No Talk of Democracy
September 19, 2007; Page A3
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates sketched out a long-term vision for securing Iraq that includes a continuing American military force that is a fraction the size of the one there today, no permanent U.S. bases and a significant Navy and Air Force presence in the Persian Gulf region.
In an interview in the Pentagon, Mr. Gates also said part of the long-range security structure would be stronger military partnerships with some of America's friends in the Gulf area, helping them build better counterterrorism forces as well as regional air- and missile-defense systems to check Iranian ambitions.
What was missing from his vision for Iraq and the broader region was talk about transforming the region and spreading democracy. Instead, the Pentagon chief seemed much more focused on transforming the debate in Washington so the next president inherits a long-term strategy for Iraq and the region that both Republicans and Democrats can support.
"I came here with a pretty clear agenda," Mr. Gates said. "Mainly I was focused on how we can put Iraq in a place where we can have a long-term stabilizing presence that has broad bipartisan support." It is a vision that Mr. Gates, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said was born of his experience as a national-security official during the Cold War. In those years, as in the broader struggle now under way against Islamic extremism, he said, the only successful strategy is one that can be adopted by multiple presidents -- both Republican and Democrat -- over many years.
For now, that view seems to be translating into a much more pragmatic approach both on the ground in Iraq and back home. As recently as last year, U.S. war plans for Iraq focused on building a strong, multisectarian democracy that would serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East. With national reconciliation largely stalled, Mr. Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, have given local commanders greater latitude to forge alternative strategies that seek to stabilize specific regions across the country as the top priority -- even if it comes at the expense of a strong central government.
The shift has produced some modest improvements in the security situation in Iraq. It has been less successful in changing the tenor of the debate in Washington, where frustration with mounting U.S. casualties and the inability of Iraqis to meet national-reconciliation goals is fueling a divisive debate. The political battle over the war seems likely to grow in intensity as the presidential elections near.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted the Bush administration in a speech this week for "not doing anything to pressure Iraqi leaders to keep their commitments" on meeting national-reconciliation goals. He called for setting a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces that would send a message to Sunni, Shiite and Kurd leaders that they had to reach agreement quickly on major issues, such as distribution of oil revenues.
Mr. Gates said he had made limited progress building any sort of consensus around a bipartisan approach for Iraq that would carry over into the next administration. "I am working hard to reach out to people across the spectrum up on the Hill -- to keep the channels of communications open and build trust," Mr. Gates said. "I can't say we have made a lot of headway on that score yet."
Where Mr. Gates's pragmatic approach has had a more profound impact is in Iraq itself. His long-term vision for U.S. forces in Iraq bears a striking resemblance to that offered by moderate Democrats and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, with U.S. troops focused on fighting al Qaeda, training Iraqi forces and providing a "safety net" in case they get overwhelmed.
In his speech, Sen. Levin outlined the same missions for American forces in the future. The difference is timing. Sen. Levin said he believes the U.S. can take on the more limited role by April 30, 2008. Mr. Gates and Gen. Petraeus believe the surge of U.S. forces has been essential to pulling the country back from the brink of chaos. They have said U.S. forces should shrink in numbers and shift missions more gradually. "It is going to happen at a different pace in different provinces," Mr. Gates said.
The Pentagon chief also has allowed Gen. Petraeus to take a far more decentralized approach in Iraq aimed at bolstering local and tribal leaders, both politically and economically. It is a strategy that bears some similarity to the Democrats' "soft partition" approach, in which Iraq would be ruled by a weak central government that distributes oil revenues, and largely self-governing Shiite, Sunni and Kurd-dominated regions. Mr. Gates said it is "too early to tell" whether Iraq is headed in that direction.
Commanders on the ground seem to be moving that way. Marine commanders have begun to explore whether they can build a free-trade zone in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province that would allow businessmen in places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia to establish economic ties to the area without going through the bureaucratic, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Such a free-trade zone would require the central government's approval.
"I think the notion of creating the freedom for people to work through the central government and directly with partners around them makes all kinds of sense," Mr. Gates said. "My view is that whatever works economically ought to be tried."
Write to Greg Jaffe at email@example.com
Gates Crafts Long-Term Iraq Plan, - Source
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