Dispatch January 2007

Was the Iraq Study Group Report Really a Flop?

For a document that was supposedly "dead-on-arrival," it's certainly having a strong influence
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For a document that was supposedly "dead-on-arrival," according to its most passionate critics, the Iraq Study Group report is having a strong covert afterlife. For the very purpose of such a report is to have its ideas stolen by policymakers, who will nevertheless deny its influence.

Also see:

A Turning Point
The Iraq Study Group may be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. By James Fallows

Blind to Choice
Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and a former assistant secretary of defense, comments on the military's reaction to the Iraq Study Group Report.

The Iraq Study Group
A reaction. By Robert D. Kaplan

Will the Administration Listen?
A historical look at why the Iraq Study Group's report may end up as yet another casualty of war.

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

The report, overseen by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, warned against a precipitous troop withdrawal from Iraq, and was open-minded regarding a temporary surge of modest scale in Greater Baghdad. President George W. Bush is doing that. The report called for a reinvigoration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as part of a regional diplomatic blitz. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been doing that. The report called for a reconstruction czar for Iraq, as part of a process of infusing the country with more economic aid. President Bush indicated he will do that. The report sought to give the President a swift kick in the rear end—toward a more dynamic policy on Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton report, together with the November election results, have accomplished that.

As for the 79 suggestions the media pokes fun at, many of them are quite sound. For example, Army Lt. Gen. David Petreaus told me months ago that because the Army promotes people for commanding American and not foreign troops, sometimes the least talented people get assigned to train Iraqi forces: therefore, the policy needed to be reversed. The Baker-Hamilton report advises the same thing. Former Counselor to Secretary Rice, Philip Zelikow, told me that the State Department required a more expeditionary mentality, with unaccompanied hardship posts filled first. The Baker-Hamilton report proposes something similar. And on and on it goes.

Ah yes, what about the report's advice to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria? Hasn't the President repudiated that fundamental principle, and, therefore, the thrust of the report? No. Keep in mind that neoconservatives themselves have not repudiated such talks in the abstract: rather, they have stated that if the United States were to markedly improve its strategic position in the Middle East, and thus be able to talk to Syria and Iran from a position of strength, dialogue with Iraq's neighbors might at some juncture be justified. That is exactly what the Administration seems to be doing: the troop plus-up in Greater Baghdad, coupled with a more powerful naval and air presence in the Persian Gulf, is designed to prepare a more favorable context for eventual negotiations. Secretary of Defense Gates has indicated as much.

The nomination of a Navy four-star, Admiral William Fallon, as the next head of Central Command, is meant to tell the Iranians that we are serious. Indeed, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a complex air and sea operation—involving carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, various types of jet bombers, and so forth. As the current head of Pacific Command, Fallon has ample experience in structuring such combined exercises.

But that is not the only part of Fallon's long and varied resume. Another is his reputation as being extremely conciliatory towards China. On repeated occasions, he has denied that China constitutes an emerging military threat: this, despite China's soaring defense budgets, its concentration on both diesel-electric and nuclear submarine acquisitions, and investment in missiles that can, among other things, hit moving targets at sea and satellites in space. Many in military circles disagree with Fallon. The Iranians will be paying close attention to that aspect of Fallon's career, too.

Fallon could eventually be proven right on China. Whatever the case, it may not necessarily say anything meaningful about his stomach for a confrontation with Iran. Like a lot of people, he may put China in a completely different category from Iran. One thing is clear: he will be extremely cautious over the need for military action against Teheran.

So the question becomes, can Gates and the man he has chosen to lead his war fighting command in the Greater Middle East frighten the Iranians sufficiently to make negotiations meaningful? For the history of naval pressure shows that it must communicate the willingness to fight if it is to have the desired impact on an adversary. I worry that we do not sufficiently grasp the fact that the Iranians may not be reading from the same set of instructions as us, on the real-life political-diplomatic board game we are about to embark on.

What if the Iranians watch our beefed-up naval and air presence, combined with increasing economic pressure on them, and say, so what? That's where the partial and tenuous overlap between what the Baker-Hamilton report advised we should do, and what neoconservatives say we might do under better circumstances, evaporates. That's where it may come down to a confrontation between Vice President Dick Cheney and the Gates-Fallon team at the Pentagon, which is essentially the Baker-Hamilton team.

Only then will we know if Bush has truly repudiated the Iraq Study Group. For the moment, he has co-opted enough of its recommendations for those in Congress who praised the report, and now denounce the President's surge, to be labeled hypocrites. As I said, a report like that of the Iraq Study Group is never intended to be liked; or openly implemented. It is meant to subtly influence policy. That it has surely done, so far.

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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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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