Bush and the ISG

Some observations on the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which is also known as the Baker-Hamilton, report:

It is a stunning indictment of current policy.

Most press accounts have focused on the fact that the ISG report terms U.S. efforts in Iraq as failing and describes the current situation as “dire.” But a more significant indictment comes through in the report’s 79 recommendations. The long list of solid proposals of what the U.S. needs to do are in such stark contrast to what the Administration is actually doing, that it only reveals a damning gap in performance.

Many of the recommendations have been made before and most make such sense, a reader of the report is compelled to ask, “How did policy get so detached from reality?”

The report didn’t endorse a number of half-baked proposals.

As former Secretary of State James Baker made clear in his press conference, there are a number of ideas circulating in the U.S. policy debate that the ISG report has smartly dismissed. They reject the idea of “staying the course,” since there is no course to stay. They reject the idea of dividing Iraq, noting that this would have disastrous consequences and accelerate sectarian violence throughout the country. They reject the idea of a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops, noting that this also would result in disaster and an acceleration of violence that could spill out beyond Iraq’s borders. Finally, they reject the idea of a dramatic increase in U.S. forces in an effort to achieve a military victory, noting that no such forces are available.

The ISG understand that the U.S. must save itself in the Middle East if it is to salvage the Iraqi mess.

Some diehard hawks and ideologues are howling at the ISG’s recommendations that the U.S. must engage its regional adversaries, and also aggressively pursue a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. [Significantly, the report for the first time uses the term “right of return” to describe one of the key issues to be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians.] But these recommendations are not, as the critics suggest, diversionary. They are central to a resolution of the Iraq war.

At present, the U.S.’s credibility is at an all-time low in the Middle East, with anti-American sentiment at an all-time high. If the Administration is to get the support it needs to invest other countries in a joint effort to promote regional stability, the U.S. must take action to address other countries’ pressing concerns. Coalitions that achieve success are not just of the “willing,” they require partnerships and “give and take” –” something this Administration has not been especially good at.

At the same time, to resolve the conflict in Iraq, it’s clear that Syrian and Iranian cooperation must be secured. While we have an interest in these countries’ changing their behavior, they too, have concerns we must address.

Adversaries can talk and solve problems. As Baker noted, for 40 years the U.S. engaged the Soviet Union in sometimes constructive efforts despite our mutual hostility.

It is not only a policy document, the ISG report needs to be embraced as a bi-partisan political package.

The reality is that Iraq is not only a military and Middle East policy disaster, it is a domestic U.S. political problem as well. To find a way forward, it is critical to find consensus.

As the committee members made clear in their presentation, the 79 recommendations included in the report represented a bi-partisan consensus –” the only such effort on Iraq.

While some partisans may be tempted to pick and choose only some of the report’s proposals while rejecting those with which they disagree, to do so would only do damage to the consensual nature of the report. It is a well-crafted and substantive document. On the policy side, it is important to recognize, as former Congressman Lee Hamilton noted, that the major goals of the report are reinforcing and must be embraced in total. Picking and choosing only the pieces you like would not work. Such an approach would create a situation no different than the current mess.

Will Bush buy it?

From the outset, I said that there were three conditions that had to be met for the ISG to be successful. The report’s recommendations had to be substantial and far reaching, they had to be embraced by the Administration, and Congress could not play politics with the effort. It appears that the first of these three conditions has been met. I’m not at all sure about the second, and signs are not promising.

In the week leading up to the ISG release, the White House engaged in a bit of old fashioned “razzle dazzle” in order, I believe, to distract attention from the report. Given the fact that just one month ago, the Bush Administration was “staying the course,” and not much else, the hyperactivity of recent weeks has been striking. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned; Bush traveled to Jordan to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; a number of internal secret memos have been leaked, revealing the deep concerns of key Bush Administration officials about the war effort; and the president has authorized both the Department of Defense and the National Security Council to undertake reviews of their own.

All of this, I believe, has been done in order to dilute the impact of the ISG report and allow the president to choose from a menu of options more to his liking. To make it perfectly clear, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said earlier this week, “The (ISG) report will be an important input, but as you would expect (the president) is going to get inputs from a number of sources.” For his part, President Bush said much the same: “One of the key points is that I’m getting a lot of advice documents … these are frank assessments by different members of my Administration … my attitude is I ought to absorb and listen to everything that’s being said.”

What all this appears to be setting the stage for is confusion, obfuscation and more of the same.