The brutally honest Baker-Hamilton assessment of the Iraq morass implies that we need to leave Iraq if the factions there don't get their act together, but it also urges a last-ditch effort to enlist the help of Syria and Iran to salvage something decent.
Both are good suggestions, but they will only have a chance of being effective if we go one notch further and set a fixed date - now - for America to leave Iraq.
The only hope of moving the factions inside Iraq, not to mention Syria and Iran, toward reconciliation is if we have leverage over them, which we now lack. The currency of Middle East politics is pain. And right now, all the pain is being inflicted on us and on Iraqi civilians. Only if we tell all the players that we are leaving might we create a different balance of pain and therefore some hope for a diplomatic deal. Trying to do diplomacy without the threat of pain is like trying to play baseball without a bat. Yes, yes, I know, the conventional wisdom is that if the U.S. sets a date to leave Iraq the whole Middle East will explode in a Shiite-Sunni war. Maybe, but maybe not.
Let's play this out. What happens if we set a date to leave? The war in Iraq will get worse, but for how long? Right now our troops are providing a floor under the civil war that allows some parties to behave outrageously or make impossible demands - because they know that we won't let things spin totally out of control. Would they behave more cautiously if they knew they had to pay retail for their madness? I'd like to find out.
Moreover, while our presence in Iraq helps control the situation, it also aggravates it. For many Sunnis, and a growing number of Shiites, we've become "occupiers" to be resisted. Our leaving will both unleash violence and eliminate violence.
As for the neighbors, well, right now Iran, Syria and some other Arab states look at Iraq and clearly believe that the controlled chaos there is their friend. For Arab autocrats, chaos is their friend because a burning Iraq on Al Jazeera sends a message to their own people: "This is what happens to those who try democracy." And for Iran and Syria, anything that frustrates the U.S. in Iraq and keeps America bleeding weakens its ability to confront Tehran.
The minute we leave, chaos in Iraq is not their friend anymore. First of all, if there is a full-fledged civil war, Syria, a largely Sunni country, will have to support the Iraqi Sunnis. Shiite Iran will have to support the Iraqi Shiites. That would mean Iran and Syria, now allies, will be on opposite sides of the Iraqi civil war. That will leave them with the choice of either indirectly fighting each other or working to settle the war. Moreover, right now we are "Mr. Big" in Iraq, soaking up all the popular anger. But the minute we're gone, Iran becomes "Mr. Big" and the age-old tensions between Iraqi Arab Shiites and Iranian Persian Shiites will surface. Iran and Moktada al-Sadr will be at each other's throats. Also, as long as our troops are in Iraq, we are pinned down and an easy target for Iran to hit, should we ever want to strike its nuclear facilities. Once we are out, we will have much more room to maneuver. I'm not saying we should attack Iran, but I am saying Iran will be much more worried that we will.
As for the Arab states, they've done little to promote peace in Iraq. They've basically said to America: "You can't leave and we won't help." O.K., we're leaving. You still don't want to help? The only thing the Arab regimes fear more than democracy is fragmentation. As I've written before, our real choices in Iraq are 10 months or 10 years. Either we commit the resources to entirely rebuild the place over a decade, for which there is little support, or we tell everyone that we will be out within 10 months, or sooner, and we'll deal with the consequences from afar. We need to start the timer - today, now.
As long as we're in Iraq, Iraq implodes, and we absorb a lot of the pain. The minute we leave, Iraq explodes - or at least no one can be sure it won't - and that is a real threat to the Iraqi factions and neighbors. Even facing that reality might not knock enough sense into them to compromise, but at least then they'll have their medieval religious war without us.
Only that threat will give us leverage. Yes, it would be a sad end to our involvement there. But everything Iraq's leaders have done so far suggests that a united, democratic and pluralistic Iraq is their second choice. Tribal politics is still their first choice. We can't go on having our first-choice kids dying for their second choice.