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Sunday, December 10, 2006




Michael Young on Iraq Study Group's report

Daily Star (Lebanon)

December 09, 2006
By Michael Young


. . .

The report opens on the low side. "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved." The authors call "for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of US forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly." In parallel to this, the Iraqi government is told that it must advance national reconciliation, guarantee basic security, and deliver essential services. Lying in ambush is a threat: "If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government."

. . .

But if that's Baker's and Hamilton's gambit, it does not square with this passage in the report: "Iraq is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to US interests. It runs along the sectarian fault lines of [Shiite] and Sunni Islam, and of Kurdish and Arab populations. It has the world's second-largest known oil reserves. It is now a base of operations for international terrorism, including [Al-] Qaeda. Iraq is a centerpiece of American foreign policy, influencing how the United States is viewed in the region and around the world. Because of the gravity of Iraq's condition and the country's vital importance, the United States is facing one of its most difficult and significant international challenges in decades."

If Iraq is all this, then does it make sense for the US to abandon the country if its leaders don't play ball? Does the Bush administration have that luxury? The answer is no, which points to a fundamental flaw in the report: It prepares the exits in Iraq, but also convinces us why getting out might be a disaster. Worse, the US depends on the Iraqis to create the successful context for its departure. Success isn't much of an option, as the ISG authors have already informed us, so what we're left with is a cornucopia of vague thoughts, where it's unclear who or what defines the destiny of US forces in Iraq . . .

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Another cornerstone of Baker's and Hamilton's strategy is the creation of a regional Iraq Support Group as part of a so-called New Diplomatic Offensive. "The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. This diplomatic effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq's neighbors."

. . . The premise of the ISG report, as the above passage makes clear, is that none of Iraq's neighbors wants to see the country dissolve into sectarian war. The authors err, however, in giving this hypothesis absolute merit, with little appreciation for the complexity of Iranian and Syrian interests in Iraq. If a civil war is so frightening, then it doesn't explain why Syria has systematically destabilized Iraq by funneling foreign Sunni jihadists into the country to murder Shiites - increasing the chances for full-scale sectarian warfare. The same can be said of Iran, which continues to arm both of the main Shiite militias, despite the fact that they have been involved in countless rampages of sectarian killing.

Something is plainly lacking in the ISG's rational reckoning of Iranian and Syrian intentions. For one thing, Baker and Hamilton ignore that Iran's stated goal in Iraq is to get the Americans out of the country - and perhaps the region. . . .Tehran would be amenable to chatting up the US all the way to Iraq's door, but that's different than what the ISG members have in mind. They're not looking for an American rout in the Middle East; Iran is.

Similarly, the report's passage on Syria is so anemic, so unpersuasive, so shaky for being loaded down with an ancillary recommendation that the US help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a possible incentive to Damascus, that nothing will come of it, at least for now. . . . What those who want to engage Syria cannot comprehend is that its regime thrives on exporting instability. For President Bashar Assad, normalcy in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon would deny Syria a role as regional playmaker, while also forcing the Syrian leader to dismantle the vast security edifice that keeps him in power.

. . .. Other than a final sequence of detailed administrative and judicial recommendations, too much of the ISG's advice is conventional generalization. That's because all Baker and Hamilton ever intended to give Bush was a diagram for defeat, a device for him to go down without losing face.

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