Iraq Study Group: Shift mission, go regional

The panel's report recommended engaging Syria, Iran, and others in stabilizing Iraq.

Amid signs of deepening difficulty and waning American influence in Iraq, the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group unveiled a set of recommendations Wednesday ranging from a broader regional diplomatic effort to more emphasis on training Iraqi security forces.

The report – available online and as a 160-page book in bookstores – avoids some controversial proposals. This reflects the panel's bipartisan makeup as well as a desire not to be dismissed by the White House out of hand. But it does call for increased pressure on the Iraqi government to make progress in key areas of reconciliation and governability – and to withdraw US support if progress is not made.

Saying "there is no magic formula that will solve the problems of Iraq," group co-chair James Baker III said the group believes its recommendations offer the best hope for "success" in terms of stabilizing Iraq and avoiding regional conflict. He cited 79 recommendations as included in the report. Mr. Baker, a seasoned foreign-policy realist, said the group avoided speaking of "victory" in Iraq.

The group also recommends creation of an "international Iraq support group" to help stabilize the country, specifically including Iran and Syria – two countries the White House has resisted including in its Iraq effort.

"Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of US forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly," the report says.

One downbeat note greeting the report is that, no matter how good some of its recommendations may be, it may simply have been overtaken by the deterioration of conditions on the ground in Iraq. The 10-member commission has been at work for nine months, dating back to just after a pivotal attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February – as sectarian violence intensified and doubts about the abilities of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deepened.

"There may be some fine ideas [in the report], but my concern is that events on the ground have overtaken the ability of the actors [whom] those ideas address to influence things," says Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington.

Most troubling, Mr. Toensing says, is a "disconnect" between the "very blunt and bleak tone" of the report's opening appraisal, and recommendations that assume a situation much more amenable to correction.

For example, he singles out one recommendation in the key area of national reconciliation, calling for reorganization of the tainted national police under the Defense Ministry. It raises the question of why the very powerful factions currently in control of the police would agree to such a measure – and who has the power to make them acquiesce?, says Toensing.

The reality is that "the US doesn't rule Iraq any more," he says, "and the Iraqi government doesn't have that kind of say outside the Green Zone."

The report does call specifically for the US to "try to engage constructively" Iran and Syria in diplomatic efforts to stabilize Iraq, given their influence in the country. The White House has previously poured cold water on that proposal, saying those two countries should first demonstrate their goodwill toward helping and not further destabilizing Iraq.

The report also calls for the US to recommit itself to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key element in any successful redirection of US-Iraq policy.

Co-chaired by Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, the Iraq Study Group is one of several studies of options for Iraq that President Bush will be consulting, including one from the Pentagon and a White House in-house analysis from the National Security Council. Bush aides have said the president will decide on any redirection of the Iraq effort over the coming weeks.

While Bush has publicly ruled out any changes that smack of a "graceful exit" from Iraq, some analysts and experts who worked with group during its nine-month investigation say that is essentially what the report boils down to.

Of the two co-chairs, Mr. Hamilton was the more categoric at a news conference Wednesday morning in saying the current approach is not working. "The ability of the US to influence events is diminishing," Hamilton said, adding that the American people cannot be expected to accept the same course for a conflict that has cost the lives of nearly 3,000 US soldiers and cost US taxpayers $400 billion. He warned that the total price tag could rise to more than $1 trillion.

While the report does not set a concrete timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq, it does say that US combat forces "could be out of Iraq" by the first quarter of 2008 – if steps are taken soon to allow Iraqi forces to assume combat functions in the war.

But some analysts say even that finding may rest on the assumption of a functioning Iraqi government that may not exist. "Behind all of these reasonable expectations we are wrestling with is the possibility that Iraq may not be a real nation-state anymore," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel now teaching international relations at Boston University. "We may be asking the government to do this or that, when the real decisionmakers and power brokers now are more the factions, sectarian groups, tribes, and clans."

Some experts lauded the report for nevertheless setting down as a necessary step a reduced American military presence. "It is new in saying you can't solve this militarily, and that you have to begin cutting down the American footprint," says Lawrence Korb, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Taking note of the report's emphasis on a reassignment of US forces from patrol to training of Iraqi security forces, Mr. Korb adds, "The problem with the Iraqis is not training, it is really motivation." He notes that only one Iraqi Army division is multiethnic in a land of mounting sectarian strife, and he says this points up how crucial will be political decisions about intercommunity equity that the US simply can't force the Iraqi government to make.

White House officials had cautioned against looking for any "magic bullet" in the much-anticipated report, and indeed the group itself said there isn't one. "There is no path that can guarantee success," the report concludes.

"What the report [reflects] is that there are a lot of options out there for a new Iraq policy, but none of them are very good," says one of a number of national-security specialists that the 10-member panel consulted to draw up its recommendations. "This [is] tacit recognition that what was allowed to go quite bad will not be fixed quickly or easily," says the expert, who asked not to be named because of involvement with the panel.

The report was released a day after Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates answered a flat "no" to a question at his Senate confirmation hearing about whether the US is winning in Iraq.

But the report also seeks to lay out a "new way forward" for US involvement in Iraq at a time of decreasing US influence there. This week, Mr. Maliki announced a plan to hold a regional conference on stabilizing his country, even as the US continues to debate the usefulness of such an initiative.

Mr. Bacevich of Boston University says the commission's emphasis on regional diplomacy "has the potential to be its most helpful recommendation." But he adds that it also may be "the proposal that President Bush is the least likely to accept."

Some analysts have railed against the idea of enlisting Iran's help in Iraq, claiming that Tehran is part of the problem and is angling for a US withdrawal from the region in order to enhance its own power. Baker, a believer in the rule of national interests, responds that Iran was helpful to the US in Afghanistan and could be helpful in Iraq if it understood its interests could be served.

But Toensing of the Middle East Project says the Iran issue is another example of events "overtaking" otherwise sound proposals. "This is another case of a generally sound idea outpaced by events," he says. "Tehran's calculus was such that it was helpful [on Afghanistan], but the strategic interests are so different now," he says, not to mention the further radicalization of the Tehran regime.

The report was unveiled in a Senate chamber with all 10 study group members present, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Such is the emotion unleashed by the topic of Iraq that the report was being attacked even before its release as "stay the course lite" by some and as "Vietnam redux" by others. Conservative security analysts critical of any foreseeable drawdown of US troops and of the idea of a regional dialogue that would include Iran and Syria have taken to calling the Baker-Hamilton commission the "Iraq Surrender Group."

The group does not recommend any increase in US troops, currently numbering 140,000 in Iraq, of anything "over 100,000 more troops," Baker said. That recommendation appears to leave the door open to one Pentagon proposal that US troops be increased by perhaps 40,000 – principally in Baghdad to secure the capital.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former Bush Middle East envoy who opposed waging war on Iraq, now holds the view that a US departure would create a dangerous vacuum that would probably be filled by Iran. So not only should the US not pull out of a war that was a mistake in the first place, General Zinni says, but it will have to increase troops to accomplish anything resembling stability.

For all their emphasis on the dire straits the US is encountering in Iraq, the study group members emphasized as a group the need to do something different from the policy the US is following today. Said commission member Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming: "Maybe [our work] is corny, maybe it won't work. But it sure ... [is] better than sitting there where we are right now."

Excerpts from the report of the Iraq Study Group

On diplomacy vis-à-vis Iraq

"The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. This ... effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq's neighbors. Iraq's neighbors and key states in and outside the region should form a support group to reinforce security and national reconciliation within Iraq...."

On US troop levels

"The primary mission of US forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations. By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected [security] developments ..., all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, US combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams [to focus on strikes against Al Qaeda in Iraq], and in training, equipping, advising, force protection, and search and rescue."

"The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq."

On the US role in the Middle East

"There must be a renewed and sustained commitment ... to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians – those who accept Israel's right to exist – and Syria."

On Iraq's responsibilities

"If the Iraq government demonstrates political will and makes substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should make clear its willingness to continue training, assistance, and support for Iraq's security forces and to continue political, military, and economic support. If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of [those] milestones ..., the United States should reduce its ... support for the Iraqi government."

On the panel's intent

"Success [in Iraq] depends on the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization. Americans can and must enjoy the right of robust debate within a democracy. Yet US foreign policy is doomed to failure – as is any course of action in Iraq – if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus. The aim of our report is to move our country toward such a consensus."

To see the report

A PDF version is available for download at these websites: www.usip.org, www.csis.org, and www.bakerinstitute.org. "The Iraq Study Group Report" ($10.95) is published by Vintage Books, www.vintagebooks.com.

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