Thursday, November 29, 2007

Our Ms. Brooks: Good News?

It's Thursday, which means a new Rosa Brooks column is up. Today's opinion piece looks at the sudden spate of good news emanating from the foreign policy division of the current administration. At a heavily touted summit at Annapolis, the leaders of Israel and Palestine have agreed to reopen peace talks. In Pakistan, General Musharraf is now just President Musharaff because he has given up his military ties. In Iraq, violence is down, even if only in Baghdad and even if not totally gone. As Ms. Brooks suggests, it's as if peace is breaking out all over the place. And what should our response be to all of this?

After years of unremittingly bad news, no one seems quite sure what to do with good news. Should we cheer? Take back all those mean things we've said about George W. Bush? Or check to see if we still have our wallets, because it's probably some sort of trick?

In a very nice bit of rational analysis, Ms. Brooks suggests that the answer lies elsewhere. She examines each of the three stories and suggests a mixed response. Yes, it's good news that Ohmert and Abbas are finally talking again, but neither leader has a united constituency backing them up, as evidenced by the violence in Gaza. Yes, it's nice that President Musharraf has finally taken the step of being a truly civilian leader after grabbing his office in a military coup, but there are still thousands in prison after Musharaff's imposition of emergency rule, and neither Bhutto nor Sharif look to be any kind of reliably democratic replacements.

Still, these are positive developments and show that steady and well-founded diplomacy actually work. It would have been nice if the Bush Administration had used this tool earlier, rather than rattling and using its sabers. This nation would have been more financially stable and less divided and wounded, but it's a start.

It's when Ms. Brooks turns to Iraq that her analysis is at its keenest.

Finally, Iraq. Civilian deaths really do seem to be down, and that's unequivocally good. How much of the decline in violence is because of the U.S. military "surge" and how much is because of sectarian segregation is an open question; almost certainly, it's a bit of both.

But does this mean the surge has "worked," or that those who favor relatively rapid U.S. withdrawal need to reconsider their views? Not really.

The point of our military successes was to increase security enough to allow the Iraqi political process to move forward -- but that hasn't happened and almost certainly won't. Ironically, some of the very factors that have enhanced local-level stability -- such as sectarian segregation and the empowerment of local tribal and religious leaders -- may undermine the likelihood of national-level political progress, at least as originally envisioned by the Bush administration.

We lack the resources to maintain current troop levels, and our ongoing presence in Iraq continues to feed regional extremism and distract us from other pressing security issues. We still need to make firm plans to redeploy most of our troops. If possible, we should use the nature and timing of that redeployment as a last lever to encourage Iraq's fractious parties to reach some reasonable agreement on how to govern after we're gone. But if that's not possible, we need to leave anyway.

Exactly so.

Certainly the Bush Administration should be buoyed by the successes wrought by actual diplomacy, even if those successes at this point are somewhat limited. Having seen that success, the White House should consider using that approach in Iraq as well, which can only happen when the troops are on their way out because right now, the presence of the troops is only aggravating the fragmentation in the Iraqi political and social landscape.

Diplomacy is hard. It's hard work. But things usually turn out better than the alternative.

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