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Iraq: Critically Assessing the Conditional Engagement Strategy

Iraq: Critically Assessing the Conditional Engagement Strategy

A report from the Center for a New American Security offers an exit strategy reminiscent of what the Bush administration has endorsed.


The Center for a New American Security issued an Iraq policy paper earlier this spring that has an identity crisis. “Shaping the Iraq Inheritance” poses as an exit strategy, but ultimately advocates a course of action that looks a lot like what the Bush administration and its conservative supporters have endorsed in Iraq.

The “conditional engagement” strategy, at its core, tries to carve out a “moderate middle” dependent on simplistic renderings of competing policy proposals on the left and the right. But it is important not to get distracted by the framing mechanism of the four options CNAS presents on Iraq: unconditional engagement, conditional engagement, conditional disengagement, and unconditional disengagement. CNAS’ core arguments suffer from four major internal inconsistencies and disconnections from key realities in Iraq and the Middle East.

First, conditional engagement does not differ from the Bush administration’s current approach because it fails to clearly define—in precise terms—when the Iraq mission would be accomplished, and when U.S. troops could depart. In a telling chart on page 42, the report stakes out a position that places the strategy in the same space as the current Bush administration policy—a “conditions based” drawdown of troops where the conditions are never really defined beyond vague terms like “accommodation” and “sustainable security.” It furthermore ignores administration officials’ efforts to leverage public and congressional opposition to the war as a way to pressure Iraqi politicians to make compromises.

Second, conditional engagement assumes that the carrots of continued military, economic, and political support are more appetizing than they are. It overestimates how much leverage the United States has in Iraq and underestimates broader Iraqi opposition to a continued U.S. military presence. Iraqi leaders—even those close to the United States, such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—are increasingly asserting their independence and sovereignty, and will likely continue to do so as the dates for Iraq’s provincial and national elections approach.

Third, conditional engagement doesn’t describe how it would be implemented to achieve its stated ends, however vague those ends are. It is, in effect, a one-shot strategy dependent upon the Iraqi government not calling our bluff to disengage. It is unclear how continued American engagement will cause or somehow help Iraqi leaders resolve their differences. The strategy simply assumes that Iraqi leaders, especially those in the Green Zone, desire continued U.S. support and will be impelled to act by the hint that U.S. forces might leave in the absence of political accommodation. This is a highly questionable causative relationship upon which to make an entire strategy dependent.

Fourth, the report is wedded to a narrow, bilateral, U.S.-Iraq prism at the expense of a broader regional view. Just two underdeveloped pages in a 50-plus page paper are devoted to regional diplomacy. Conditional engagement is disconnected from its environment, and offers no rationale for how its proposed strategy builds into a larger framework for sustainable security in the Gulf. Rather than craft an Iraq policy toward a regional strategy, CNAS crafts a regional strategy around its preferred Iraq policy. Conditional engagement puts the Iraqi cart before the regional horse, making the formulation of a coherent strategy for the broader region more difficult.

Ultimately, there is an illogic at the center of the conditional engagement argument—it implies that bad things might happen if U.S troops leave (genocide, terrorist safe havens, and regional war), so we should stay. But if Iraq’s leaders don’t move forward on accommodation, then we should leave anyway, despite those risks to U.S. national security. The report tries to have it both ways—it tries to say that U.S. troops cannot leave Iraq because of the risks of genocide, regional war, and terrorist safe havens, but if Iraqis don’t pass some laws, then maybe we should leave after all.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst