Today’s recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group–which many in Washington hoped would furnish a panacea for our problems in Iraq–are a good first step in helping this nation extricate itself from the quagmire there. But they are only a first step. In truth, they do not go nearly far enough to get us out of the mess that the Bush administration has created.
The group confirms that the situation in Iraq is grave (and deteriorating) and that there are no good options. These are things that any objective observer has known for more than two years–and things that both the current and future secretary of defense now acknowledge. But they are truths now spoken only because the advent of the commission made them speakable–and they are still not acknowledged by the president.
The group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, also recognizes, correctly, that our best hope for easing the situation is to pressure the Iraqi government to make the painful political compromises necessary to create a nation that all of its citizens–regardless of their sect or tribe–are willing to fight and die for. (These compromises include protecting minority rights, balancing the powers of the central and provincial governments, and sharing the oil revenue equitably.) It also recognizes that we must engage all of the nations in the region, including Syria and Iran, in a dialogue on the future of Iraq–as well as the other problems in the region. And it links the situation in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis by suggesting that we must get engaged in that situation, something Brent Scowcroft noted in August 2002, when he argued that regional powers were more concerned about this than about Saddam Hussein.
But it falls short on exactly how to implement its suggestions. The proposal that we threaten to withdraw troops and financial support if Nouri Al Maliki’s government does not meet certain benchmarks is not strong enough. The report merely says that, if Iraqis do not meet the benchmarks, we could withdraw–not that we should by a specific date. In fact, to put real pressure on Maliki, we must begin to withdraw under a fixed timetable. If the Iraqi leadership knows we will be gone by a specific date, it will know that, if it hasn’t made the necessary compromises by then, it will have to deal with the consequences alone.
Since the Iraqis took control of the government in June 2004, we have been pressuring them to modify the constitution and disband the militias–to no avail. This is because President Bush has been saying for more than a year ago that, when “Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Yet, with more than 300,000 trained Iraqi security forces, we have more troops in Iraq than we did when Bush first made that statement. Meanwhile, since the election of the Iraqi parliament last December, approximately twelve battalions’ worth of soldiers and Marines have been killed or wounded, and, in that time, Iraq’s elected officials have done nothing to begin unifying their country.
Another problem is the Baker-Hamilton group’s suggestion that we change our mission from combat to training; this misses an essential point. The problem with the 300,000 Iraqi security forces is not training: It is motivation. After all, we are not asking them to take on a major military power, but a group of some 20,000 insurgents. And what they need to do is essentially police work, not major conventional combat. No amount of expertise U.S. soldiers can impart will make the Iraqis any more likely to confront these insurgents.
Finally, by not setting a date for a complete withdrawal of all of our military forces, we embolden the insurgents (and their supporters), because they see us as occupiers who will never leave. Nearly 80 percent of the Iraqis believe that our presence is fueling the violence, and 60 percent think it is acceptable to kill Americans. And, what’s more, without a complete withdrawal, we will not get the help we need from the countries in the region.
In a way, the Baker-Hamilton group–which is being hailed as landmark–painted an even grimmer picture than it intended: Not only are its own solutions insufficient to restore stability in Iraq, but even its canniest suggestions are likely to be ignored.