June 3, 2008

We need to take a new direction in Iraq

TRAVELING IN THE OCEAN STATE over the past two years, I met thousands of Rhode Islanders who told me it was time for a change in Washington. Tired of a president who failed to listen and failed to learn, last November they and millions of Americans voted for a new direction.

As a new member of the U.S. Senate, I feel a great responsibility to those Rhode Islanders to work to address the many serious challenges our nation faces. None of these, I believe, is more grave or more pressing than our course in Iraq.

The situation on the ground in Iraq is dangerous and unstable, and rife with sectarian conflict that must be resolved by Iraqi political cooperation, not American military force. Our troops and their families have made countless sacrifices, and our choices must be worthy of those sacrifices.

A broad consensus is emerging, from senior military commanders to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to the American people, that our best course would be to begin to redeploy American troops from Iraq. Alarmingly, the President has failed to heed our voices, choosing instead a strategy of escalation that would send more of our soldiers into harm’s way. I believe that would be a terrible mistake.

Many of my fellow Democrats in the Senate share this view, and a number of our Republican colleagues have joined us. In the coming weeks, the Senate will consider a bipartisan resolution that we hope will send a clear and resounding message: Escalating the war in Iraq is wrong for Iraq and wrong for America. Passage of this resolution will be an important first step in our efforts to put continuing pressure on this administration to change course in Iraq. After that we will take up stronger measures to keep pressure on the administration, which I will support.

It is my strong belief that in order to create the best environment for real change, the President must announce clearly and unequivocally that the United States plans to redeploy our troops from Iraq. I believe such an announcement would enhance our national security position in Iraq, the Middle East, and around the world in three important ways.

First, a clear statement of American intent to redeploy forces from Iraq would eliminate the Iraqi insurgents’ case that we are an army of occupation. The Iraqi population’s nationalist sentiment would no longer be engaged against us.

Second, without a mediate American presence, the world community would understand that it must face the consequences of the Iraq situation. Other nations in the region and elsewhere around the world would be motivated to take a more active role in the effort to bring peace and stability to the region.

Specifically, Iraq’s Arab neighbors would have to address the risk of a pan-Arabic Sunni/Shi’ite conflict igniting in Iraq and assume greater responsibility for averting such an outcome. I have been disappointed that Saudi Arabia and others have not done more to help stabilize Iraq to date. Yet, under current U.S. policy, these Arab countries have little incentive to take action to help calm the conflict and reduce the violence. Any incentive they do have is attenuated by America’s role as peacekeeper, and offset by the cost in many eyes of associating with the United States.

Third, Iran currently gains immensely from fomenting violence in Iraq. Keeping America bogged down in a civil war in Iraq undermines critical U.S. policy objectives, including the effort to work effectively with the international community to address the serious threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. In the context of an impending American redeployment, the advantages Iran currently enjoys from an America bogged down in a conflict in Iraq would diminish or evaporate.

These three changes in the Iraq dynamic can set the stage for an aggressive international diplomatic effort to restore security in Iraq and combat terrorism worldwide. An intense diplomatic effort, with the parties thus motivated by the prospect of American redeployment, stands a real chance for success. It will also stanch the hemorrhage of two critical American assets: our international standing and our national treasury. To lead sensitively, firmly and boldly on the diplomatic front; to speak again in realities instead of slogans; to build consensus instead of polarizing nations — all should help restore American prestige, leadership and goodwill.

Without a significant change in the dynamic on the ground, too many Iraqis will continue to see our presence in Iraq as more provocative than helpful. For the safety of our troops and the stability of the region, that perception must change.

The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. The status quo undermines our national security by hurting our troops and their families, diverting our attention from al-Qaida and other critical threats, and degrading our military capability for other actions.

A new course for Iraq demands a new strategy that is both bold and realistic. The President’s escalation plan is neither. Announcing our intent to bring our soldiers home will help us start down the long road toward renewed American strength and leadership in the world. It is a critical journey, and it’s past time to begin.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D.-R.I.) is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse