Mr. Nasty, Brutish and Short-Tempered

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

March 10, 2006

I have a job for Dick Cheney.

No, no, really. This is not another hunting joke. It's serious: Iraq is drifting aimlessly, if not toward civil war then toward a violent political stalemate. If Iraqis can't produce a minimally effective national unity government now, America can look forward to baby-sitting this violent stalemate far into the future.

If we want to avoid that, it's time for some dramatic new thinking and acting. To put it in a nutshell: It is not time for the U.S. to leave Iraq, but it is time for the U.S. to start threatening to leave Iraq.

When Iraq was just violent, but the political situation seemed to be stumbling forward, it was possible to believe that a decent outcome could still be achieved. But when Iraq is increasingly violent, with ethnic and religious rivals murdering one another and the politicians squabbling endlessly, there is no reason for optimism. U.S. forces in Iraq can't be held hostage by the notion that Iraqis may have a civil war if we leave. They are already having a little civil war, and if they are determined to have a big civil war, I prefer that they have it without us. But we need to make one last big push to find an alternative.

The Bush team needs to stop telling itself that the news media are not reporting the good news in Iraq. That's utter nonsense. And it needs to stop acting like a spectator as events there unfold, with the secretaries of state and defense making one-day stopovers and then disappearing. It is time for this administration to start taking responsibility for the outcome of this war, and not just dump it all on the military.

There is no military solution. There is only a political solution, and it will require some big-time diplomacy to pull off.

We need to bring together all the newly elected Iraqi leaders for a national reconciliation conference outside Baghdad. We should lock them in a room and not let them out until they either produce a national unity government, so Americans will want to stay in Iraq, or fail to produce that government, which would signal that it's time to warm up the bus.

Those choices need to be put to the Iraqis in the most frank, tough-minded way by the most nasty, brutish and short-tempered senior official we've got and that is Dick "Darth Vader" Cheney. Mr. Veep, this Bud's for you.

Richard Holbrooke masterfully played this role in bringing an end to the Bosnian civil war at the Dayton peace conference, and maybe Mr. Cheney could do the same for Iraq, with the help of our very skilled ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. We need an Iraqi Dayton now. And we need a really bad dude to make it work.

Mr. Cheney could open the meeting with his low growl by telling the Sunnis: "Look, you guys don't want to compromise, fine. Then we'll just leave you to the tender mercies of the Shiites, who vastly outnumber you."

To the Shiites: "You want to rule Iraq and control the oil without real regard to the Sunnis? Well, you're going to rule over nothing but a boiling pot, unless you compromise."

And to the Kurds he could say: "You've behaved most responsibly. Stick with it. If Iraq falls apart, we will make sure you're taken care of. We won't ignore the fact that you've built an impressively decent, democratizing society in your region."

After getting their attention, Mr. Cheney could start cracking heads on the key issues:

First, the Shiite alliance has to come up with a new candidate for prime minister, acceptable to all parties.

Second, the constitution has to be revised so the Sunnis do not feel that the Kurds and Shiites are breaking off their own chunks of Iraq, along with their oil resources.

Third, the Sunnis need to produce a credible plan for ending their insurgency.

Fourth, the parties have to agree on an inner cabinet, with ministers from each community, which will make all key decisions in coordination with the new prime minister.

Fifth, this inner cabinet has to draw up a plan for governing Iraq from the center and not from any one faction.

Mr. Cheney could then conclude: "Read my lips these are the minimum requirements for a decent government in Iraq. If Iraqis step up, Americans will want to stick it out. If Iraqis won't step up, Americans will want to step out. The American people are ready to midwife your democracy, but not to baby-sit your civil war."

Mr. Cheney, this is your Kodak moment. Iraqis are notoriously difficult and fractious. You've got the time and the mean streak to deal with them. They'll get serious if you're in the room. But just in case, bring along your shotgun. This is a good job for someone with bad aim.