A Modest Proposal: Benchmarks or Green Zone Eviction

The President's tentative agreement to include benchmarks in upcoming funding bills -- although he plans to veto the Democrats' latest bill -- still leaves open how the administration plans to enforce key benchmarks that will lead to a genuine political settlement in Iraq among the rival ethnic and religious factions. While the Bush administration dithers, and experts call for important but hard-to-achieve long-range solutions, I've got a quicker way to get the warring factions to compromise on oil revenues and political power.

My solution? Tell all the legislators and ministers they've got three months to come up with legislative solutions that will stick, or the U.S. won't offer them protection anymore inside the Green Zone. In short, as the clock keeps ticking until a deadline for reconcilliation, U.S. troops should start backing up moving trucks to the Iraqis' protected residences, and we make it clear that until all the key measures are passed, they'll be evicted and forced to return to their own homes in the wilds of the free-fire zone that is the rest of Iraq. Maliki will have to drive out of the Green Zone in his own car to his original home in Baghdad -- and securing his protection from roving bands of fanatics and insurgents will be his personal responsibility if he wants to stay alive. But unless real progress towards a political settlement is made, we won't pay for his protection or body-guards any longer.

Sure it's extreme, but it may be more likely to produce results than what our government is currently considering. As the IraqSlogger website pointed out:

"The president said his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, would try to 'find common ground on benchmarks' for the Iraqi government in his negotiations with lawmakers.

"Bush specifically mentioned the passage of Iraqi legislation to share oil revenues, the future division of power in Iraq, and the opening of some government jobs to former members of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein as items requiring attention.

"Despite the President's rhetorical support of benchmarks, he insists the performance of the Iraq government not be tied to any punitive consequence for failure to achieve the stated goals."(Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, there's little sign that, in reality, the Iraqi legislature or the Maliki government will actually move to implement these changes. A grim, pragmatic article in Thursday's Washington Post by Rend Al-Rahim, a former Iraqi representative to the U.S., underscores all the real-world obstacles standing in the way of the political settlement needed to restore a semblance of stability:

"Last June, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a 24-point plan for national reconciliation. Since then there have been meetings of clerics, tribal elders, army officers, civic organizations -- all with much fanfare but little result. Less-public meetings with dissident Sunnis, especially in Amman, Jordan, have had little tangible impact on the political and security situations.

"The United States has placed much emphasis on laws deemed necessary for Iraqi national reconciliation. Two significant laws, part of Maliki's 24-point plan, are stalled. The draft of a new, less draconian de-Baathification law has languished because Shiite factions oppose it. A draft oil law, designed to ease Sunni fears, is opposed by the Kurds. The review of the constitution, scheduled to be completed by May 15, is another benchmark on the path to national reconciliation, but the deadline probably won't be met. Dialogue with armed Sunni groups is deadlocked because the parties to the coalition government cannot agree on which groups are acceptable.

"Meanwhile, regional diplomacy has intensified. On March 10 the Iraqi government hosted a meeting in Baghdad that brought together Iraq's neighbors, members of the U.N. Security Council and other regional and international participants. A follow-up meeting of foreign ministers took place last week in Egypt.

"But as useful as regional and international agreements may be, they cannot provide a solution. Countries in the region can exploit opportunities for mischief provided by the fissures within Iraq, but they cannot mend these fissures. The paramount problem in Iraq is the disagreement among Iraqis themselves and their reluctance to compromise, and what is needed first and foremost is an agreement among Iraqi social and political groups. Only then will regional and international agreements be relevant. Similarly, the attention the United States pays to the legal aspects of national reconciliation puts the cart before the horse: Laws and constitutional revision must be outcomes of a national agreement, not conditions for one."

His solution is a complex Dayton-style settlement like the one imposed on the warring Bosnian factions:

"The United States must focus above all on an Iraqi compact. In 1995, after a war that left hundreds of thousands dead, a frustrated international community finally decided that the parties to the conflict in Bosnia had to be brought to the negotiating table. The Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were pressed to convene in Dayton and pressured by other nations to stay at it. The Dayton Accords were ratified by the key parties and overseen by the international community, and they have kept the peace in Bosnia.

"The differences between Iraq and Bosnia should not deter us from using the Dayton process as a model. Many countries have high stakes in Iraq's stability. These countries must coax, persuade and otherwise induce Iraqis to engage in sustained negotiations in which they spell out disagreements, aspirations and fears, and reach compromises or solutions that determine who rules and how."

That's all well and good, but if Iraqi leaders have the sure knowledge that Maliki will be booted ouf of the Green Zone along with the rest of the legislature and cabinet unless they all make concessions might be more likely to prod them into action. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of being forced to live outside the Green Zone "powerfully concentrates the mind."

UPDATE: In case some commmentators aren't aware of it, my idea, titled a "modest proposal" in a nod to Jonathan Swift, was meant to be a half-kidding suggestion and doesn't mean that we shouldn't plan for a phased withdrawal, no matter what the Maliki "government" -- weak as it is -- chooses to do.