The most impressive aspect of the report by the Iraq Study Group, or the Baker-Hamilton commission, created by Congress in March, is the assessment contained in the first 40 pages. It is a grim but essentially realistic assessment. It highlights the increasing levels of violence and the inability of the current “stay the course” strategy or the Iraqi government as currently constituted to improve conditions substantially.
Most of the troubling facts are here. “Violence is increasing in scope, complexity, and lethality.” Sectarian violence, between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, is the major contributor, while “al-Qaida is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts.” U.S. “military units are under significant strain.” Iraqi security forces are being trained but there are serious questions as to whether they are loyal to a national Iraqi government or to sectarian or tribal groupings, and they are in no position to provide security within Iraq without outside help.
What to do? The report’s recommendations are a combination of practical incremental steps and utopian flights of fancy.
The essence? Newly intensified U.S. diplomatic and military efforts combined with timetables for the Iraqi government to accomplish important goals such as demobilizing independent militias. And, adjusting the U.S. mission to emphasize training of Iraqis by “embedding” U.S. advisers in Iraqi security units rather than confronting insurgents and sectarian militias directly. This should lead to being able to withdraw roughly half of the 141,000 U.S. troops, perhaps by the end of next year. But those remaining would do so on an open-ended basis.
The group’s first proposal, however, strikes us as part useful and part pie-in-the-sky: Launch a “comprehensive New Diplomatic Offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq and the region.” This would include forming an Iraq International Support Group consisting of all countries that border Iraq, including Iran and Syria, plus Egypt, the Persian Gulf States, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and other countries — perhaps Germany, Japan and South Korea.
This group would then work to stabilize Iraq, on the assumption that all these countries fear chaos in Iraq, for various reasons, including the fear that it might lead to destabilizing their own governments. The Support Group, however, “will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So, on a separate but parallel track, the U.S. should bring to the table Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist and get a comprehensive peace process going for that area.
The Arab-Israeli conflict, despite occasional respites, has resisted outside mediation for decades. Why does the study group think a new effort is likely to succeed? Beyond noting that “The vast majority of the Israeli body politic is tired of being a nation perpetually at war,” the report does not identify new hopeful developments, and it elides negative developments like the election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority parliament and the recent war in Lebanon.
It is probably useful to reopen relations and talks with Iran and Syria. But to expect such talks to resolve all the region’s problems sounds utopian.
Other problems are sidestepped. The report acknowledges, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki to a large extent owes his position to the fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, yet it wants Maliki to disarm that and other Shia militias. How is he to do this?
While acknowledging that the Iraqi central government, such as it is, lacks the capacity to provide security, provide basic services like electricity and trash collection, and is rife with corruption and dominated by sectarian forces, the report expects it to “pull up its socks” (as a certain former Defense secretary might put it) and go forward with a unity government that respects the rights of minorities and divides oil revenue equitably. It will probably take more than forming an international support group and embedding a few U.S. troops in Iraqi units.
The report never touches the most fateful question. What if the current Iraqi government, which already is more fiction than reality, effectively crumbles?
What is needed in Iraq is more than a minor course correction, but dramatic steps toward ending U.S. involvement in a country we never should have invaded in the first place. There are risks in that course as in any course, including an intensification of sectarian violence or civil war.
The United States started this war and bears its share of responsibility for the aftermath. But almost four years on the U.S. has demonstrated that, as an occupying power whose influence is rapidly diminishing, it cannot solve Iraq’s problems. That is the first reality to face.