ISG: Cut and Hedge

December 12, 2006 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: RealismTroop SurgeGulf WarIraq War

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."

The University of Maryland's September poll showed that an overwhelming majority wants U.S. troops to leave within a year, as do the majority of Americans, and nearly eighty percent of Iraqis polled say that the U.S. military is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing." Despite its own observations about occupation driving the violence, the ISG states that the "fundamental cause of violence in Iraq" is the "absence of national reconciliation."

The ISG noted at several points what might be called "problems of empire" afflicting the Iraqi effort. Among others, these include appalling ignorance of Iraq's history, culture, and language (only 6 of the thousand embassy employees speak fluent Arabic), failure to understand the insurgency (as local vs. driven by al Qaeda), "significant underreporting" of the violence in Iraq, an insensitive tendency to devalue Iraqi lives ("a murder of an Iraqi is not even counted as an attack"), and information from the field that systematically "minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals." Indeed, ISG members well know that the United States invaded Iraq, shattered the Iraqi state, army, and government, and led a "de-Baathification" purge of anyone who had anything to do with Saddam's regime. The United States allowed extensive looting of Iraqi government and private locations except the oil ministry, violated its international legal obligations to provide security as an occupying power, and was unable or unwilling to stop the violence as over two million refugees fled the country and their country became a hellhole replete with routine rape, torture, violence, kidnapping, murder, and ethnic cleansing.  

All of which makes it more ironic that the ISG now acquiesces in blaming the Iraqis for not "standing up" and being able to "govern, sustain, and defend" Iraq. The "surge" of troops that so obviously won't work (it was just tried with 8,000 troops sent to Baghdad in August while the violence proliferated) seems more calculated to serve the interests of U.S. politicians who want to say that they "tried everything they could, but the Iraqis let us down" than to have any real chance of achieving stability.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has thus rejected the report as "not fair and not just," containing "dangerous articles which undermine the sovereignty of Iraq and its constitution." Even taking into account Talabani's possible biases (as a Kurdish leader) against Baker, who is widely seen as having abandoned the Kurds in their uprising against Saddam encouraged by the first President Bush after the first Gulf War, his words express deep emotion: "They are dealing with us as if we are an emerging colony, doing whatever they like."

A Report, Unadulterated

More training isn't going to bolster security if the problem lies not with the training itself but with feigning recruits: at best, we're training unmotivated people, and at worst, enemies. The consequence of a troop surge will be greater U.S. and Iraqi casualties.

A more effective as well as honest policy would honor America's obligations by establishing a clear timetable for withdrawal (one year, for example), during which time the United States would not merely disavow an interest in "permanent" bases-as the ISG rightly recommends-but would downsize its billion-dollar embassy and decommission military bases. To the extent possible the United States should rely on Iraqi facilities for security activities, conducted at the Iraqi government's invitation. The United States is so distrusted that only actions, not words, will suffice.

The diplomatic efforts recommended by the ISG involving Israel/Palestine and Syria/Lebanon are indeed worthwhile-not because they have great chance of success but because they are necessary to garner support from other states in assisting Iraq's stability, protection of minority rights, and achieving a more equitable distribution of oil revenues. Renewed diplomatic efforts would also help show the Muslim world that we are not just interested in empire but recognize that our interests extend to peace throughout the region.

Finally, rather than the measly $750 million presently contemplated for further reconstruction, or the still insufficient five billion dollars (two weeks of war funding) recommended by the ISG, the United States and its allies should establish mechanisms to offer corruption-free, dramatically larger amounts of support, akin to one year of the war's costs. This would serve to jumpstart the Iraqi economy, reduce the 50 percent unemployment rate, and show a desire to compensate for the invasion's calamitous damage.