During the Iran hostage crisis a generation ago, I asked a senior State Department official what he would recommend to extricate the country from its predicament. "There is no good answer," he replied. "The trick is not getting into these situations."
Former Secretary of State James Baker, his Co-chair, Lee Hamilton, and their distinguished Iraq Study Group (ISG), must have echoed that sentiment often. But they persevered and came up with 79 recommendations Wednesday designed to end the US combat role in the country while averting humiliating defeat, giving Iraq the prospect of escaping unimaginable calamity, and providing the region with an opportunity to preempt what could become a spreading war.
For that they deserve credit, and for starkly debunking suggestions by Bush administration apologists that the war was somehow going better than accounts in the media might suggest. No, this is a war of unyielding Sunni insurgents, murderous Shiite militias, a dangerous sprinkling of international jihadists, mounting US and Iraqi casualties, and a staggering price tag of $400 billion to date, en route to a possible final tab of $3 trillion.
Four months ago, during a visit to Iraq, I encountered among senior coalition figures the seeds of disenchantment with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Some suspected his hatred of the old Saddam Hussein regime remained so intense that he wouldn't promote the reconciliation necessary for the Sunnis to end their insurgency. Others saw him as too politically weak and dependent on radical Shiite factions to offer a package that must include amnesty, a fair division of oil revenues, and a standing down of sectarian militias, particularly the 60,000-man Mahdi Army running wild through the vast Baghdad slum called Sadr City.
Still, the tendency in August was to give Mr. Maliki time to "get his legs." The Baker-Hamilton report, however, pulls no punches: "Maliki has ... ordered the removal of blockades around Sadr City, sought more control over Iraqi security forces and resisted US requests to move forward on reconciliation or on disbanding Shiite militias."
For all its insight regarding where the Iraq effort stands and how things can get even worse, the report's worth will ultimately be judged by two groups of proposals designed to make possible a US withdrawal unburdened by mission failure. The first is a diplomatic offensive calculated to enlist key states in the area to support and assist an independent Iraq, encourage an end to the insurrection on generous terms and, of course, to cease all mischief of their own. Contrary to established administration policy, Iran and Syria would both be invited to the table.
The second would transform the US military role from combat to training and support for Iraqi forces, including a substantial US component embedded with host country troops. By early 2008, the plan envisions a complete end to the US combat role with a drawdown of US forces to about half their current number of roughly 145,000.
My problem with both plans is that neither seems likely to work. Both advertise US weakness when even during its period of military and political dominance the US-led coalition could not prevent Iran from training and equipping Shiite militias, Syria from providing a haven for Hussein loyalists and looking the other way as Al Qaeda operatives slipped across the border into Iraq, or Iraq's Sunnis from attacking the "occupier."
As a position of power and influence in Iraq has already fallen into his lap, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't likely to abandon his Holocaust denial activities long enough to attend Mr. Baker's event. In several interviews Wednesday, Baker admitted as much. His fallback position: Try to "flip" Syria from its current Iranian benefactor by offering Damascus the opportunity to negotiate with Israel for return of the Golan Heights, captured by the Israelis in 1967. In addition to behaving in Iraq, the Syrians would also stay out of Lebanon, assist the UN in investigating two political murders in Lebanon, block Iranian weapons shipments to Hizbullah that now transit Syria, and persuade Hamas to recognize Israel.
When does diplomacy become fantasy? Viewed in the cold light of day, the panel's "New Diplomatic Offensive" would qualify.
As to the cluster of proposals involving a changed US military role, I fear this would mean foreclosing an important opportunity to make the numbers work to the advantage of the coalition. Just months ago, Marine Corps intelligence estimated that with an additional division in Anbar Province, the marines could defeat the Sunni insurrection. The fleshing out of Iraq's 10 divisions this year, and their accelerated training in 2007, could have complemented the US fighting force, probably enabling it to field that extra Anbar division, with a corresponding increase in bargaining power. Instead, the US would suffer a sharp diminution in combat and bargaining power as the drawdown begins.
A particularly frightening consequence of the combat drawdown could occur in Baghdad itself, where the removal of US troops would leave residents totally at the mercy of Shiite militias overseen only by troops from the Shiite-controlled Army.
Two additional items bear mention. First, the ISG gives short shrift to the Kurdish autonomy issue and the inclusion of the oil-rich territory of Kirkuk in Kurdish lands. Blithely, the group proposes postponement by one year of a referendum on Kirkuk, constitutionally mandated to occur in 2007. When I visited the area in August, two senior American officers warned that the Kurds would go to war rather than surrender Kirkuk. They argued, too, that the pro-American Kurds were a much better strategic bet than a Shiite-led Iraq strongly influenced by Iran. Even as a nominal part of an Iraqi state, their freedom is worth US protection.
Finally, the panel urges the administration to re-energize the Israeli peace talks with Palestinians who accept Israel's existence. Peace talks are not a synonym for peace and unless carefully prepared, they can lead instead to war. Witness the failure at Camp David in 2000 and the resulting human carnage of the second intifada.
Does any Palestinian today have both the will and the political power to negotiate a deal with Israel that waives the so-called right of return for refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants? Will the region be more content with a failed Camp David-type spectacular, or an effort that begins with such modest confidence-building measures as a cease-fire accord, an easing of travel restrictions, and selective prisoner releases? In any event, the bridge between Israelis and Palestinians is fragile enough to barely support the weight of its own parties. Adding to it the weight of a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is simply not smart.
• Robert Zelnick is a professor of journalism at Boston University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.