Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report

I’ve just finished reading the Iraq Study Group report (PDF.) The New York Times presents a persuasive critique from a military point of view and Kevin Drum highlights their astonishing revelation that the report’s military recommendations were not discussed with the group’s own military advisory panel. The Washington Post presents some unenthusiastic reactions from Iraq. Most importantly, President Bush has already splashed cold water on the major ideas in the report: a more aggressive attempt at regional diplomacy, a pullback of troops, and a conditioning of further support on Iraqi performance.

It’s still early but at this point it seems unlikely that the Iraq Study Group report will attain the credibility that the 9/11 Commission Report earned. It just doesn’t seem probable that this will be the seed around which a consensus will crystallize. That is a national tragedy.

As I have argued before, it is critical that we forge a bi-partisan approach to this problem because if we do not then our Iraqi strategy will almost certainly not survive this election cycle.

The report says that a ramp-up of forces in Iraq is unworkable, and most military experts seem to agree. The McCains and Kristols of the world are just not able to explain where they would find the troops. Also, the experience of Operation Together Forward II -- where a build-up of troops in Baghdad resulted in nothing more than a continuing escalation of the violence -- puts in doubt how much good a mere 20,000 more troops would do.

The Study Group believes that splitting the country into three regions would be risky, and again I agree. Ethnic cleansing would be accelerated in the short term, and we might well wind up with an Al Qaeda-influenced Sunnistan and an Iranian client state Shiastan.

I am also persuaded by the report’s arguments against an immediate withdrawal. At this stage it would very likely lead to a broadening of the conflict. These words are foreboding: “Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora’s box of problems – including the radicalization of populations, mass movements of populations, and regime changes – that might take decades to play out.” We probably can’t stop a civil war in Iraq, but our presence can dissuade the incursion of Iraq’s neighbors.

Where I differ with the Iraq Study Group’s conclusion is in the political approach they choose. Conditioning support on performance sounds good, but it doesn’t matter how many carrots you put in front of an Iraqi politician to entice him. When the stick he’s looking at is his political demise and maybe his death, then the treat in your hand is irrelevant: the gestures the report looks for may not be possible for a Shia leader in Iraq today.

We might be better off drawing down our troops over a 12-month period and redefining their mission: act as a trigger force on the border; defend the oilfields from sabotage; protect the green zone, the airport and the road to it; be available as a quick-reaction force; and provide air support to government forces when necessary. Other than that, we should give up on national reconciliation and let the Shias rule Iraq as they will. This would help us maintain our influence with them and prevent them from falling too far into the Iranian orbit. It would speed the probably inevitable result: a Shia victory over the Sunnis after a bloody civil war. On the negative side, it would also cause outrages that we would be ashamed to be part of. And it would hurt our standing with the Sunni states of the area -- and perhaps western states too. But I can’t think of a better way to bring about a stable Iraq. From both a moral and a geopolitical perspective, that should be our highest priority.

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