Monday, December 11, 2006

Iraq Study Group: Success Through Failure

The first thing I noticed about the Iraq Study Group's report was the title of its policy prescriptions: The Way Forward. I couldn't help but smile when I saw it. "The way forward?" I thought. "Come on, what we're looking for is a way out!"

I know, I know, that makes me a "surrender monkey," too. Look, probably the heart of the matter here is that there are people who continue to believe Iraq is still salvageable, and that it is within US power to salvage it, on the one hand; and people -- like me -- who believe Iraq is past saving and that we therefore need to change our objectives to damage control. A shame the debate can't be conducted in a way that's respectful of the other side's motives -- except here on HOTM, of course... ;-)

Okay, substance. The meat of the report is in its diplomacy prescriptions: engage Iran and Syria and create something called the Iraq International Support Group, which would "include all countries that border
Iraq as well as other key countries in the region and the world."

My first reaction to all this was, are you kidding? Ain't gonna happen. Too many competing interests, too many countervailing motives. And even if you could put something like this together, what good would it do? Iran probably has some influence over various Iraqi Shiite factions, but the insurgency itself is still primarily Sunni. And even if Iran was restraining Iraqi Shiites from retaliating for Sunni provocations, it seems to have lost that capacity after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra last February. And even if Iran had the continued capacity to tamp down Shiite violence in a material way, what could we offer the mullahs that would give them incentive to do so?

Now Syria. Suppose we really could "flip" Assad from the Iranian embrace and get him to back our goals in Iraq. How much impact would Syrian cooperation have? You'd have to believe that a significant amount of financial and material support for Iraqi violence is coming from Syria. That is, but for Syrian misbehavior, things in Iraq would be markedly better. I might be wrong, but that's not my read.

But wait, there's still more: The ISG also wants a reenergized Israeli/Palestinian peace process. At this point I was thinking, what do Israel and Palestine have to do with Sunnis and Shiites killing each other in Iraq? And if we can't get out of Iraq until the Israelis and Palestinians are at peace, we're going to be there for a very long time. I was tempted to dismiss the Report as a fantasy.

But then I looked at it on another level. And I think I see what the ISG is really up to.

My guess is, they're "enlarging the problem," as it's known in some policy circles. By engaging other countries on the solution for Iraq, we make them part of the problem of Iraq. Then, when the problem turns out to be unsolvable, we are no longer solely to blame. The narrative then becomes, "The whole middle east -- in the form of the Iraq International Support Group -- tried to fix Iraq, to no avail. It's not working, and we don't want to participate in this larger process anymore. So we're leaving -- not so much leaving Iraq, as leaving this useless regional forum. The failure was everyone's, and it's your problem now."

Remember, the Report also calls for substantial US troop reductions by 2008. Why 2008? Well, there's this presidential election then... and two years is about enough for all that aggressive regional diplomacy to prove itself useless so we can use it as cover to leave.

The ISG has also built in some solid CYA provisions. The Report's recommendations have to be enacted in toto, Baker and Hamilton have argued, otherwise none of it will work. They know no commission report in the history of the Republic has been accepted in toto, and that this one won't be, either. When Iraq disintegrates, therefore, they can say, "Not our fault. We told the president the only chance he had was if he adopted the whole report -- and he didn't."

Bottom line: Taken at face value, the Report's policy recommendations are useless -- practically irrelevant -- for quelling Iraqi violence. But quelling Iraqi violence was never what the ISG set out to do. Despite the silly "way forward" rhetoric, the real purpose of the ISG was to find us a way out -- and a year or two of the failed diplomacy it recommends has as good a chance of that as anything.


MR said...

Great post, thanks. Don't know if you've seen these two short videos from Iraq yet or not, but both show the US Military engaging in some very dubious actions. I have them up on my site at ..You have to wonder what these soldiers were thinking when videotaping this stuff...

porchwise said...

Thanks to Writers Digest, I found your blog. Thanks for boiling down the commission report as no one else has, especially the boob tube commentators.

Anonymous said...

Yes! That is truly the heart of the matter. I've been shaking my head at it all week, trying to figure out how they can really call this a plan. 'Course, it's a report, not a plan. I guess I was hoping for a plan.

I read quite a bit of ridiculous 'shoulds' that were so unrealistic they made me laugh out loud.

Why can't we have a study that outlines a plan that's based on real possibilities and more likely outcomes? So more sons and daughters have to die, just so a few politicians can save face?

Either make it work, or leave. If you want to stay the course, show us a good plan that has a chance of succeeding.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to post something profound but I agree. Period. Of course I didn't believe there ever was a logical plan or agenda to begin with. Still don't. This administration seems to be throwing more people into an ever deepening abyss with no thought to the future other than to 'restructure'. Restructure what? The Plan. IMHO, to restructure a plan you have to have a viable one to begin with.
Reduction in troops by 2008? Why not a measured and timed reduction of troops beginning in the New Year. When tours are up, send those personnel home and use attrition to begin the withdrawal process. Do not re-deploy members of the National Guard to Iraq, especially those who have been over there once (or twice) already. Reducing the troops "in 2008" smacks so much of an election year tactic it is sad.

Anonymous said...

>>Reduction in troops by 2008? Why not a measured and timed reduction of troops beginning in the New Year.<<

That's more of a coincidence in timing than anything. It certainly doesn't help whoever runs for president that year, though.

No, the report is essentially calling for Iraq to be granted full self-determination and to do as they will and to transition American troops out as Iraqi forces take over command from there. Moving an entire army around, especially one that is grounded in occupation at the moment, is a logistical undertaking. If the decision is made to withdraw (and I certainly hope it is), then the US will transition command authority to the Iraqi military and that takes times. And if that is indeed what will happen, I wouldn't be surprised to see an increase in soldiers for a time in Iraq to bolster security for forces leaving, and as forces draw down, so will those extra security forces.

The funny thing is, I can see why Pres. Maliki is against the report. His army isn't really anything special, and probably of lesser quality than the old Iraqi army (and especially lesser than the Republican Guard) former SecDef Rumsfeld mistakenly disbanded in the beginning. It must have been a shock to his (Maliki) system when suddenly he was called upon to take responsibility for his country.

aaron said...

I know I am pretty late commenting on this...but here is what I was thinking.
It (regrettably) is not *just* about politicians saving face-it has to do with perception of America as a whole. Abandoning the battlefield wholesale is similar to admitting defeat. Which may be the right thing to do at this point, I do not know. But I do know that no mater how well you fight, if you walk away before everyone agrees you "won", then you will have to fight again. (We may have to fight again anyway, but I digress...)
What I was hoping for from the ISG was a definition of what would constitute winning in Iraq. A definition both sides would acknowlege. That way we could acomplish said goal, posthaste, and leave without inviting further attack. I think that would give us a way out *and* neatly avoid the "surrender monkey" problem, no? ;-) Because, I believe, you have to adress such things-if nothing else, so that common sense can somewhat prevail through our political process.
I think you are right, though-what we got was just a way to slowly spread the blame amongst everyone else. Or maybe the study group just, well, drew a blank. Then decided upon the most politcally unpalatble solution to foist the decision off on someone else? I was once warned about attributing to clever conspiracy what could be explained by incompetence...:).