The long-awaited report of the Iraq Study Group was released Wednesday and it paints a grim picture of that war-torn country. The candor is refreshing; no policy can succeed if it is not based on reality. Not surprisingly, the conclusions constitute a fundamental revision of U.S. policy. But signals from the White House indicate that U.S. President George W. Bush is not inclined to heed the group’s advice.
The Iraq Study Group (ISG) was established in March 2006 at the urging of several members of Congress to assess the situation in Iraq, evaluate U.S. policy and come up with recommendations. The 10-person bipartisan panel was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and was cochaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and Mr. Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. It conducted hearings and meetings with 171 people, drew on the work of several expert groups, met with President Bush and key members of his national security team several times, and even visited Iraq. That work yielded a 142-page report, released Wednesday (in Washington), that included 79 specific and unanimous recommendations.
The ISG begins with a blunt warning: “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” A continued slide could result in the collapse of the Baghdad government, a humanitarian catastrophe, Sunni-Shiite clashes throughout the region, enhanced status for al-Qaida and greater damage to the U.S. global standing.
That alone is an important admission, given that the U.S. government has maintained that much if not most of the country is stable, the violence is being contained and persistence is the solution to problems currently encountered in Iraq. In a press conference held to coincide with the release of the report, Mr. Baker bluntly rejected that approach, saying “We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that is no longer viable.”
The ISG’s suggestions constitute a radical shift in U.S. policy. First, the group endorses active diplomacy that “includes every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors.” In other words, Washington must begin to talk to Iran and Syria, a step that Mr. Bush has been loath to take. In addition, the ISG calls on the U.S. to deal “directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict. . . There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts.” This, too, is a radical departure for a U.S. administration that has preferred a hands-off approach to this problem.
Second, the U.S. must adjust its role to let Iraqis take more control of their destiny. This calls for increasing the U.S. presence within Iraqi Army units while simultaneously cutting the troop presence overall, with virtually all combat units withdrawn from the country by early 2008. Critically, the U.S. must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. The ISG does not endorse a specific timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but the trend and end state are clear.
As part of this process, the Iraqi government must step up and win the confidence of all its citizens. The report calls for Baghdad to embrace benchmarks on national reconciliation, security and governance. U.S. support should be contingent on substantial progress toward the achievement of those objectives.
All these suggestions make sense. And there are many that the U.S. administration would endorse on its own. As a package, however, they represent an abrupt shift in U.S. policy, and Mr. Bush has been reluctant to take any step that looks like he is conceding a mistake. Only last week he promised Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the U.S. commitment to Iraq would be undiminished until victory is achieved. While Mr. Bush has said that he takes the ISG’s work seriously, he has also made it clear that he does not feel bound by its recommendations. He is considering the panel’s report along with other studies by the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is a president’s prerogative, but it raises questions about the purpose of this entire exercise. Moreover, the ISG has cautioned that their suggestions are a package and must be taken as a whole.
In a letter accompanying the report, the cochairs concede that there is no magic formula that can solve the problems in Iraq. But, they argue, there are steps that can be taken to improve the situation and protect U.S. interests. Of course, any progress is contingent on the recognition that the present situation is unsustainable and changing direction is less of a defeat than is worsening chaos in Iraq. The ISG’s work may be done, but the real work has yet to begin.
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