Harsh Iraq Report Offers No Solution
12.08.06, 6:00 AM ET
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) yesterday released its report on U.S. strategic options in Iraq. The ISG, chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, adopted a surprisingly critical tone--given that Baker is a close associate of President George W. Bush's father. While the report's conclusions were widely expected, media attention and the swelling violence in Iraq have inflated its political importance.
The report contains 79 separate recommendations directed at U.S. policy and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which broadly fall into two categories: diplomacy and military strategy.
On the diplomatic side, the ISG recommends that the United States initiate a regional diplomatic initiative, involving all of Iraq's neighbors in an effort to stabilize the country:
1. Engaging the neighbors. This would involve direct, "constructive" engagement with Iran and Syria--two countries that Washington has sought to isolate due to Damascus's interference in Lebanon, Tehran's nuclear ambitions and their shared hostility toward Israel. However, the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayel, a minister in Lebanon's anti-Syrian government, has reduced the likelihood of a U.S.-Syrian rapprochement. The ISG report is also unlikely to alter the administration's stance on Iran. The White House insists that Tehran must suspend its uranium enrichment program as a precondition for talks--a step that Iran is highly unlikely to consider.
2. Israel-Palestine push. The ISG also believes that a serious push to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could alter the diplomatic tone in the region to U.S. advantage. Progress has been stalled following Washington's refusal to recognize the Palestinian Hamas government until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel.
Prospects for real progress between Israel and the Palestinians have rarely looked poorer, with weak and divided leadership on both sides. Israel today ruled out talks with Syria on the Golan Heights.
On the military side, the report calls on Washington to issue an ultimatum to the Iraqi government: Unless it does more to promote security and national reconciliation, the U.S. will initiate a rapid withdrawal. Although it offers no rigid time tables, it suggests that, irrespective of Baghdad's response, the U.S. could pull all of its combat brigades out of Iraq by early 2008--reducing the total number of U.S. troops from approximately 150,000 now to between 70,000 and 80,000. This military presence would consist mainly of trainers dedicated to improving the performance of the Iraqi security forces--an optimistic objective.
The report is very critical of the Maliki government, citing its failure to advance national reconciliation, provide basic security or deliver essential services. It says its members too often act in their own sectarian interest and seem to have little commitment to national reconciliation. It recommends that Washington condition its support for it on the achievement of “milestones” in these and other areas. Such pressure is unlikely to work. The population has lost trust in the government and its security forces, and the mutual mistrust breeds increasing reliance upon sectarian militias for protection. Indeed, by pressuring a weak and divided government, Washington could hasten its collapse.
The ISG report will give plentiful ammunition to Bush's political opponents in Washington, but it is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on U.S. policy. The administration has initiated its own internal review of its Iraq strategy: Separate recommendations are being prepared by the National Security Council, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The administration will likely use these separate analyses to undermine or ignore elements of the ISG report that do not match its priorities.
The ISG's astonishingly critical report will have a major political impact in Washington. However, some of its recommendations--such as the idea of issuing an ultimatum to the Iraqi government--are ill-conceived and would be ineffective. The White House is also likely to eschew direct engagement with Iran and will avoid a rapid troop withdrawal. Fundamentally, the situation in Iraq has largely moved beyond Washington's ability to influence or control; even if the report were fully implemented, it could not significantly alter the grim strategic landscape.
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