The ISG: Illusions Surrendered Group

The ISG: Illusions Surrendered Group

The ISG report is the most important statement on U.S. foreign policy in decades. It will impact U.S. Iran policy. The reaction in Israel could surprise.


At last. And after so many sterile, wasted years. The Iraq Study Group report is perhaps the most important U.S. statement on American foreign and Middle East policy in decades. Its recommendations are breathtaking. What is perhaps most striking is the comprehensiveness of what the Baker-Hamilton report says about the necessity for dealing with the Middle Eastern system as an organic whole. This constitutes a categorical rejection of the arguments of many that what happens (for example) in the Levant is unrelated to what happens in Iraq or the Persian Gulf. Reality does have a way of breaking through.

What Prime Minister Tony Blair has now variously described as an "evenhanded," just, and definitive Israeli-Palestinian settlement opens a new era in British and American diplomacy. The Baker-Hamilton report specifically places the Palestinian refugee issue, the problem of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and the future of Jerusalem squarely back on the Middle East negotiating table. However unwelcome such news may be in certain quarters, the fact is that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict is either linked directly to or greatly exacerbates a legion of other problems in both Iraq and the wider Islamic world. There will be no minimally tolerable settlement in Iraq or elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent without bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. The American national interest demands no less.


Concerning Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton report is correct that the partition or disintegration of Iraq should be prevented if humanly possible. Significantly, the report also recommends that President Bush make a public statement rejecting the notion that the United States "seeks to control Iraq's oil, or seeks permanent military bases within Iraq." Indeed, few declarations would be more helpful to restore American credibility in the Arab world than this. The Iraq Study Group is also on target in recommending that oil revenues be shared by all Iraqis on the basis of population, not on the basis of regions. And it is correct to propose the granting of amnesty to Iraqi insurgents other than Al-Qaeda, and the reintegration of most former Ba‘ath Party members into Iraqi society.

One may argue the semantics of whether the war in Iraq has already been lost, or whether the United States is still in the process of losing it. One thing is certain: the U.S. is not winning. Certainly, the United States does not now have any chance of decisively prevailing militarily. And there is now no excuse for President Bush to continue to mislead the American people by speaking of the possibility of military "victory" in Iraq, or the importance of engrafting "democracy" on the country. Neither is going to happen, at least in the medium term. The authors of the ISG understand all this, and have proceeded accordingly.

Perceptions matter. Images count. Ideas have consequences. In the Arab and Islamic world, such unquantifiable fundamentals are perhaps even more important than elsewhere. Over decades, and most especially during the last five years, the images projected by specific U.S. policies across the Islamic world have been catastrophic. They have made the winning of either hearts or minds almost impossible. And U.S. policy has delighted Osama bin Laden. To know why, and how, one needs to understand modern Middle Eastern history, especially in terms of European colonialism and Arab nationalism (whether secular or Islamic). On this score as well as much else, the Baker-Hamilton commission has done its homework, and has gotten it right. The era of illusions is over.

However the White House may now spin things, the ISG report in fact constitutes a massive repudiation of the policy of the Bush Administration. Most importantly, it draws red lines on acceptable policy, greatly diminishing the likelihood of any new, spectacular American military adventures in the Middle East. For example, a U.S. bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear development program, with all the predictably disastrous, region-wide consequences that any such attack would provoke, is now probably off the table. American-initiated regime change in either Iran or Syria is now also likely a dead letter.

But some have clearly not gotten the message. In fact, Israel may now be even more tempted than before to attempt to abort the new direction of U.S. policy. In this regard, the chances for a unilateral, preemptive Israeli attack on Iran may have skyrocketed. Were any such attack to occur, the United States would be accused by Muslims everywhere of being behind it. And Americans would be able to kiss goodbye to Iraq, probably lose access to Middle Eastern oil, experience an explosion of gasoline prices, and certainly forfeit any hope of re-stabilizing the Middle East for decades.

But Israel is not the only player that may not have gotten the message. Neoconservatives in the United States are openly gearing up to move against it. As one example, see the "Memorandum" by Joshua Muravchik (Foreign Policy, November-December 2006, available here), addressed to "My Fellow Neoconservatives", on the topic of "How to Save the Neocons." Less partisan observes might reply that it is past time that neoconservatives and their movement be left to drown in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Especially so, since Muravchik concludes his peroration by stridently insisting that Bush bomb Iran before leaving office. Moreover, he urges neoconservatives to "pave the way [for such bombing] now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes." But Muravchik deserves our thanks for making the neoconservative position crystal clear. Some might even conclude that Muravchik's and the neoconservatives' real concern is not the United States but Israel. Apparently, American national interests are threatened both by numerous enemies abroad and some fifth columnists at home.

The Baker-Hamilton report rightly emphasizes the importance of dialogue and collaboration with all regional powers in order to re-stabilize the entire Middle Eastern system. It understands the importance of an Israeli return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, and is correct in proposing that the United States offer to join other powers in monitoring the new (old) Israeli-Syrian border, and in offering Israel a U.S. security guarantee. The historical moment of the "dreamers of the day", as Lawrence of Arabia once called the British precursors of American neoconservatives, has now come to a resounding end.  

One may quibble with details of the Baker-Hamilton report. How does embedding some 20,000 U.S. troops within Iraqi military and police forces as "advisors" serve to dispel the likely Iraqi (and Arab) conviction that the United States continues as the "occupier" of Iraq, even as the bulk of American combat forces are withdrawn during the next twelve months? Do Iraqis in fact recognize a "national interest" of their country, or do they primarily recognize only the sectarian interests of faith, tribe or region? How realistic is it, at this very late date, to repeat once again that Iraqi "leaders" must "act in support of national reconciliation" when most of them have amply demonstrated that they will not or cannot do so? And what sense does it make to deplore a "precipitate" U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after both Iraqis and their "government" have conclusively demonstrated over the past five years that they cannot or will not accomplish what the United States wishes to achieve?

Perhaps most importantly, what sense does it make to withdraw most U.S. combat forces from Iraq only to assign them to possibly even more difficult terrain in Afghanistan? Were this to be done, Al Qaeda and the Taliban would only have more inviting targets to attack than they have now. No conceivable number of U.S. or coalition troops will be sufficient to stamp out the Taliban militarily. As in Iraq, the way forward in Afghanistan is through massive American and other investment in education, health care, infrastructure and economic development, combined with greatly enhanced cultural sensitivity and much better human intelligence.

When incompetent engineers build a structurally flawed bridge, it collapses. The result is indisputable. Unfortunately, results are less easily visible in public policy. But they do have a way of becoming clear in the end. The Baker-Hamilton report has now categorically rejected the utopianism of those responsible for the misguided and botched war in Iraq. It has documented the collapse of U.S. policy there and identified the general contours of the way forward. This report deserves the endorsement and support of all Americans.

Antony T. Sullivan is director of Near East Support Services, a consulting firm, and has published widely on the Middle East and the Islamic world.