For eight months, the congressionally chartered, bipartisan Iraq Study Group has debated the available options for U.S. policy in Iraq -- options so limited that one leading analyst has called them the "almost good, the bad and the ugly."
In anticipation of the group's report, scheduled for release on Wednesday, The Chronicle is reviewing the available options in the realms of military action, diplomacy, Iraqi politics and economics. This story reviews political difficulties and economic options.
The Bush administration hailed the success of three national elections as a major accomplishment of its bid to make Iraq a model of democracy in the heart of the Middle East. But the Iraqi government today not only seems to be unwilling or unable to help rein in the nation's chaos, it seems often to be contributing to the problem.
"We seem to be in this unenviable situation of desperately needing a political accommodation and having less leverage to affect that than we have in the past, and simultaneously the Iraqi political factions' hardening and their own survival (is) increasingly seemingly dependent on not compromising," said Susan Rice, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Things have been so polarized that it's hard to see how we could put Humpty back together."
The difficulty of reaching political accommodation between groups that seem much more interested in political fracture has led some experts to suggest that the solution to Iraq's internal political crisis is to break the nation into separate Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish states loosely linked by a shared central government.
"There was a lot of discussion (among experts consulted by the Iraq Study Group) about whether or not the division of Iraq into regions would be a solution to the problem or not," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't think the commission heard anything decisive on this, because clearly opinions were very, very divided."
The study group's experts were divided ideologically into distinct groups, Ottaway said: those who supported maintaining a unified Iraq -- either for fear that dividing Iraq was a de facto defeat or out of a sharp distaste for partitioning an existent nation -- and those who saw the division as positive or simply inevitable. Ottaway included herself in the latter group.
"I have not seen anybody bringing in evidence that it is possible for the United States at this point to achieve this united Iraq," she said. "The instruments for putting the country back together as a unitary country with a strong center simply do not exist. ... You cannot put the country back together if the government is not better armed than the militias."
Critics of partitioning Iraq, however, say that it looks good but might be impossible to achieve.
"The problem is, you still have significant ethnic intermixing in the major population areas. You can have enormous displaced populations, a lot of people dead and killed," said James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a member of the study group's pool of experts.
What's more, Carafano said, dividing Iraq not only requires splitting up the population but also the political tangles that were left unsolved in Iraq's Constitution.
"The things that are left off the table, if you went to partition, you'd have to solve those. And those are the really serious problems: oil revenue, control of different cities, control of military forces," he said. "And since they're intractable, the odds are they would precipitate a civil war."
But Ottaway and other advocates of partition argue that minority populations can be protected legally, and creative solutions can be found for political and financial issues, such as keeping oil revenue in the hands of the central government or tapping the wealth of natural gas under Sunni-dominated, oil-poor western Iraq.
In the end, some analysts say, the question of Iraq's future political structure is no longer for the United States to answer -- if it ever was.
"The reality is, whatever has happened since 2003, we have lost the initiative and we are certainly no longer in control," said Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Iraqis control their own politics. They're going to decide whether they end up with conciliation or civil war. We can only influence them."
One important way the United States still can contribute to Iraq's long-term stability, Cordesman said, comes less from its role as a military superpower and more from its position as an economic superpower.
"If there's going to be stability in Iraq, you need far more than simply political compromise. You need effective governance," he said. "You need effective security, and that means police and a criminal justice system, not simply defeating militias and insurgents. And you need economic opportunity, and particularly you need employment and basic economic services at the local level."
"You need to work quickly and you need to work where you can to improve basic infrastructure and to do a lot more of those smaller, faster investments," said Nancy Lindborg, president of the international aid and relief agency Mercy Corps. "The problem is it never came, and three years later it hasn't come."
Plenty of money has already been spent on Iraq, the Brookings Institution's Rice said -- but much of it has not been spent well.
"We've thrown a lot of bad money after Iraq -- a lot of money -- and we've spent it incredibly badly," she said. "We have screwed it up. But that doesn't mean we can afford to not get it right at this stage."
The U.S. approach -- hiring large multinational corporations to run nationwide reconstruction projects -- failed by and large to produce the kind of economic benefits that small, grassroots efforts to create and sustain jobs might have, Rice said. She linked that failure directly to the current sectarian violence.
"Part of the problem we're dealing with is we have unemployment in Iraq, which is probably in the 30-plus percent range. And the people who haven't fled the country are the people that can't afford to flee. So we've got unemployed, angry, scared people," she said. "That's a perfect enabling environment for a civil conflict."
"We've already spent billions. Until you have a stable security situation, just throwing money at the problem is going to make it worse," countered Carafano. "That's just going to wind up in Swiss bank accounts or paying for (improvised explosive devices)."
Others suggest the investment is worth it: It costs about $10 billion a month to keep troops in Iraq, Cordesman noted, so investing $10 billion to $20 billion in a targeted economic program that could let the troops go home a few months earlier would be well worth the investment.
Blaming the Iraqis for the problem -- or for Iraq's other problems -- isn't helpful, Cordesman said.
"We sent a bull in to liberate a china shop," he said. "And now we're blaming the china shop for breaking the china."