Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A first take on the ISG report

I've had a chance to do an intial reading of the report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), aka, the Baker report, the Baker-Hamilton report. I'm giving my initial thoughts on it here. As it is hashed over in the public discussion and we see the reaction of the Cheney-Bush administration and the Republican Party, I'm sure some aspects of the report will become more clear.

Not surprisingly, the thing reads like the work of a committee, since virtually every sentence must have been haggled over.

One stiking thing about their descriptions of the current situation in the Iraq War is that it would definitely be a shock to anyone who was reading this as a credible report but who is still drinking the "what about the good news in Iraq?"kool-aid. For example, the folks currently posting at the Tanker Brothers blog one of whom has lately been bitching and moaning because The Blue Voice (a group blog in which I participate) entered trackbacks to a few of their posts. "A_C" is evidently disappointed that we aren't terribly impressed by the CENTCOM feel-good puff pieces to which they link, or by their inside anonymous sources who surprise us with revelations like the fact that somewhere in Iraq some of the enemy use RPG's as weapons.

On the other hand, they also paint a dire picture of what would be likely to happen if US combat forces leave within any near-term time horizon.

It certainly offers no quick and easy solutions. It doesn't open the way to a "graceful exit" (as Bush called it) from the war. It doesn't even offer an ungraceful one, though it does focus on ways to achieve an Iraqi version of "Vietnamization". And it promotes the folly that the United States can meaningfully direct the course of what they tiptoe around calling the current civil war in Iraq. The possibility of the Untergang Option is not discussed.

The core of the ISG's report is a recommendation for a regional diplomatic solution that sound reasonable as a goal - if we pretend that we have a generic American government conducting diplomacy in a normal way. But that's not what we have. We have the Cheney-Bush administration, committed to "regime change" in Iran and Syria and unwilling to seriously challenge even the most outrageous action of the Israeli government. The Baker report calls for practical measures to stabilize Iraq that would require Iran's active participation and a credible resumption of a serious effort to achieve an Israel-Palestine final peace agreement.

Those goals require diplomatic efforts requiring the highest diplomatic competence. We will not have that as long as Dick Cheney and George Bush are running the government.

Following are some further comments and some of the quotes that initially stand out for me:

I'm a bit puzzled by the "Letter From the Co-Chairs" (Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton) which prefaces the report. It can be summarized in two sentences: The policy in Iraq is not nearly so important as the need for National Unity in America behind the policy. So if things keep getting worse, it's the dirty [Cheney]ing hippies and the Liberal Press who are to blame.

It's definitely out of tone and emphasis with the remainder of the report, which focuses on Iraq War policies and issues. From the "Letter":

Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable. The President and Congress must work together. Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support.

That last sentence is a real flight of fantasy when applied to officials of the Cheney-Bush administration. There's more:

The United States has long-term relationships and interests at stake in the Middle East, and needs to stay engaged.

Queue up the chorus from the Bush fans: But it's not about oil!

What we recommend in this report demands a tremendous amount of political will and cooperation by the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. It demands skillful implementation. It demands unity of effort by government agencies. And its success depends on the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization. Americans can and must enjoy the right of robust debate within a democracy. Yet U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure - as is any course of action in Iraq - if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus. The aim of our report is to move our country toward such a consensus.

I would sum up the ISG's main recommendations as follows:

* Shut up the hippies and the Liberal Press

* Negotiate with Syria and Iran

* Push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement

* Increase the number and improve the training of the Shi'a militias, aka, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)

* Move the Shi'a militias (ISF) into more of a leading role

* At lealst pretend that we're going to start withdrawing American troops

* Start trying to repair and re-equip the US Army

* Demand progress toward "milestones" or threaten withdrawal of aid

None of this looks very hopeful to me. The Bush administration is too committed to support the most hardline Israeli policies to have much credibility in pushing for an Israel-Palestine agreement, perhaps the most difficult diplomatic chore on the US agenda.

Iran's support is absolutely vital to the international framework the ISG recommends. And Iran does have a great deal of common interest with the United States in Iraq, more so than the analytical parts of the report might lead one to believe. But they're unlikely to give the US a exit-strategy deal over Iraq as long as the US doesn't formally and practically renounce "regime change" as a goal and cease the covert-war activities that are reportedly being conducted in Iran. It will also require the US to accept in practice what should have been an obvious outcome of taking out the secular Baathist dictatorship in Baghdad: Iran's regional power has been enhanced in a major way. The ISG report does mention the problems that a "regime change" goal by the US makes in conducting any kind of diplomacy with Syria or Iran:

Our limited contacts with Iran’s government lead us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq. They attribute this reluctance to their belief that the United States seeks regime change in Iran. (p. 52)

The ISG report recommends that the US insist that the Iraqi government meet milestones, described in some detail on pp. 62-64. But in the absence of an established deadline for complete withdrawal, it's hard to see what the pressure points would be:

During these high-level exchanges, the United States should lay out an agenda for continued support to help Iraq achieve milestones, as well as underscoring the consequences if Iraq does not act. It should be unambiguous that continued U.S. political, military, and economic support for Iraq depends on the Iraqi government’s demonstrating political will and making substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance. The transfer of command and control over Iraqi security forces units from the United States to Iraq should be influenced by Iraq’s performance on milestones.  (p. 60)

Let be see if I have this straight. The US wants to turn over as much of the combat and policing duties to Iraqis as quickly as we can. We're going to insist on milestones for achieving that. And if the Iraqi government doesn't deliver, then we'll threaten to ... not turn over combat and policing duties so fast?

This kind of contradiction is very much a part of the ISG recommendations, which do not set a complete withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq as a near-term goal. The Republican Party needs it to appear as though the Cheney-Bush administration is turning over combat to Iraqis and they need to see some actual significant numbers of troops withdrawn. But as long as exiting Iraq without a fully-functioning Iraqi army and government is seen as catastrophically dangerous to American interests, no full withdral is possible.

They do recommend, almost in passing, that the US renounce any intention of establishing permanent bases. (p. 61) But it's immediately followed by a qualifier about "temporary" bases if the Iraqi government requests them.

I suppose it's significant that "democracy" is not defined as one of the goals the US should be pursuing in Iraq:

We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq, as stated by the President: an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.” In our view, this definition entails an Iraq with a broadly representative government that maintains its territorial integrity, is at peace with its neighbors, denies terrorism a sanctuary, and doesn’t brutalize its own people. Given the current situation in Iraq, achieving this goal will require much time and will depend primarily on the actions of the Iraqi people.  (p. 40)

The ISG report provides a litany of the bad things that could happen if Iraq continues to deteriorate: a humanitarian catastrophe, ethnic cleansing, a regional war, increasing Iran's influence, an increase in terrorism and a decline of US standing in the world. All those seem to me to be likely consequences of US withdrawal, now orounuing American troop presence.

Some of the alleged dangers sound more phony. Iran could foment Shi'a insurrections against Sunni regimes. Iran discontinued its active promotion of terrorist actions against nearby Sunni regime in 1997. It's ability to foment an Shi'a insurrections certainly proved to be limited after the Islamic revolution of 1979, when exporting revolution in that way was a major goal of the new regime.

Then there are the perennial favorites, the macho-bluster impervatives:

Al Qaeda will portray any failure by the United States in Iraq as a significant victory that will be featured prominently as they recruit for their cause in the region and around the world. (p. 34)

Yeah, and Al Qaida - or "jihadist groups", which is probably a more meaningful term in the context - are using the American presence in Iraq as a recruiting tool, bragging point and actual school of practical jihad.

The global standing of the United States could suffer if Iraq descends further into chaos. Iraq is a major test of, and strain on, U.S. military, diplomatic, and financial capacities. Perceived failure there could diminish America’s credibility and influence in a region that is the center of the Islamic world and vital to the world’s energy supply. This loss would reduce America’s global influence at a time when pressing issues in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere demand our full attention and strong U.S. leadership of international alliances. And the longer that U.S. political and military resources are tied down in Iraq, the more the chances for American failure in Afghanistan increase.  (pp. 34-35)

It would be silly to pretend that no one would judge an early American withdrawal as a sign of weakness. Rightwing Republicans here in America, for instance, will be glad to declare it so. But "credibility" also involves a lot more than whether or not a country decides to call it quits in a lost cause. Credibility is also a matter of judgment, and invading Iraq to begin with convinced a large part of the world that American foreign policy judgment is seriously impaired. And they are right to think so - it was a terrible blunder, as well as a crime. The torture scandal, with its now-icononic images from the Abu Ghuraib prison, has damaged American credibility and influence as badly as pretty much anything that's happened in years, probably decades.

And while other countries' perceptions are important, perceptions do respond to realities (though as the current administration shows sometimes that process can be slow and incomplete). And the reality that the whole world knows is that the Iraq War pretty much prevents the US from intervening anywhere else in the world. As the Baker report itself says:

Many military units are under significant strain. Because the harsh conditions in Iraq are wearing out equipment more quickly than anticipated, many units do not have fully functional equipment for training when they redeploy to the United States. An extraordinary amount of sacrifice has been asked of our men and women in uniform, and of their families. The American military has little reserve force to call on if it needs ground forces to respond to other crises around the world.  (p. 7)

The ISG report also touches on the fact that the US intervention put a Shi'a regime in power and thereby strengtened Iran and probably emboldened Shi'a groups elsewhere - something that didn't exactly thrill our Sunni allies.

In other words, credibility isn't just about loss of face in recognizing a war is lost and that continuing will cost more in money, lives and influence than the US could reasonably hope to gain. And that's not even considering the possibility of a full-scale revolt by the Iraqi Shi'a against the Americans.

Essentially, the ISG report calls for a diplomatic framework and that the Cheney-Bush administration are unlikely to embrace and couldn't pull off even if they did.

As far as US troop drawdowns, it's basically more of the same. Train the ISF forces and as they stand up, we stand down. If it hasn't worked the last three years, it's not clear why it would work as well in 2007 as the proposed milestones assume.

To close, I'll quote several passages describing the current state of affairs in the Iraq War:

Attacks against U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi security forces are persistent and growing. October 2006 was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since January 2005, with 102 Americans killed. Total attacks in October 2006 averaged 180 per day, up from 70 per day in January 2006. Daily attacks against Iraqi security forces in October were more than double the level in January. Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month. (p. 3)

Four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces are highly insecure - Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. These provinces account for about 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million. In Baghdad, the violence is largely between Sunni and Shia. In Anbar, the violence is attributable to the Sunni insurgency and to al Qaeda, and the situation is deteriorating.

In Kirkuk, the struggle is between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. In Basra and the south, the violence is largely an intra-Shia power struggle. The most stable parts of the country are the three provinces of the Kurdish north and parts of the Shia south. However, most of Iraq’s cities have a sectarian mix and are plagued by persistent violence.  (p. 6)

The Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education. In many sectors, production is below or hovers around prewar levels. In Baghdad and other unstable areas, the situation is much worse. There are five major reasons for this problem.

... the government sometimes provides services on a sectarian basis. For example, in one Sunni neighborhood of Shia-governed Baghdad, there is less than two hours of electricity each day and trash piles are waist-high. One American official told us that Baghdad is run like a “Shia dictatorship” because Sunnis boycotted provincial elections in 2005, and therefore are not represented in local government.  (p. 20)

There has been some economic progress in Iraq, and Iraq has tremendous potential for growth. But economic development is hobbled by insecurity, corruption, lack of investment, dilapidated infrastructure, and uncertainty. As one U.S. official observed to us, Iraq’s economy has been badly shocked and is dysfunctional after suffering decades of problems: Iraq had a police state economy in the 1970s, a war economy in the 1980s, and a sanctions economy in the 1990s. Immediate and longterm growth depends predominantly on the oil sector. (p. 22)

Oil production and sales account for nearly 70 percent of Iraq’s GDP, and more than 95 percent of government revenues. Iraq produces around 2.2 million barrels per day, and exports about 1.5 million barrels per day. This is below both prewar production levels and the Iraqi government’s target of 2.5 million barrels per day, and far short of the vast potential of the Iraqi oil sector. Fortunately for the government, global energy prices have been higher than projected, making it possible for Iraq to meet its budget revenue targets. ...

Corruption is also debilitating. Experts estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 - and perhaps as many as 500,000 - barrels of oil per day are being stolen. (p. 23)

It is not clear that Iraqis can or will maintain and operate reconstruction projects launched by the United States. (p. 26)


ereading7 said...

"We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq, as stated by the President: an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.” "
Which, of course, they were doing before we went there.

bmiller224 said...

Funny thing about that, huh?

The truth is that, in the current state of things, both the people of Iraq and US foreign policy interests were better off with Saddam's regime in power than with the current anarchy and civil war.

But that genie can't be put back into the bottle.