is secretary rice avoiding iraq for good reason?

Debating Iraq’s Transition

Published: November 21, 2007

Watching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making repeated trips to Israel to try to broker some kind of deal between Israelis and Palestinians, while Iraq remains politically unresolved, leaves me feeling like my house is burning down and the fire department has decided to stop along the way to get two cats out of a tree.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

At one level, I just don’t get it. It’s clear that the surge by U.S. troops has really dampened violence in Iraq. So don’t we now need a surge in diplomacy to finish the job?

It often feels to me as if Secretary Rice just wants to keep Iraq at arm’s length and hope that it will somehow end up on someone else’s report card.

If you were President Bush and your whole legacy was riding on the outcome of this war, wouldn’t you be sending your top diplomat to Baghdad to work with Iraqis and their neighbors to broker a political settlement and not let them grow complacent that they have an open-ended commitment from the American people?

(It makes you glad Democrats are still banging their drum.)

But then I talk to people in Baghdad and look at what is really evolving there and I say to myself: “Maybe you’re missing something that Secretary Rice knows — that there isn’t going to be any formal political reconciliation moment in Iraq, grand bargain or White House signing ceremony. The surge has made Iraq safe, not for formal political reconciliation yet, but safe for an ‘A.T.M. peace.’ ”

That is, each of the Iraqi factions basically agrees to live and let live with the new lines drawn by the last two years of civil war and the Baghdad government serves as an A.T.M. cash machine — supporting the army and local security groups and dispensing oil revenues to the provincial governors and tribal chiefs from each community.

Sure, the Shiites haven’t passed a law to let more Sunni Baathists into the government, but they’re still letting some back. Yes, they haven’t passed an oil law, but the government is still spreading around the cash.

Michael Gordon, The Times’s top military expert, whose history of the Iraq war, “Cobra II,” is one of the best books on the subject, said the phrase circulating in the military lately to describe the situation evolving in Iraq is “accommodation without reconciliation.” The various parties basically accept the new imbalance of power — Shiites on top, but allowing the Kurds and Sunnis to have a share — and the political struggle continues with lower levels of violence.

It isn’t irreversible. That only happens when refugees start returning in large numbers, because they see a flourishing economy, a government delivering services equitably and reliably, political alliances developing across Sunni-Shiite lines and security forces they can trust in their neighborhoods. We are still miles away from that, yet something seems to be moving.

And that brings me back to Secretary Rice. Is she just keeping away from the Iraq mess to save her image, or does she know that the Iraqi politicians will not and cannot seize this moment to reach a grand bargain, because making big public concessions to one another is still extremely dangerous in a country like Iraq. It is an invitation for assassination.

But maybe their own very Iraqi, very ad hoc, very oil-lubricated, modus vivendi can still get us somewhere stable and decent.

If that is the case, maybe the question we need to start asking is not: When do Iraqis reach a formal internal peace so we can go? But rather: Can the informal arrangements they’re cobbling together reach a level of stability that would enable a major drawdown of U.S. forces next year?

I don’t know. My Iraq crystal ball stopped working a long time ago. I’m taking this one step at a time.

Right now what is indisputable is that we are seeing the first crack in years in a wall of pessimism that has been the Iraq story. It is only a crack, but it creates new possibilities. It would be reckless to ignore or exaggerate.

You have to keep your mind open that something may be emerging from the ground up — and yet be wary. Are the parties really working something out, or are they just tired? Is Secretary Rice wisely letting the situation ripen or deftly running from the problem?

I have more questions right now than strong opinions.

So I went to a source I knew I could trust — my colleague James Glanz, The Times’s Baghdad bureau chief who has lived through so much craziness there: “There is a sense of quiet on the streets that we have not seen for a long time in Baghdad,” he told me, “but there is also a big question mark in the shadows of every alley. We don’t know what is lurking back there, but we suspect, and evidence suggests, that it is the same set of problems that were always there.”

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