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December 14, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report

Like most people I hoped that the Iraq Study Group Report would provide both a reasonable strategy for resolving the dilemma of American involvement in Iraq and be the catalyst for forming the political will necessary to take whatever steps are required. Press summaries of the report left me asking “what are they thinking?”  So I read the whole thing (link above).  Unfortunately, it’s worse when read in full than it is in sound bites.

The major problem with the 79 (yup 79!) point plan is that it relies for success on the good will of Iran and Syria and finding a common ground between their interests in the area and ours.  The premise for this is the dubious assumption about Iraq’s neighbors that “Despite the well-known differences between many of these countries, they all share an interest in avoiding the horrific consequences that would flow from a chaotic Iraq, particularly a humanitarian catastrophe and regional destabilization.”  Also this:  “Although Iran sees it in its interest to have the United States bogged down in Iraq, Iran’s interests would not be served by a failure of U.S. policy in Iraq that led to chaos and the territorial disintegration of the Iraqi state.”  The report cites the possibility that ethnic violence from a disintegrated Iraq might spill into Iran.  The Iranians have never seen this as being as dangerous as an attack from an intact Iraq.

The report concedes:  “Our limited contacts with Iran’s government lead us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq. They attribute this reluctance to their belief that the United States seeks regime change in Iran.” The recent holocaust-denial conference in Tehran and wild statements from the Iranian President have made it even clearer that 1) we SHOULD seek regime-change in Iran; 2) we aren’t going to get any help from that quarter.

The Study Group essentially recommends that we buy support from Syria by forcing Israel to hand over the Golan Heights, perhaps to be patrolled by an international peace keeping force – you know, those blue helmets that disappear in the case of actual conflict.  This is a sure recipe for wider conflict since, even if Israel were to agree to such a dumb scheme, they’d soon have to attack to prevent shelling of Israeli villages from the heights.

The Study Group buys into the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has something to do with sectarian violence in Iraq.  They cite a single report from a US commander that attacks on US troops seemed to increase during Israeli retaliatory raids on Lebanon.  The Study Group didn’t say whether they thought that the even more recent increase in violence in Iraq is due to the truce between Israelis and Palestinians.

Recommendations 13-17 are the Study Groups recommendations for achieving a settlement of all outstanding issues between Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon et al.  A grand conference is to be called of all interested parties including “Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel’s right to exist)”.  Trouble is that the Palestinians who acknowledge Israel’s right to exist (some of Fatah) can’t control those who don’t (Hamas).

Coming back up out of the weeds, any plan for an Iraqi solution which depends either on the good will of Iran and Syria or the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and Israeli-Syrian disputes) is not a plan at all.  A plan has to be based on things you control.

Speaking of things we don’t control, a huge part of the Study Group’s plan (most of recommendations 19-33) is actions they want the Iraqi government to take. Two of these actions are in direct conflict with Iraq’s existing constitution:  recommendation 28 wants to repudiate the provision of the constitution which gives regions ownership of revenue from new oil fields within their borders and recommendation 30 is to put off the constitutionally-mandated referendum in Kirkuk on whether that city should be part of the Kurdish region.  Recommendation 26 is for constitutional review aided by the United Nations because “the United Nations has expertise in this field.”

How do we actually get our troops out?  According to the Study Committee, the exit lies through embedding them in Iraqi units.  The idea is that we train an Iraqi army; it takes over; and then we leave.  The report has done a good job of spelling out the lack of discipline in the Iraqi army and the fact that it is infiltrated by and sometimes its units are controlled by various militias.  Embedded training troops would be under the command of and at the mercy of this army.  Do our trainers share whatever sectarian orientation their Iraqi unit has?  Do they participate in revenge killings when the unit they’re embedded in does?    Are they somehow able to veto actions we don’t think Iraqi army units should take?  How do isolated pockets of American soldiers protect themselves?  Maybe there are answers but they’re not in the study group report.

I’m sure the members of The Study Group meant well.  They had a nearly intractable problem to deal with.  Unfortunately, they haven’t dealt with it.  We need to make big choices – not implement a laundry list of 79 steps which Study Group members have been saying are all indispensable.  We need a plan which is based on the world the way it is, not the way we wish it would be.  And we need a plan with levers that are under our control – not under the control of our most implacable enemies.

The report does list the three main alternatives: immediate withdrawal, partition of Iraq, and strengthening our presence there.  Then it fails to make a choice.

Iraq: Plan B is about partitioning Iraq.

The Middle East Blame Game is about who’s to blame for the sectarian violence in Iraq.

The Problem With McCain’s Plan is an analysis of the real alternative he poses.

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