Half Baked — Who can disagree with the report of the Iraq Study Group? It says, “Iran should stem the flood of arms and training to Iraq,” and “Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flood of funding, insurgents and terrorist in and out of Iraq” (emphasis added). It would be wonderful if Iran and Syria did those things, but unless some reasonable means of making them do so is advanced, saying that they “should” is airy wishfulness rather than strategy.

Half Baked

By The Editors

Who can disagree with the report of the Iraq Study Group? It says, “Iran should stem the flood of arms and training to Iraq,” and “Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flood of funding, insurgents and terrorist in and out of Iraq” (emphasis added). It would be wonderful if Iran and Syria did those things, but unless some reasonable means of making them do so is advanced, saying that they “should” is airy wishfulness rather than strategy.

Welcome to the non-reality-based world of bipartisan commissions. Even commissions flying under the banner of realism, such as the James Baker/Lee Hamilton–led ISG, inhabit that world.

The ISG doesn’t recommend any plausible way of making Syria and Iran behave the way they “should.” Instead, it advocates talks that will magically convince the Iranians and Syrians to stop pursuing their interests in Iraq. The report argues that none of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, favor a breakup of Iraq, and posits a common interest with the U.S. on that basis. But there is a wide range of outcomes in Iraq short of a breakup. And the outcome sought by Tehran and Damascus is very different from the one preferred by the United States. Those two governments want to defeat us in Iraq and foster the creation of an Iraqi government that is part of their geopolitical bloc in the Middle East rather than ours.

Just talking will not paper over these big differences unless we are willing to give the Iranians and Syrians serious incentives. Accession to the World Trade Organization, one of the ideas floated by the report, is just not going to cut it. Nor will it be possible, as recommended by the ISG, to broker an Israeli-Arab peace deal that will make Iraq’s neighbors behave. Realistically, Syria would want immunity from the consequences of its assassination campaign in Lebanon, and perhaps renewed suzerainty over that country. Iran would want a tacit acceptance of its nuclear program. If the ISG thinks Iranian and Syrian cooperation in Iraq is worth this price, it should say so. But it doesn’t, making its diplomatic recommendations utterly unserious.

In fact, the report acknowledges that Iran would probably rebuff an American diplomatic outreach. It cites Libya as an example of constructive engagement with a rogue state. But Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction because it was frightened of the United States, right about the time Saddam was crawling from his spider hole. Iran and Syria have nothing to fear from the United States as long as it is in a downward slide in Iraq.

That is one of the reasons why improving conditions in Iraq is so important. Here too the report fails to offer any realistic advice. It recommends increasing the number of U.S. troops embedded in Iraqi army units. This is fine as far as it goes, but the report also calls for steadily reducing the number of American combat forces in Iraq. Since those troops are the only credible security force in the country, pulling them out is a recipe for even more chaos.

“By the first quarter of 2008,” the report says, “subject to unexpected developments and the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” The weasel language is meant to give President Bush flexibility, but there would be nothing “unexpected” in developments in the security situation — it would get worse, predictably, inexorably. The report retails the common fantasy that remaining U.S. forces in Iraq “would be available to undertake strike missions against al-Qaeda in Iraq when the opportunity arises.” What would such a strike mission be? Reinvading Anbar Province after it is taken over by al Qaeda in our absence?

The report’s recommendation on troops is premised on the notion that the Iraqi government is not performing mostly because it is dependent on our military. The Iraqi government certainly can be usefully pressured, and the sort of deadlines for political progress recommended by the ISG could make sense. But the Iraqi government suffers at the moment simply from an absence of reliable, functioning security forces. All the jawboning in the world won’t make up for the deficit, and as long as it exists, the U.S. military has to fill the breach.

For all these reasons, the ISG report is an analytic embarrassment. But President Bush can still make political use of it by emphasizing its responsible aspects. The report opposes timetables or deadlines for withdrawal. It warns of a precipitate pullout: “The near-term results would be a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy. Al Qaeda would depict our withdrawal as a historic victory. If we leave and Iraq descends into chaos, the long-range consequences could eventually require the United States to return.”

Just so. The report also pours cold water on the fashionable idea of breaking up Iraq along sectarian lines: “A rapid devolution could result in mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions.”

There is no good alternative to succeeding in Iraq. The report notably avoids talking of an outright U.S. victory. But, between the lines, it thinks victory is still possible. Its definition of success in Iraq is reasonable enough: “an Iraq with a broadly representative government that maintains its territorial integrity, is at peace with its neighbors, denies terrorism a sanctuary, and doesn’t brutalize its own people.” And right at the beginning, the report stipulates, “We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world, and protect America’s credibility, interests, and values.”

Bush should take all of this and run with it. His most important task is to secure Baghdad, which will take more troops. Even the report is open to this idea, noting that the ISG could “support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad.” This will probably take up to 50,000 more U.S. troops in the city, and will probably require new commanders on the ground, since Generals Abizaid and Casey are so determinedly Rumsfeldian in their orientation, favoring a light “footprint” over classic counterinsurgency tactics.

A move to send more troops and replace those generals should be packaged with an increase in the size of the U.S. military, accelerated and expanded training of Iraqi security units, and a greater U.S. intelligence effort on the ground in Iraq. (This last recommendation is included in the ISG report, and is one of many smaller ideas in it that are worth adopting.)  

It is too much to expect that any bipartisan commission be bold and creative. That is the president’s job, and he still has an opening to do it. Adopting the major ISG recommendations would amount to managing our defeat in Iraq. Since he’s not prepared to do that, Bush has to work on his own to try to save our position there, and he must do it by acting in the real world that it is always the great luxury of bipartisan commissions to ignore.

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