As Congress considers its next steps on Iraq War funding, it ought to heed the warning of the U.S. ambassador there: Giving Iraqis the idea that Americans are leaving the scene hurts — not helps — the slow process of Iraqi reconciliation.
"The longer and louder the debate gets" in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Ryan Crocker said in a telephone interview from Baghdad, "the more danger there is that Iraqis will conclude that we are going," leading to "a hardening of attitudes" among sectarian factions.
He said slow progress is being made on the political front in Iraq as well as on the military side, but he said he fears that America lacks "strategic patience" and, as a veteran of service during Lebanon's horrific civil war in the 1980s, "the potential consequences do scare me."
Crocker, 57, who previously served as ambassador in Pakistan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria and has held other diplomatic posts in Iraq, Iran and Egypt, told me that if the United States fails in Iraq, "it could look like Afghanistan pre-9/11, and that just scares the hell out of me."
Crocker's message on the effects of deadline and withdrawal proposals in Washington differs from the one dispensed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said last month that "the debate in Congress … has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited."
Democratic leaders have cited Gates to argue that they are advancing U.S. interests by challenging Bush administration policy in Iraq and pushing deadlines for troop withdrawals.
But Crocker said it makes his job of achieving reconciliation harder. "It is one thing when the administration says our patience is not unlimited. When you have Congress talking about timetables, withdrawal, cutting off funds, 'the war is lost,' etc., I think you move from useful pressure to where it convinces them we are leaving."
Instead of working on reconciliation, he said, the parties "start calculating where they want to be when we're gone. It takes everyone back to their worst nature."
Shiites, he said, resist reconciling with Sunnis "because it might strengthen the Baathists, who want to put the boot back on their neck. Sunnis say, 'build the trenches, man the barricades. (Shiites) have the numbers, so get ready to fight.' And the Kurds up in the North figure they should run for independence because there isn't going to be a unified Iraq."
He said that "things are happening" on the reconciliation agenda, but on a timetable that can't possibly work as fast as the political timetable in Washington. "I worry that our timetable is running so fast, it will derail theirs."
As progress, he cited the Iraq parliament's approval this week of a nine-member, multi-sectarian electoral commission to oversee provincial elections; another all-sect commission plan to send constitutional amendments to parliament this month; and continuing work on hydrocarbon revenue sharing.
It's also progress, he said, that Sunni tribal leaders and secular Sunni insurgents are killing Al Qaeda operatives, possibly including its leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and that Shiite militant Muqtada al-Sadr is in Iran and that his followers are splintering.
When Sadr ordered his affiliated ministers out of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, Crocker said, two of them refused to leave, and one asked for U.S. assistance in remaining.
When I asked Crocker about his confidence level in al-Maliki, he said, "He's an intelligent, fundamentally decent individual who has one of the most hellish jobs on Earth. I think the Arabs — the Saudis and others — have been completely wrong to accuse him of being a tool of the Iranians.
"I've only been here a month, but I've spent a lot of time with him. His party (Dawa) is historically not that close to Iran. He does not speak Persian, and he has been critical of the Iranians in ways that do not seem calculated exclusively for the ears of the American ambassador.
"I also do not feel that he is viscerally sectarian. I've heard him speak sympathetically of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni party in government. They and Dawa have a great deal in common. They both suffered horribly under Saddam. Neither party ever established a military wing, which makes them pretty unique around here."
At the same time, Crocker said, al-Maliki "is weak as an administrator. He never ran a major organization before. The life he led under Saddam led him to be secretive. And, you know, the prime minister of Iraq is not an independent actor. He has got to govern backed by a coalition with a lot of divisions.
"I think a lot of what many term as Maliki's failings are imposed by the system, not by anything in the man."
The hardest of the "benchmarks" for Iraq's civilians to meet, Crocker said, regards de-Baathification — specifically, allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's party back into government posts. Al Qaeda's suicide bombings in Shia neighborhoods have hardened attitudes toward all Sunnis, he said.
With Democrats now advocating proposals to withdraw aid from al-Maliki's government if it doesn't meet "benchmarks," the disconnect between U.S. timetables and Iraq's may become yet more pronounced — and failure, more likely.
Crocker said the consequences of U.S. failure could include "really horrific" street-by-street sectarian warfare in still-mixed Baghdad, plus triumph for U.S. enemies such as Al Qaeda and Iran, and a regional conflict.
Crocker was a young political officer in Lebanon during its civil war, Israel's invasion and the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was bloodied in Hezbollah's 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people.
"My own experience teaches me," he said, "that when something goes seriously, irretrievably bad, the depth and breadth of bad is something I don't even have the capacity to imagine."
It's a warning to Congress. This may be Bush's war. And failure would be primarily Bush's doing. But Democrats now share responsibility for how it ends. Pulling American troops out is not the end of the story. And a Democratic president might well have to pick up the bloody pieces. The situation calls for strategic patience.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
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