Why Petraeus' intriguing new Iraq strategy is probably doomed.

Military analysis.
July 25 2007 5:51 PM

Interesting, But Doomed

Why Petraeus' intriguing new Iraq strategy will probably fail.

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Alliances of convenience rarely outlive their immediate aims. Josef Stalin formed an alliance with the United States and Britain for the purpose of defeating Nazi Germany. But once the war was over, he had no interest in integrating the Soviet Union into the Western economic system.

The idea of extending the alliances may have come, in part, from Stephen Biddle, a military historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who, according to the Times, was a member of the "Joint Strategic Assessment Team" that helped conceive the new U.S. strategy.

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In a July 12 interview at the Council, conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, Biddle said that the only way to secure all of Iraq is "to negotiate a series of cease-fire deals with Iraq's current combatants in which, even though they retain the ability to fight, they decide it's in their own self-interest to … decline to fight."

He referred to Anbar as "a model" for this concept, and added, "There are now similar negotiations ongoing in a variety of other places around Iraq." In Anbar, he said, the alliance "dropped into our lap"; the Sunni sheiks came to us and asked for help. "If it's going to happen elsewhere, we're going to have to take a more proactive role. … We have to start using the military not as a device to secure everything uniformly but as a device for creating incentives and disincentives—sticks and carrots—to push along the process of local cease-fires with particular factions." For instance, he said, we would have to tell each faction: "We will defend you if you cooperate; if you don't cooperate, we will attack you."

Biddle is a very smart strategist. His writings on the Afghanistan war were shrewdly reasoned and diligently researched, and his book, Military Power, is a modern classic. But I'm puzzled by his idea here. The deals with the Sunni sheiks are explicitly opportunistic. Assuming that the alliances of convenience whip the jihadists, there is nothing preventing the Sunnis and Shiites (and Americans) from going back to killing one another.

Some set of "sticks and carrots" could conceivably extend the alliances of convenience into a sustained cease-fire of normal democratic politics. But if so, the deal would have to be hammered out by a recognized government in Baghdad. Neither Gen. Petraeus nor Ambassador Crocker (nor, for that matter, President Bush) has the political authority to make such a deal—much less the military firepower to enforce it.

It is worth noting that Biddle himself has serious doubts about the whole notion. In his interview with Gwertzman, he said the odds that the surge and the new strategy might work—that is, that they might produce "something like stability and security in Iraq"—are "maybe one in 10."

Whether those odds are worth gambling on, he said, depends on whether you're averse or prone to risk. Biddle described himself as risk-averse. Therefore, if the decision was up to him, he'd pull the troops out. President Bush, he said, "is clearly very tolerant of risk." And so he's pouring more in.

Here are the stakes, as Biddle sees them. If the United States pulls out, Iraq's sectarian warfare would probably intensify. If the United States stays in and the surge continues, Iraqi violence might be contained, but 700 to 1,000 more American soldiers will probably die each year—and there will be only a one in 10 chance that the strategy will succeed (by rather minimal standards of success).

So, this is the question: Is the price worth the gamble? Bush has put more chips on the table, fully aware of the odds. Will the members of Congress keep bankrolling him? How risk-prone are they? And, ultimately, how much risk will the American voters feel like swallowing when they go to the polls next fall?