November 18, 2007

Note To Post: Some Subtlety Required

The Washington Post editorial board takes Democrats to task today for their intellectual inertia on Iraq. They scold Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for refusing to recognize their errors early in the session and the gains made by General David Petraeus since then in their insistence on interfering with a mission that clearly has succeeded. However, they also scold the Bush administration for their efforts to keep Nouri al-Maliki from looking like an American puppet:

Iraq's politicians aren't the only ones suffering from inertia. On Wednesday, House Democrats passed an Iraq spending bill that would have required Gen. Petraeus to abort his successful strategy, limit operations to counterterrorism and training, and withdraw all troops by the end of next year. Democratic leaders acted as if nothing has changed in Iraq since January. Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of their initiative is that they knew it would never survive scrutiny by the Senate, which promptly killed it.

But the Bush administration's passivity is even more disturbing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has immersed herself in the details of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and senior U.S. envoys were dispatched last week to troubleshoot in Pakistan and even Georgia. But there has been no visible effort by the administration to help Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker prod the recalcitrant politicians of Baghdad to act. The only high-profile diplomacy by the administration recently was aimed at heading off a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. The White House and State Department seem to be turning their attention from Iraq at the very moment when they should be mounting a diplomatic offensive to secure concrete steps toward a political settlement. Such negligence would be another fateful mistake in the conduct of this war.

Perhaps the administration wants to avoid high-level diplomacy in forcing Maliki to act on behalf of the White House. It's true that the Iraqis have been slow to take advantage of the window provided by the surge, at least as defined by the American Congress and to a lesser extent the administration itself. The National Assembly has not adopted the priorities demanded by Congress in the first days of the surge, and has focused almost entirely on their own priorities instead.

However, it's not true that no progress has been made. Maliki just approved the trial of two high-ranking Health Ministry officials linked to Moqtada al-Sadr for hundreds of murders and abductions, some from hospitals. Maliki has also proposed an amnesty long demanded by Sunnis to release all but the most violent of the accused native insurgents as another step towards reconciliation. He has isolated Sadr politically and traveled to Sunni strongholds in the west to build trust for steps to come. All of this has occurred in the last three months as violence began to ebb throughout the country.

The Post wants to see American diplomacy in this context take the form of diktats when more subtlety is needed. Anyone who truly believes that this administration would disconnect itself from Iraq is sorely mistaken; the White House needs a complete success there to secure its legacy. The recent contretemps at State over a lack of volunteers for expanded FSO slots in Iraq show that the US remains more engaged than ever.

The Bush administration understands that for the Iraqi central government to retain its credibility as independent of Washington, it will need to act without dancing to Washington's tune. The more dramatic diplomacy with Turkey was required to impress the Turks, not the Iraqis, a difference that the Post's normally sensible editorial board, on Iraq at least, missed completely. Not every diplomatic effort needs to make the front pages of the Post to be effective, and in some cases, bombast can be self-defeating.


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