The Iraq Debate--New Ideas Series, Volume 1: "The Gelb/Biden Plan"

There are no "good solutions." There are only some that are less bad than others. That is the magnitude of the problem in Iraq, and it's time we admitted that.
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This week there will be debate in Congress regarding the Iraq War. I am glad that Iraq will be the top issue discussed in DC. It is about time.

But I am extremely concerned. Discussion alone is not enough. It is time for the discussion to evolve. As I have written about in my new book, Chasing Ghosts, I believe America has fallen into a dangerous false choice with regard to Iraq. Most Americans assume they have to be with President Bush and "Stay the Course," or be with Cindy Sheehan and "Bring 'em Home Right Now." Neither mantra is realistic or responsible. Neither one is a real plan. There are other options. In a country of 300 million people, we should be able to come up with more than two solutions to the biggest problem facing America.

Let me start by saying there are no "good solutions." There are only some that are less bad than others. That is the magnitude of the problem in Iraq, and it's time we admitted that. If we stay it is going to be rough, if we leave it is going to be rough. Despite a week of relatively good news out of Iraq, there is still no silver-bullet solution that will give Iraq immediate peace, a stable government and a puppy for every child. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either under-informed, working for the White House, or running for the White House. I wish that if we pulled out today everything in Iraq would be better. But that is not the reality. An immediate withdrawl is also not the humanitarian option. Things could get worse on the ground for the Iraqis. Much worse. And it would be our fault. The Iraqi people deserve better.

There are a number of alternate plans out there that can offer a change in course in Iraq. But most Americans have never even heard about them. These plans fly around military and diplomatic email lists, and rarely make the mainstream media. They are different from the Bush Plan, and are more than just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They appreciate the enormity of the problem in Iraq. They realize that the United States and our allies must work to prevent the Iraq war from expanding into a regional war. They also understand our commitment to the Iraq people--that we have a moral obligation to do our absolute best to fix the mess we have made.

I am going to do my part to expand the debate in this country by starting a new weekly series here on HuffPost that will offer alternative plans on Iraq. IAVA does not endorse any of these plans. But we firmly believe that it is vital to America's newest generation of veterans that this discussion move forward immediately. And we also believe that the veterans of this war should play a large role in shaping the discussion surrounding it.

Every week I will highlight a new "third way" plan for Iraq. Some are more viable than others. But they all deserve consideration and attention. Congress should be having open hearings and debates discussing the merits of every single one of these plans. If we can have hearings on steroids in baseball and Terri Schaivo, then we can have hearings on the proposals for the future of our engagement in Iraq. Our troops are working day and night to crack this problem. Congress and the President should be doing the same. It is time for Congress and the President to call in the best minds our country has to offer and force them to work together to find solutions. Pull all the living former Presidents into Washington. Get Secretaries Albright, Powell, Brzesinski and Kissenger there. Add military experts ranging from General Schwarzkopf to General Batiste to General Zinni to General Clark. Get the best Middle-East experts in America. And don't forget the Iraq Vets. The President and Congress must show some real leadership and get our country's best people, not just the agreeable ones, all working together to offer new plans and ideas. The stakes are too high in Iraq for partisan mudslinging and straw-man debates. America has had enough of that. It's time to get down to brass tacks and start coming up with proposals the American people can chew on, stand behind, and ultimately, force candidates to run on.

I'll start this new series with the proposal from Les Gelb and Joe Biden.

Les Gelb is the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Joe Biden is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (he is also likely running for President in 2008).

The proposal suggests breaking Iraq into three pieces, and is largely based off the model created for Bosnia a decade ago at the Dayton Accords. The full plan was presented in a recent New York Times Op/ed here, but I'll give you a summary. The Gelb/Biden plan has five components:

1) "...establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multisectarian and international police protection."

2) "entice the Sunnis into joining the federal system with an offer they couldn't refuse. To begin with, running their own region should be far preferable to the alternatives: being dominated by Kurds and Shiites in a central government or being the main victims of a civil war. But they also have to be given money to make their oil-poor region viable. The Constitution must be amended to guarantee Sunni areas 20 percent (approximately their proportion of the population) of all revenues."

3) "ensure the protection of the rights of women and ethno-religious minorities by increasing American aid to Iraq but tying it to respect for those rights. Such protections will be difficult, especially in the Shiite-controlled south, but Washington has to be clear that widespread violations will stop the cash flow."

4) "The president must direct the military to design a plan for withdrawing and redeploying our troops from Iraq by 2008 (while providing for a small but effective residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest). We must avoid a precipitous withdrawal that would lead to a national meltdown, but we also can't have a substantial long-term American military presence. That would do terrible damage to our armed forces, break American and Iraqi public support for the mission and leave Iraqis without any incentive to shape up."

5) "under an international or United Nations umbrella, we should convene a regional conference to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and its federal system. For all that Iraq's neighbors might gain by picking at its pieces, each faces the greater danger of a regional war. A "contact group" of major powers would be set up to lean on neighbors to comply with the deal."

A few of my quick thoughts: The plan is obviously not perfect. But there are no perfect plans for Iraq. The thing I like most about this plan is that it is brash. Any serious proposal must be. Gelb and Biden are not just meddling around on the edges here. They are offering an entirely new way to tackle the problem in which security is the number one issue. Gelb and Biden understand that in order to get anything done, we need to find a way to control the violence--we must stop the bleeding. Security will drive everything else in Iraq. The best way to battle the insurgency is to discourage Iraqis from joining the fight. Showing that we can ensure safety for the average Iraqi helps do that. The current (inadequate) number of troops playing Whack-a-Mole for the next three years won't do it. Forcing the three main ethnic groups into neutral corners might give us a shot at stabilizing the situation.

There are of course problems with this plan (as with any plan). As Anthony Cordesman pointed out in his critique, the main weakness of the Gelb/Biden proposal is that Iraq does not have a clean set of lines that divide the ethnic groups. There is also no reliable data to show how the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other factions are spread out, and where exactly they live. Splitting the large cities like Baghdad would be very complicated. The Gelb/Biden plan would also create massive displacement issues that could instigate violence.

That being said, this plan is surely better than "Stay the Course," and might buy us all some much needed time to force the political situation to take root. The 2008 date is much more realistic than dates offered by some of the other plans (like John Kerry's idea to withdraw troops by the end of 2006). President Bush doesn't need to give a specific date. But how about a ballpark? One year? Five years? Fifty years? Every military mission I ever executed had a timeline. The American people, the Iraqi people, and our troops all need an idea of how far away the goal line is.

I hope to hear some members of Congress discussing the merits of the Gelb/Biden plan this week. Email or call your representatives in Congress. Ask them their thoughts on this plan--and others. Maybe a few TV and radio shows will bring this plan up when they discuss Iraq. Send this post to your friends and let's all try to force a more robust discussion on the war.

I think that is enough from me. I'll have Volume 2 of the New Idea Series, with another alternative proposal, up here next week.

Now, I throw the discussion over to you, the American people. What do you think of the Gelb/Biden plan?

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