Argument

Dead on Arrival

I co-wrote the Arab Peace Initiative. And I doubt Kerry's good-faith attempt to revive it will succeed.

Two recent developments have made many wonder whether the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process is being revived -- and, if so, to what end. The first is that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on April 17 what most pundits have been saying for quite some time: that there may only be two years left to reach a two-state solution. The second is that a few days later, a group of Arab foreign ministers publically announced that the Arab Peace Initiative, a comprehensive regional peace plan first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, did not foreclose minor adjustments to the 1967 borders between Palestine and Israel.

This flexibility was hailed as a major development by Kerry and some now believe that a major U.S. initiative may be in the offing to try to solve the conflict before the chance for a two-state solution is, in Kerry's words, "over."

As an original co-author of the Arab Peace Initiative and someone who has been involved in several earlier efforts to solve the conflict, I'm skeptical. Ten years have passed since the Arab League adopted the initiative, but American unwillingness to go beyond lip service and outright opposition by the Israeli government have prevented any real progress. Now, we have almost run out of time for the Arab Peace Initiative to succeed.

Another move to start a peace process based on incrementalism won't produce an acceptable outcome. As Israeli settlement activity continues to eat away at the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, Arabs today liken any incremental process to two people arguing over a slice of pizza, while one of them is eating it.

Instead, it has been clear for some time that progress will require the United States to sidestep the never-ending process and offer parameters of its own -- parameters that can be used as terms of reference by both parties and then turned into an agreement within a reasonable period of time.

There is little reason to doubt Kerry's sincerity or commitment to moving the peace process forward.

But important preconditions for constructive negotiations are simply not in place. Until they are, a resolution might not just remain elusive, but also soon become impossible.

First, it's unclear whether the parties themselves are looking for an opening. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only declared interest in negotiations without prior conditions. In the past, he has repeatedly used this tactic to prolong the peace process while new facts develop on the ground -- facts that damage the prospects for any future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are weak and divided -- and just got rid of their main asset with the international community, former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. At the same time, the Arab world is preoccupied with its own historical transformation, which has left many of the key states for a regional agreement looking inward. Saudi Arabia, for example, is in a state of transition, and both Egypt and Syria are engrossed in their own domestic affairs.

Surely this is not a promising environment for fresh negotiations. Rather, it could be an argument for doing nothing now -- and instead waiting for a better time. Alternatively, it could be an argument for finding a catalyst that can provide the necessary environment for real negotiations.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: How committed is President Barack Obama to ending the conflict and does he feel any pressure to tackle it now? It's easy to understand why Obama would choose an easier route and not attempt anything dramatic. Faced with a vexing array of domestic and international issues -- ranging from budget deficits to concerns about Iran, Syria, China, and Afghanistan -- the Arab-Israeli conflict may not be high up on the president's agenda. Add to this Obama's personal position -- said publicly and privately -- that he cannot want peace more than the parties themselves, and it is difficult to see the same sense of urgency implied in Kerry's statements.

And so, before anyone gets overexcited about statements, speeches, and trips to the region, it must be said what a U.S.-led effort needs to contain in order to be taken seriously.

Washington needs to work privately with all the parties -- Palestinians, Israelis, and Arabs -- to allow for a speedy negotiation process. It also needs to put on the table parameters that are specific enough to break the present deadlock but which don't effectively impose a pre-written agreement on the parties themselves. And most importantly, Obama must elevate the issue to the top of his priority list and signal that he is willing pay the domestic political cost for moving ahead boldly toward a resolution.

Nothing short of this type of commitment will have any chance of success.

Kerry's enthusiasm and sincerity will not be enough. Only the full backing of the U.S. president and a bold new plan can push this process forward. Is Obama in this frame of mind? I highly doubt it. But I hope he will prove people like me wrong.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Yes, Iraq Is Unraveling

And it's about to become Obama's problem all over again.

As American troops were pulling out of Iraq in 2010, the U.S. effort to stabilize the country resembled the task of an exhausted man who had just pushed a huge boulder up a steep hill. Momentum had been painstakingly built up and the crest approached. Was it safe to stop pushing and hope that the momentum would take the boulder over the top? Or would the boulder grind to a halt and then slowly, frighteningly roll back toward us?

Now we know -- and to be honest, the answer is hardly a surprise. Iraq is a basket case these days, and none of its problems came out of the blue. In the latest bout of sectarian and ethnic bloodletting, coordinated bomb attacks ripped through Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and also northern Iraq, killing more than 30 people. The spasm of violence followed clashes between the Iraqi army and Sunni protesters and insurgents last month, where the federal government temporarily lost control of some town centers and urban neighborhoods in Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Diyala provinces.

Negative indicators abound: Armed civilian militias are reactivating, tit-for-tat bombings are targeting Sunni and Shiite mosques, and some Iraqi military forces are breaking down into ethnic-sectarian components or suffering from chronic absenteeism. Numerous segments of Iraq's body politic -- Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia -- are exasperated over the government's inability to address political or economic inequities, and are talking seriously about partition.

On April 23, the federal military miscalculated when its raid on a protest site in the northern town of Hawija turned into a bloody firefight, and scores of civilians were killed. This event has the potential to become an iconic rallying call for insurgent groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the neo-Baathist Naqshbandi movement, which can fit it into its calls for ongoing resistance against a "Safavid occupation" of Iraq -- a reference to the Persian dynasty that evokes Sunni Arab fears of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

The resurgence of violence since 2010 is shown very clearly in the metrics used to gauge the strength of the insurgency. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Iraq Violence Database has tracked violence since 2004, drawing on both open-source and privileged information provided by security forces in Iraq. In the first quarter of 2011, monthly attacks bottomed out at an average of 358 reported incidents -- the lowest quarterly average since 2004. By the first quarter of 2012, the average monthly attacks had risen to 539. By the first quarter of 2013, it was 804. These figures not only provide evidence an increasingly active insurgency, but one that has more than replaced anti-U.S. targeting with Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

So what happens next? Some veteran observers, like former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, view the current period as a return to the conditions of 2006 and 2007, when Iraq plunged into civil war-like violence. But there is an alternative comparison that may hold at least as much weight -- namely, the period beginning in 2003, when the international coalition's mistakes created the opening for Iraq's insurgent groups to grow in the first place. The Iraqi government is now making many of the same mistakes the United States made back then: It is alienating the Sunnis and occupying their communities with a heavy-handed, military-led approach that doesn't differentiate between diehard militants and the mass of peaceable civilians.

The Iraqi government has tried to deflect blame for its own failing on the Syrian uprising, arguing that it was suffering from the spillover of violence next door. But that excuse doesn't hold weight -- security improvements had already ground to a halt before the Syrian crisis began in spring 2011. Nor can the upswing in violence be ascribed solely to ancient Sunni-Shia hatreds: The embers of sectarianism were stoked back into life by the Baghdad government's unwillingness to meet demands for an end to the collective punishment of Sunnis for the crimes of the Baathist regime.

But the real driver of violence in Iraq is arguably Baghdad's over-centralization of power, which came too soon and was infused with sectarian paranoia. The United States was initially wary of this danger: The formula of all-inclusive power sharing -- muhasa in Arabic -- was a cornerstone of U.S.-led policy in Iraq until 2008, and the United States also made sure that the principle of administrative decentralization was baked into the Iraqi Constitution. This policy reflected a powerful truth -- that post-Saddam Iraq was not ready for a political system with absolute winners and absolute losers.

But starting in 2008, Maliki re-centralized power, leaning on an increasingly narrow circle of Shia opponents of the previous dictatorship. And like all successful revolutionaries, this clique is paranoid about counterrevolution and has set about rebuilding a version of the authoritarian system it sought for decades to overthrow. Maliki's inner circle dominates the selection of military commanders down to brigade level, controls the federal court, and has seized control of the central bank. The executive branch is rapidly eclipsing all checks and balances that were put in place to guarantee a new autocracy did not emerge.

The root of Iraq's violence is thus not ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shia or Kurd and Arab, but between decentralizers and recentralizers -- and between those who wish to put Iraq's violent past behind them, and those determined to continually refight it. The demands that have been consistently stated by the Kurdish and Sunni Arab anti-Maliki opposition could not be clearer. First, the opposition demands devolution of fiscal authority to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the provinces, encapsulated in a revenue-sharing law that will provide a formula for the proportion of the budget allocated to the KRG and provinces. Second, it demands the implementation of the system of checks and balances on the executive branch -- particularly by empowering parliament and ensuring an independent judiciary. Third, it calls for a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process that provides justice for those damaged by Saddam's regime, but stops short of collectively punishing Sunnis.

The United States laid the foundations for these democratic traditions, and can still be a powerful voice in getting Iraq back on track. There are some encouraging signs on this front. Secretary of State John Kerry has begun engaging directly and firmly with Maliki, and puts Iraq in the top tier of challenges to be addressed. Washington has been active in bringing Iraqi and Turkish officials together to discuss their long-term energy interests, encapsulated in the prospect of a strategic pipeline corridor that could see more Iraqi oil flowing through Turkey and less through the chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz close to Iran. Facing Sunni militancy and growing internal challenges from within his own Shiite community -- as shown by unimpressive provincial election results -- Maliki may be unusually open to taking conciliatory steps to mend his relations with the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, and the Turks.

Violence in Iraq is likely to continue to worsen as long as the recentralization of power is taken to extremes. The Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities now need a compelling reason to stay inside the unraveling framework that is today's Iraq. The 2014 national elections offer a potential restart button for this nation-building process, but replacing Maliki cannot be the precondition for a new strategy for saving Iraq. The premier could very well win: He holds many advantages heading into the polls, including control of most key ministries, the security and intelligence apparatus, and the federal courts. The key is to ensure that whoever rules Iraq after the 2014 elections feels maximum pressure from the international community and Iraq's factions to return to a looser, freer national construct.

If Washington chooses to back Iraq's decentralizers, it will not be alone. For their own diverse reasons, almost every actor working in Iraq today -- the opposition, the Turks, even the Iranians -- would welcome a less divisive government in Baghdad. In other words, the effort stands a chance of success.

The experiment of building a new strongman in Baghdad has not yielded a more stable Iraq. Loosening the ties that bind Iraq together is a risk, but holding too tightly is the greater danger.

AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images