, does their position make sense? It’s hard to say, since this is only a short memo and provides no details about just what “credible” threats they have in mind. And the devil is surely in the details here. Kahl and Brimley’s position — essentially timelines and benchmarks — used to be my own, but I’ve become convinced over the past couple of years that it’s politically infeasible.

The problem is that this approach sets you up for an endless string of bloody political battles. As things stand now, if Barack Obama takes office in January and wants to begin withdrawing troops unconditionally, that might provoke a political fight, but only one political fight. And it’s one he can probably win since he’d have public opinion on his side and plenty of allies in Congress. And once the withdrawal is in motion, it’s almost impossible to stop.

But what if, instead, he scratches his chin, assembles a group of foreign policy worthies, and negotiates a nuanced set of benchmarks and timelines for the Iraqi government? First, he will have wasted six months, since foreign policy worthies don’t work on a faster timetable than that. Second, he’s “negotiating with himself,” essentially admitting up front that he’s willing to stay in Iraq if someone brings enough pressure to bear on him. That’s a poor start to a presidency.

And then what? The benchmarks will, of necessity, be fuzzy and malleable. In the real world, firm benchmarks just aren’t in the cards for a chaotic warzone like Iraq. So the first deadline arrives and — what? It’s a battle royal. Republicans will fight like crazed weasels, claiming that enough progress has been made that we should “keep our word” and stay in Iraq. Democrats will fight on the opposite side. Obama will try to find some kind of compromise and will fail. Either he keeps troops in Iraq, essentially admitting that he’s never going to withdraw, or he pulls them out amidst cries that he’s abandoning a solemn pledge from the U.S. government to the people of Iraq just when they need us the most.

And the next deadline? Rinse and repeat.

And again, world without end.

A couple of years ago it looked as though congressional Republicans might be softening on their support for the war. In the event, though, that turned out to be a mirage. Their support today is as strong as ever, and at this point it doesn’t look like anything will change that. President Obama can afford one clean fight over Iraq at the beginning of his term, when he has the tailwind of an election at his back and the firm support of the Democratic caucus. He can’t afford — or hope to win — fight after fight after fight with a Republican Party determined to paint him as a weakling and an appeaser.

And that fundamental reboot of American foreign policy we’re all hoping for from an Obama administration? You can forget about it as long as we’re still stuck in Iraq and still stuck fighting relentlessly over whether, and how fast, we should leave.

So color me skeptical. I’m willing to read Kahl and Brimley’s longer report when it comes out, but I suspect they won’t address the domestic political prospects of their proposal, and that’s the key to whether it has any hope of working or not. Caveat lector.

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