Iraq Study Group gets one thing right
As expected, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) has depicted the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating", and challenged a number of characteristics of President George W Bush's foreign policy.
The report by the 10-member commission led by Republican James Baker, a former secretary of state, and Democrat Lee Hamilton, a former congressman who once chaired the House International Relations Committee, warned that a dramatic change in course over Iraq is needed to avoid "severe consequences". It gives the clear impression that Iraq has become such a critical issue to the United States that its inability to stabilize the country could seriously erode its strategic dominance in the entire Middle East.
The ISG report contains 79 recommendations in the realms of military, diplomacy and politics for the Bush administration. The most remarkable aspect of these recommendations is that they are the outcome of a bipartisan consensus.
The report will be noted for avoiding the kind of recommendation Bush has already made clear he would not accept. Thus it did not call for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Instead, it proposed a phased withdrawal and recommended embedding of US military personnel for the purpose of training Iraqi forces. That recommendation, aside from the fact that it is being discussed as a realistic option, is also aimed at reducing American casualties in the streets of Iraq. Consequently, it is highly acceptable to the American public.
However, the Democrats are disappointed that the ISG did not recommend the withdrawal of US troops within the near future. (As an aside, a general, but not a highly publicized understanding, within the ranks of US military personnel in Iraq is that the Iraqi forces might not be able to acquire the type of professionalism that is required to defend their country even within the next five to 10 years.)
One recommendation whose long-term implications are not yet obvious is the fact that the ISG report calls for a "new diplomatic offensive". This is in direct contradiction of the well-known preference of the neo-conservatives to define America's "global war on terror" primarily along the lines of the use of military force at the exclusion of diplomatic options. It recommends that the US engage in dialogue with Iran, with Syria and even with Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful anti-US Iraqi Shi'ite cleric. Such a recommendation - even though it goes against Bush's preference for not having dialogue with Iran or Syria - is likely to be accepted largely because the list of options for the US in Iraq is shrinking very fast.
If Bush does, however, engage Iran and Syria, he will face two countries playing their newly emerged advantageous position to gain maximum possible payoffs from the United States.
A related but important contribution of the ISG report is that it links a potential worsening of the Iraqi security situation to the larger issues of the Palestinian-Israeli and Hezbollah-Israeli conflicts, and a potential conflagration between the Sunni neighbors of Iraq and Iraqi Shi'ites.
If the administration were to accept the dialogue recommendation it would liberate itself from the grip of the neo-conservatives for the remainder of the Bush presidency. In this sense, it serves as the litmus test of whether Bush has really decided to go with the realist school of advisers who served his father - president George H W Bush - so well prior to, during and in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991.
That Bush Sr did not finish off Saddam Hussein in that conflict served the neo-conservatives well in pressing their case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the bloody deterioration of Iraq has shown that Bush Sr anticipated correctly in 1991 how turbulent the overthrow of Saddam would be for the United States.
The most contentious of the ISG recommendations is to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. It stated, "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."
Such a potential linkage led to a public show of disagreement between Maliki and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, a few weeks ago. As a result, the US backed down. However, the ISG's decision to insist on this method of pressuring the government of Iraq might be based on the fact that the Democrats in the upcoming Congress are likely to be vocal on this point.
One of the most significant aspects of the ISG report is that it might prove to be the end of the last-minute attempts of the neo-conservatives to keep US foreign policy on the path of unilateralism and jingoistic nationalism - the very course that brought the lone superpower the dark days of Iraqi quagmire in the first place.
Despite the intense public attention on the ISG's recommendations, the jury is still out on whether Bush will accept the more important ones - he is not legally bound to implement any of them. Much depends on whether he really wants to defang the neo-conservatives and start a fresh approach to the Iraqi imbroglio.
All the same, the ISG report performs an invaluable service to the US by underscoring the need to return to multilateralism and a comprehensive approach to conflict resolution, with emphasis on the need for diplomatic exchanges even with America's adversaries.
Such an approach enabled the United States to create a new global order in the aftermath of World War II - one in which the US managed to establish its hegemony in the non-communist world. That global order has proved to be highly resilient, and in essence it is still in place, although the US has deviated down a wobbly and bloody path under neo-conservative influence in the wake of September 11, 2001.
The ISG report offers Bush the opportunity to return to the old, but highly effective, way of conducting foreign policy.
Ehsan Ahrari can be reached at [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.