Debating Iraq December 2006

The Iraq Study Group

A reaction

The emphasis on training indigenous forces has its risks, though. Training an entire army of more than 300,000 troops to American standards will create the world’s most lethal ethnic militia if there are no legitimate institutions for it to represent. The Group, by warning of ethnic cleansing in 2007, at least seems vaguely cognizant of this risk. Training has to be tied to political reconciliation, or else such a strategy could contribute to genocide, rather than help prevent it. Smartly, the Group comes out strongly for dispatching our very best military personnel to training missions in Iraq, and for rewarding them through career enhancements. For years now, the Army has been sending the guys no one else wants to these missions, since the traditional way to promotion has been to command Americans; not foreign troops.

The Group, as I said, is open-minded to a temporary, small-scale troop surge. The risk of surging any troops is summed up in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. I refer to the story of the Sicilian Expedition, in which the Athenians invade Sicily in support of allies there. But as problems mount with the operation, more and more reinforcements are sent, so that the consequences of failure rise from the merely serious to the monumental.

Because our problems in Iraq since 2003 have often been caused by a lack of troops, there is some hypocrisy among those who criticize the Administration for never having enough ground forces, and who now say we might gain leverage by having even less. In any case, more troops buys you time; not a solution. Assuming more troops in Greater Baghdad buy us a reduced level of violence for, say, 12, weeks, are we meticulously staffed and prepared for an intensive inter-agency process of reconstruction, job creation, training and equipping Iraqi forces, and furious diplomacy both inside and outside Iraq for every day of those 12 weeks? If not, we will fail again on an even bigger scale than we did this past summer.

The Group’s envisioned diplomatic effort is, in fact, grand. It starts with the brutal realization that if the U.S. and Iraqi governments could stabilize the situation by themselves they should have done so by now. And so there is no choice but to now engage Iraq’s neighbors. The strategy it lays out certainly sounds nifty: if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reconciles with the Sunnis, the Saudis will help him eliminate al-Qaida in Iraq. As for all the things we can offer the Syrians and Iranians that do not include the conquest of Lebanon and the building of a nuclear bomb, the report mentions accession to the World Trade Organization, full legitimacy and relations with the United States, weakening the Sunni Taliban on Iran’s borders, return of the Golan Heights, and so on.

Also see:

Carriers of Conflict
For a preview of future instability and war in the Middle East, watch where Iraqi refugees are going. By Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack

Here the members of the Study Group fall into the trap of confusing what they would want if they ran Syria and Iran rather than what the people who actually run these regimes want. The Group states that an Iraq in chaos cannot be in the self-interest of Syria and Iran, if only because of the refugees that would ensue. But maybe it is in their interest. Maybe the urge to humiliate the United States is so strong, maybe their sense of America’s weakness and division is so acute, maybe their perception of Saudi fecklessness is so pitch-perfect, that a chaotic Iraq, at least in the short-term, actually enhances the throw-weight of the regimes in Damascus and Teheran. Recent Iranian history does show a proclivity for dialogue with us after shows of American strength, such as our victory in the first Gulf War and the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here the Group seems to rely more on hope than analysis.

The Group believes that a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli problem will appeal to Iraq’s two troublesome neighbors. To wit, one of my stated reasons a half-decade ago for supporting regime change in Iraq was that—successfully executed—it might give the United States the strategic heft to terminate two untenable situations: the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and that of Israeli troops in the occupied territories. An Israeli-Syrian accord that would return the Golan Heights to Syria’s control could be a long-range benefit to Israel rather than a betrayal of it. Syria’s increased militancy toward the Golan may indicate it is positioning itself for such a deal, brokered by the United States. But it could also be a deadly feint: getting back the Golan may be the last thing the Damascus regime really wants, as it would have to involve some level of Syrian diplomatic recognition of Israel and agreed limits as to the extent of Syrian involvement in southern Lebanon. It would also end an era of confrontation with Israel that would remove the raison d’etre for the tyranny with which every military regime in Syria, including the current one, has governed for over half a century.

Still, the Group does have a larger point here, especially about engaging Iran. It states that by openly seeking dialogue with Teheran we will call their bluff. If they are truly uninterested in improving the situation in Iraq, or in normalizing relations with us, the offer to negotiate will make this transparent for the world to see—including millions of Iranians. (Recently I wrote on The Atlantic’s Web site that if we drew-down forces without at least trying to engage the Iranians, we would bear all the guilt for a possible genocide of the Sunnis in 2007.) In fact, what the Iranians might actually fear is a very public American effort to engage them, while giving them no quarter on the nuclear issue. If there are splits within the regime in Teheran, and between the regime and its population, here is where we might see them.

Otherwise, the Group calls for increasing economic assistance to Iraq, for getting the U.S. Justice and other departments more deeply involved in the corresponding Iraqi ministries, for a senior advisor for Iraqi reconstruction to be appointed by the Administration, for forcing civilian agencies like the State Department to adopt more of an expeditionary mentality, so that they fill all hardship positions before others. As I said, if the Iraqis do start to cooperate with us and with each other, rather than desert Iraq, the Iraq Study Group demonstrates an appetite for another go at the problem.

The Administration should co-opt this report—with adjustments, of course. Once again, ignoring some of the sound bites, read completely it is not an especially hostile document from the viewpoint of the Administration. It cries out to be partially plagiarized by the President. If he does not do this, then he will be truly on his own, utterly isolated. The report says that the main benefit of gradually reducing our military footprint in Iraq will be to free up forces to secure Afghanistan. For it isn’t just Iraq that is in the balance, but Afghanistan, too.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy.

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