Where to From Here?

Dissecting the Iraq Study Group report


It doesn't take long to see that the Iraq Study Group report, released on Wednesday by a bipartisan band of old Washington sages, reads like a poor newspaper editorial. Truffled with hopeful "shoulds and "musts", redolent with high Establishment piousness, it sets ambitious aims, but offers relatively few practicable means to implement them.

However, this is not the whole story. The ISG members have long marinated in political craftiness. By the end of the 100-odd page report, you will wonder if we've all been had for taking the document so literally. In fact, co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton have handed us two things: an awkward map out of the current mess in Iraq; but also a barrage of covering fire to justify why the United States need not linger there for much longer. The report sets myriad benchmarks that the Bush administration, or any successor, might readily point to as not having been implemented when explaining why it is time to go.

The report opens on the low side. "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved." The authors call "for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly." In parallel to this, the Iraqi government is told that it must advance national reconciliation, guarantee basic security, and deliver essential services. Lying in ambush is a threat: "If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government."

This switches on one of many warning lights in the ISG report. The Bush administration has recently done what anyone who screws up does: it has shifted the blame elsewhere, onto the Iraqi government. It takes imagination to overstate the merits of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, however the new American tactic of treating Iraq as dead weight the U.S. could really do without is a bit thick after more than three years of deliberate occupation and the administration's mismanagement of the reconstruction process. The ISG fails to rectify this. It blackmails the Iraqis by giving them a choice between implementing ISG guidelines and being abandoned–with the likelihood that civil war will ensue.

But if that's Baker's and Hamilton's gambit, then how does it square with this passage in the Assessment section of the report:

Iraq is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to U.S. interests. It runs along the sectarian fault lines of Shia and Sunni Islam, and of Kurdish and Arab populations. It has the world's second-largest known oil reserves. It is now a base of operations for international terrorism, including al Qaeda.

Iraq is a centerpiece of American foreign policy, influencing how the United States is viewed in the region and around the world. Because of the gravity of Iraq's condition and the country's vital importance, the United States is facing one of its most difficult and significant international challenges in decades. Because events in Iraq have been set in motion by American decisions and actions, the United States has both a national and a moral interest in doing what it can to give Iraqis an opportunity to avert anarchy.

If Iraq is all this, then does it make sense for the U.S. to abandon the country if its leaders don't play ball? Does the Bush administration have that luxury? The answer is no, which points to a fundamental flaw in the report: it prepares the exits in Iraq, but also convinces us why getting out might be a disaster. Worse, the U.S. depends on the Iraqis to create the successful context for its departure. Success isn't much of an option, as the ISG authors have already told us, so what we're left with is a cornucopia of vague thoughts, where it's unclear who or what defines the destiny of U.S. forces in Iraq. Is it the Iraqis? Is it the possible backlash of an "irresponsible" American withdrawal? Is it American morale, handicapped by a realization that the U.S. is caught in a losing war?

This fuzziness is reinforced by a contradiction when the authors discuss a timetable for a pullout. They insist, "The point is not for the United States to set timetables or deadlines for withdrawal, an approach that we oppose." Yet that is precisely what the report later does, albeit surrounded by a bodyguard of caveats: "By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq." This is classic bureaucratic hedging, handing ammunition to both sides of the debate. The administration will highlight the conditionality of the ISG's 2008 deadline in order to buy itself some wiggling room; the "get out of Iraq quick" crowd will emphasize the date. Baker and Hamilton will stress one or the other depending on their audience. That's safe, but it doesn't bring the U.S. any closer to a comprehensible strategy.

The deadline issue runs hand in hand with another crucial ISG recommendation, namely that  the U.S. military effort be turned toward enhancing training and support for the Iraqi army and security forces, among whom more U.S. soldiers should be embedded. That's hardly an original idea, however, being a variation on President George W. Bush's promise that "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." The twist is that while "Iraqization" will suck in more U.S. soldiers, the payoff is that more soldiers will leave, even if the report, pointedly, does not address troop levels.

This leads to another slapdash segment in the text–on the disarming of militias. If the Americans are in a mindset of drawing down their forces, how easy will it be for the Iraqi government to disband the country's militias, which requires national reconciliation? By now, the authors have told us that both Kurds and Shiites are uneager to engage in such reconciliation, and that "there are many armed groups in Iraq, and very little will to lay down arms." What they have not told us, however, is that the possibility of the militias' changing their minds will only be diminished by the prospect of an American departure, which could leave behind a dangerous vacuum that Iraqis would need weapons to fill. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is to be held accountable for this failure.

Another cornerstone of Baker's and Hamilton's strategy is the creation of a regional Iraq Support Group as part of a so-called New Diplomatic Offensive. "The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. This diplomatic effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq's neighbors."

Much gnashing of teeth was provoked before the report's publication because Baker, in a television interview, advocated talking with Iran and Syria on Iraq. The premise of the ISG report, as the above passage makes clear, is that none of Iraq's neighbors want to see the country dissolve into sectarian war. The authors err, however, in giving this hypothesis absolute merit, with little appreciation for the complexity of Iranian and Syrian interests in Iraq. If a civil war is so frightening, then it doesn't explain why Syria has systematically destabilized Iraq by funneling foreign Sunni jihadists into the country to murder Shiites–increasing the chances for full-scale sectarian warfare. The same can be said of Iran, which continues to arm both of the main Shiite militias, despite the fact that they have been involved in countless rampages of sectarian killing.

Something is plainly lacking in the ISG's rational reckoning of Iranian and Syrian intentions. For one thing, Baker and Hamilton ignore that Iran's stated goal in Iraq is to get the Americans out of the country–and perhaps the region. In an embarrassing understatement, the authors describe the U.S.-Iranian relationship as "problematic", and virtually undercut their own argument for engagement by admitting that the Iranians are "likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq." Tehran would be amenable to chatting up the U.S. all the way out of Iraq's door, but that's different than what the ISG members have in mind. They're not looking for an American rout in the Middle East; Iran is.

Similarly, the report's passage on Syria is so anemic, so unpersuasive, so shaky for being loaded down with an ancillary recommendation that the U.S. help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a possible incentive to Damascus, that nothing will come of it, at least for now. In truth, the battle was always going to be tough. Bush rejected the idea of dealing with Syria some weeks ago, and the recent death of a Lebanese minister, most probably the work of the Syrians or their allies, further damaged what little legs the initiative had. That's good news, because what those who want to engage Syria cannot comprehend is that its weak regime thrives on exporting instability. For President Bashar Assad, normalcy in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon would deny Syria a role as regional playmaker, while forcing Assad to dismantle the vast security edifice that keeps him, his family, and his minority Alawite community in power.

Some will defend the ISG report as a reservoir of new ideas. If you can't stomach the whole, look at its parts. There are two problems with this. First, the authors see their proposals as interconnected, not to be picked at selectively, which is why their plan is tremendously rigid. And second, few of the ideas are original, even if some are quite good. Other than a final sequence of detailed administrative and judicial recommendations, too much of the ISG's advice is conventional generalization. That's because all Baker and Hamilton ever intended to give Bush was a diagram for defeat, a device for him to go down without losing face.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.