Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lindsey Graham May Seek To Pull Plug On Maliki

The Hill reports:

In a move that could give cover to Republicans in an increasingly tough election year, one of the Bush administration’s most steadfast supporters in the Senate is indicating that he may introduce legislation later this year that could alter the administration’s Iraq policy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who staunchly supported Bush’s Iraq troop surge strategy, said he is not seeking to influence military strategy but rather the way the United States spends money to influence the political process in Iraq.

Graham’s effort is still in the conceptual stages, but it could give an opportunity for Republicans — banking on the success of the surge — to carve out a distinct Iraq plan that differs from the Bush administration without giving in to the Democrats’ withdrawal push.

Graham said he is disappointed with the political reconciliation efforts in Iraq and is considering influencing alternatives to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government if the country does not make strides toward that goal.

“If his government has not delivered meaningful political reconciliation by the end of the year, given the success of the surge and better security, I will consider [Maliki’s] government a failure,” Graham told The Hill. “And then we look for other horses to support.

“It would be foolhardy to continue to throw money at a group of people who have had an opportunity to produce and have not,” he said. He added that he is “not going to sit on the side” if the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions fail to implement reconciliation measures that could bring the country together.

Graham, who is up for reelection in 2008 and will likely face a primary challenge from the right, has been in discussions with the White House about his possible move, said a source familiar with Graham’s plan. “They are familiar with his line of thinking,” said the source. “The White House has its own problems with the Maliki government.”

Although Iraqis have made some strides at the local and community level, reconciliation within the national government remains stalled. A recent U.S. effort to incorporate 70,000 local fighters into the Iraqi police and army to solidify security gains is facing resistance from the Shiite-dominated central government, which fears that the Sunni-majority fighters could eventually mount an armed opposition.

“There are people within Iraq who are doing reconciliation and you might look at local support, sending your money into areas where people are trying,” Graham said. “There are lots of options.”

Graham cautioned that he is waiting until the end of the year to see whether the Maliki government is making any strides. With better security as a result of the surge’s success, said Graham, “it is the time to act.”

“You could not have had democracy with the level of violence we had before,” Graham said. “I am optimistic that all the groups will act, but if they don’t, then it will be clear to me that we would have to look for other alternatives.”

Graham has stated in the past few months that Iraqis should hold provincial elections, share economic resources, grant amnesty for some anti-government factions, and revisit the de-Baathification policies following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Earlier this year, Graham warned that Republicans could pay a political cost in opposing the Democrats’ troop withdrawal strategy. If Graham introduces legislation, it could stem the fear that Republicans could desert Bush on Iraq in droves next year when the presidential election picks up.

Graham’s impetus to act does not surprise some observers.

“If I were a Republican close to Bush, Maliki would infuriate me,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert and associate professor at George Washington University. “That may be where Graham is coming from, [as a strong supporter of the surge].

“The problem is that we have very little leverage over Maliki because everybody knows that the troop commitment is going to go down, and that Bush will not go towards a real withdrawal,” said Lynch, who also writes the Abu Aardvark blog.

Lynch said he believes the “real purpose” of Graham’s possible legislation is to give Republicans some cover to say that they “are doing something without changing the core of Bush’s Iraq strategy.”

But Stephen Biddle, a senior defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has just returned from a trip to Iraq, said that Graham’s plan would have been better suited to the spring rather than now, as circumstances are changing rapidly.

“At the moment … we are getting reconciliation from the bottom up without coercive leverage on Maliki,” said Biddle. “The rapid spread of [the] bottom-up [local reconciliation] approach combined with some apparent Iraqi recalculations on how long the U.S. is staying in Iraq has set up a situation in which the Iraqi government is increasingly interested in experimenting with reconciliation to see if it will work.”

If the U.S. withdraws support for Maliki, Biddle said, any “experimentation with reconciliation we have now may be set back by at least six months.”

Meanwhile, some of Graham’s GOP colleagues on the Armed Services Committee said that any effort to stabilize the Iraqi government will have strong backing in the Senate.

“From the standpoint of a pure military side, good things are happening,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). “From the standpoint of stabilizing the government, that is not happening, so whatever we can do as a Congress to move more in that direction, I think there will be a lot of support for that.”

Graham’s consideration to take up legislation comes as the Democrats are trying to force another vote on a troop withdrawal goal as part of a $50 billion bridge fund to finance war operations. Democrats face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans are touting the reduction in sectarian violence as a result of the surge.