The Iraq Study Group

A reaction

The mistakes made in Iraq since 2003 were so many and so serious that it is reasonable to argue that toppling Saddam Hussein was a wise decision, incompetently handled in its occupation phase. It is also possible to argue that the frequency and magnitude of the mistakes indicate a hubristic flaw in the concept of regime change itself, which I supported. Thus it is with humility and open-mindedness that I read the report of the Iraq Study Group.

Also see:

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

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 may be less remembered for its details than for its double-edged political effect. On the one hand, it has been a catalyst to force the Bush Administration to initiate its own policy reviews, and step up its own diplomatic initiatives. That is an unmitigated good. On the other hand, by essentially making an end run around the Administration, the group risks seriously undermining it. But that is something the Administration can fix by emerging from all of these reviews with a decisive policy direction; professionally executed. Despite the election results, the Administration’s fate may still be in its own hands.

The urge to dismiss the Study Group’s report as a surrender document (as some neoconservatives have already done) is off the mark. Read carefully, it is a tough, intricate policy statement, albeit with serious flaws. There are pages herein that amount to a blueprint for a virtual, second invasion of the country, were Iraqis to cooperate. Some sound bites may declare that “cut and run” is the theme of this slim book, but that’s not what the fine print says.

The Study Group says a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could be so catastrophic that it might force the U.S. military to eventually return there. The Group dismisses the partitioning of the country as an unwise policy goal, since it would lead to the collapse of the security forces and is, in any case, impractical because of mixed populations in so many Iraqi provinces. The Group is open-minded concerning a temporary, small-scale troop surge in the Greater Baghdad area. Regarding the region, the report takes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program off the table as a legitimate negotiating item. It calls for Syria and other Arab countries to engage in direct talks with Israel. It calls for an international force, including U.S. troops, on the Golan Heights to provide the Israelis the security guarantees they would need in the event of a withdrawal. It says Syria must cede hegemonic ambitions over Lebanon, and cooperate with investigations of the assassinations of leading anti-Syrian political figures there. Rather than surrender, I detect an attempt at comprehensiveness.

The Group’s summary of the situation in Iraq is banal, but hard to argue with: the improvement of the Iraqi Army has been “fitful;” the state of the police is terrible; the results of the troop surge in Baghdad last summer, Together Forward, were “disheartening;” the Shia are broken down into factions that reward the extremes; the Sunni leadership, to the degree it exists, is shadowy—that is, barely existent; and the state of the Iraqi economy remains uneven, despite vast oil wealth. While none of this is new, the report is also meant for the general public, not merely for dedicated readers of blogs and newspapers.

The document’s core strategy, as the Group admits, is imperfect. It calls for changing the military mission from combat to the support of Iraqi security forces by 2008, even as we and the Iraqi government immediately launch what it labels a “New Diplomatic Initiative” in the Middle East.

The military piece envisions moving combat forces out of the fray, while we ramp up the number of trainers embedded with Iraqi units, who, themselves, will be augmented by quick reaction forces, search and rescue forces, and, in particular, special operations forces to hunt down al-Qaeda and add to the force protection of our trainers. The problem here, which the Group alludes to but does not address, is just how many special units are going to be needed—and how close to the action they will have to be—in order to adequately protect our embeds. When you subtract the combat brigades, but add in all the extra trainers and the force protection element, you may still end up with tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. I had predicted (in The Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2006) that by early 2008 we would have about 40,000 left in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, again, rather than cut and run, appears to suggest a somewhat higher number.

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.