ISG: Cut and Hedge

The authors’ political hedging will allow the president to seize on just those elements of the report that would seemingly endorse his most ruinous policy innovation: a troop surge in Iraq.

Delivered by trusty courtier James Baker, Bush the Elder gave his son his holiday gift early this year: the Iraq Study Group report. Presented in a bright and shining tin with the hope that it could restore some gleam to W's tarnished presidency, it was received with the polite grimace engendered by such delicacies. The true destiny of the gilded-wrapped gift has quickly become apparent. Bush the Younger said that he appreciated the effort involved. Regrettably, the authors' political hedging will allow the president to seize on those elements of the report that would seem to endorse his most ruinous expected policy innovation: a troop surge in Iraq. The ISG will likely bear as little fruit as did another commission of "wise men" regarding another ill-conceived war.

Realism Revisited

President Bush has already rejected key recommendations (such as the idea of direct talks with Iran and Syria), saying that the search for a graceful exit "has no realism to it whatsoever." Before the initial shine wore off, the Democrats hastened to join moderate Republicans in welcoming the report, attracted to its grittier bits: the description of the "dire" situation and the failed administration policies responsible. The sober, quasi-official clarification that, contrary to the president's refrain, the United States is not "winning" came as welcomed realism, as did the acknowledgement that violence plagues "most of Iraq's cities" and Al Qaeda is responsible for only a small part. Further, the Shi‘a dominated government, army, and police have not protected Sunnis or other minorities, and corruption and incompetence pervades both government and private contractors. For a moment it seemed this realism would escape the usual charges of treason but the New York Post lost little time in labeling Baker and his co-chair Lee Hamilton "surrender monkeys."

Both the Democratic and the moderate Republican enthusiasm for the report, and the predictable right-wing and neoconservative condemnation, stem from its approaching, but not quite endorsing, the withdrawal of some U.S. troops by the first quarter of 2008. The report says only that U.S. brigades "could" begin to move out by that time, "subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground." This would leave a "still significant force" in Iraq beyond that time; several ISG members have publicly confirmed that they expect at least 70,000 to 80,000 troops to remain past 2008.

Moreover, the ISG is comfortable with a significant "short-term" increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. The report recommends a five-fold increase in U.S. troops training Iraqi forces, to 20,000 personnel embedded at the Iraqi company level. This could be met from among soldiers already in Iraq but is much more likely to come from those already being trained for that purpose in the United States. The ISG says it could support such a surge of troops-for training or to stabilize Baghdad-if the U.S. commander in Iraq thinks that such steps "would be effective."
 
Leaks from the Pentagon's own Joint Chiefs of Staff review reveal similar plans for a short-term "surge" followed by longer-term training. This is thus likely to be the "new" Iraq policy the president announces soon after Christmas. It is doubtful the parallel NSC or State Department reviews will derail such an approach, and both the president and incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates oppose withdrawal, favoring instead further attempts at "victory".

Cut and Hedge

What a shame. Had the ISG followed the implications of its own descriptions we could have seen more sensible prescriptions rather than contradictions. The net result? This independent commission will have as little success in ending this misguided war as Clark Clifford's commission of "wise men" did in Vietnam. Although former President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to run for reelection, and to begin disengagement, the war persisted for another five years at the expense of thousands more lives unnecessarily lost.

The ISG didn't have the courage of its convictions. The refusal to clearly recommend a timetable for withdrawal, as desired by former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and some Democrats in the group, stemmed from Baker's desire not to "box in" Bush, who has repeatedly opposed such a date certain. According to Perry, this is how the "would" withdraw became a "could" withdraw forces by early 2008. But the report paradoxically references "those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the U.S. presence is intended to be a long-term ‘occupation' " and, further, recognizes that "an open-ended commitment of American forces would not provide the Iraqi government the incentive it needs to take the political actions that give Iraq the best chance of quelling sectarian violence." Similarly, the report notes that Iraqis "perceive Americans as representing an occupying force."

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