The debate over Iraq is often reduced to bumper-sticker simplicities. But in a press conference last week, President Bush laid out a course of action too subtle for a stump speech. It may be the one course that has some chance to succeed.
"A military solution alone will not stop the violence," Bush said.
So, what can? Politics. Not U.S. partisan politics, but politics among Iraqis, and among Iraq's Arab neighbors who desperately want stability re-established in Baghdad before instability spreads to their own countries.
Carl von Clausewitz famously argued that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Even insurgencies and terrorists use force not as an end in itself but as a tool to achieve political ends.
There is an element among our enemies in Iraq -- the al-Qaida terrorists -- who can never be accommodated politically because they see themselves in a global ideological struggle with the United States. We cannot negotiate with them.
But the core of the U.S. struggle in Iraq is not with al-Qaida, it is with indigenous Sunni forces with indigenous political aims.
The Defense Department's August report, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," describes these "Rejectionists." "Some elements are indicating an interest in Prime Minister al-Maliki's new reconciliation effort, while still employing violence against the Coalition forces and the ISF from a sense of honor and as a means to force meaningful political accommodation," DOD reported. "Moderates say they will accept reconciliation inducements and disarm only after (Shia) death squads are eliminated; Shia militias are disarmed; and key security, amnesty and political demands are met. Other hard-line elements of Rejectionist groups provide professional military skills to al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists to achieve common tactical objectives. Other Rejectionists, including some in Anbar and Baghdad, are weary of al-Qaida in Iraq's violent intimidation tactics and actively oppose al-Qaida in Iraq, sometimes mounting their own anti-al-Qaida in Iraq attacks and raids."
How is the administration dealing with these insurgents -- if not merely by force of arms? Bush outlined a "three-step" approach: 1) working with religious leaders "to restrain their followers and stop sectarian violence," 2) working with political leaders on a national compact that would include "disarming illegal militias and death squads, sharing oil revenues, amending the Iraqi constitution and reforming the de-Baathification process" and 3) "reaching out to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, and asking them to support the Iraqi government's efforts to persuade the Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and accept national reconciliation."
Is there any glimmer of hope on these fronts? Yes.
On Oct. 3, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in Cairo with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Her agenda included stabilizing Iraq and countering the growing threat from Shiite Iran. Following Rice's meeting, Iraqi Sheik Harith al Dari traveled to Mecca on Oct. 15 to meet with Saudi King Abdallah and Abdul Al-Attiyah, secretary general of the GCC.
Dari is Iraq's leading Sunni cleric. While Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, has been a key defender of the post-invasion political process that has put Shiites in a dominant political position, Dari has been a key opponent of that process. He has justified the Sunni insurgency.
A week after Dari's Mecca meeting, a group of 29 Iraqi Sunni and Shiite clergy met in the same city. They signed a declaration forbidding sectarian violence in Iraq. Sistani approved the declaration. Dari said it was "a step in the right direction."
The same day, the London-based newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat published an interview with a man calling himself Abu-Umar, purported leader of a Sunni insurgency faction. He claimed his group had held a now-stalled "dialogue" with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "We would have reached positive results had the dialogue continued," he claimed.
The purported insurgent said some intriguing things. "We are not saying that the U.S. forces should withdraw immediately," he said. "This is unreasonable."
I contacted the State Department to see if there was any credibility to this man's claim of discussions with Khalilzad. The department did not comment. But at an Oct. 26 briefing for foreign reporters, Rice's special coordinator for Iraq, David Satterfield, was asked if America was negotiating with the insurgency.
"We are in contact, as we have stated, with those who purport to speak for or represent the insurgency, insurgents, those involved in the insurgency," said Satterfield. "We are in touch with them for the purpose of seeing whether or not in fact they are credibly able to deliver an end to violence, whether in fact they are able and willing and interested in ending the violence and coming into the political process."
We may never find such a Sunni leader. But what if we do? "We are pressuring Iraq's leaders to take bold measures to save their country," Bush said at his press conference. "We're making clear that America's patience is not unlimited."
That may be a polite way of saying: We will twist Shiite arms right out of their sockets.