Thursday, May 10, 2007

Give the Iraqis a Break

Washington empties out every August as members of Congress and administration officials leave for their annual summer vacations. So why isn't this American political tradition good enough for Iraqi officials in Baghdad?

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both now urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to discourage Iraqi lawmakers from taking a two-month summer break. The issue has become symbolic of the sad truth of the surge in particular and the war in general: We cannot make Iraq the country we would like it to be, and we cannot force Iraqis to act when we want them to.

Cheney met with Maliki in Baghdad yesterday to communicate the administration's sense of the gravity of the situation: The Iraqi government needs to make progress on security and move forward on reconciliation and governance far more quickly.

The vice president also pressed the prime minister to discourage the Iraqi parliament from taking its two-month summer recess. Bush appealed to Maliki on Monday not to let the lawmakers go on vacation.

"We believe it's very important to move on the issues before us in a timely fashion and that any undue delay would be difficult to explain," Cheney told reporters in Baghdad yesterday. He is not alone in his view.

"For the Iraqi parliament to take a two-month vacation in the middle of summer is impossible to understand," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates also said that he pressed for the recess to be canceled. Sen. John Warner (R-VA) said a two-month recess is "not acceptable."

It's not just the prospect of U.S. troops dying while Iraqi parliamentarians vacation that bothers American officials. They also argue that the Iraqis should continue to work to resolve issues associated with oil revenue sharing and the status of former Baathists from Saddam's government, two outstanding questions that might held to strengthen Shia and Sunni unity.

Maliki signaled to Cheney that he was sympathetic to the American complaint. But some Iraqi legislators reacted angrily, including Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who said members of Parliament were "busy with our own calamities."

One of those calamities is attendance: the security situation is so bad that many parliamentarians can't even make it to the sessions. Sometimes lawmakers show up, only to be turned away by bomb scares, lack of electricity or other impediments. Boycotts are also common.

Another problem is that when the parliament meets, it is often chaotic. With tens of "parties" representing not just Shia, Sunni and Kurd but also factions within each community, there is an absence of any party discipline or legislative coherence. Thus there is no reason to believe that even if the Iraqi parliament toils all summer, it will make any difference.

In fact, if it stays in session, capitulating to American pressure, it may well demonstrate to Iraqis that their elected representatives cannot even make their own schedule. And from an American political standpoint, canceling the Iraqi summer recess will also be unhelpful, allowing more pretending here in Washington that "progress" is being made and forestalling tough decisions.

So I say, let them go.

-- William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Washington Post


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