I have now read the Iraq Study Group report. I really, really want it to work, since I am as pessimistic as anyone (with the possible exception of Bob McManus) about what will happen if we fail in Iraq. My problem isn't lack of appreciation for the downside of failure; it's an inability to see how we get from where we are now to anything else. And this report really doesn't change that. I'll explain why I think this below the fold.
Taking its major recommendations in turn:
(1) We should train the Iraqi armed forces and the police. Here I'll just reiterate a point I've made before: if the main problem with the Iraqi army is that they lack training, then training them is a solution. If, however, the main problem is something else -- say, the fact that the armed forces have no loyalty to the Iraqi government, that they therefore have no real motivation to fight for it, and that they are moreover heavily infiltrated by militias and thus are likely to obey those militias' orders, not their commanders', when push comes to shove -- then providing them with more training will not address their actual problems. All it will do is create a large mass of unmotivated people and/or militia members with expert military training.
Michael Gordon points out some more problems with this part:
"The military recommendations issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisers.
Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has struggled in vain to tamp down the violence in Iraq and to build up the capacity of Iraq’s security forces. Now the study group is positing that the United States can accomplish in little more than one year what it has failed to carry out in three. (...)
Jack Keane, the retired Army chief of staff who served on the group’s panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. “Based on where we are now we can’t get there,” General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report’s conclusions say more about “the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq.” (...)
Even if the number of American advisers is increased, it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi forces would be capable of assuming the entire responsibility for security throughout the country in little more than a year. It took four years, from 1969 to 1973, for the Nixon administration to make South Vietnamese forces strong enough to hold their own and withdraw American combat forces from Vietnam. Even so, when Congress withheld authority for American airstrikes in support of those forces in 1975, the North Vietnamese quickly defeated the South and reunified the country under Communist rule.
The rapid withdrawal of American combat forces would also deprive the Iraqi military of the opportunity to work as partners with the Americans in combined operations. “There is no meaningful plan for creating a mix of effective Iraqi military forces, police forces, governance and criminal justice system at any point in the near future, much less by 2008,” noted Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the group’s study.
Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star general, said in an interview that the overall concept of withdrawing American forces as the Iraqis built up their military capability was sound. But he argued that the specific recommendations by the panel raised a second problem: if American combat brigades were withdrawn from Iraq, the thousands of American advisers that remained might find themselves dangerously exposed, particularly if the fighting in Iraq grew into a full-scale civil war. The advisers could be killed or taken hostage.
“They came up with a political thought but then got to tinkering with tactical ideas that in my view don’t make any sense,” General McCaffrey said. “This is a recipe for national humiliation.”
A last issue is that given the deterioration of security in Iraq, it may take the combined efforts of American combat units and Iraqi security forces to try to arrest the spiraling violence. In the end, that task may not be achievable. But since it is American forces that have often worked to curb the sectarian killings — and since many of the Iraqi forces have been infiltrated by sectarian militias — there is reason to believe that the civil strife will grow if the Americans combat forces soon begin to leave."
And let's not forget that there have been some pretty serious problems with our efforts to train Iraqi troops thus far:
"The U.S. military's effort to train Iraqi forces has been rife with problems, from officers being sent in with poor preparation to a lack of basic necessities such as interpreters and office materials, according to internal Army documents.
The shortcomings have plagued a program that is central to the U.S. strategy in Iraq and is growing in importance. A Pentagon effort to rethink policies in Iraq is likely to suggest placing less emphasis on combat and more on training and advising, sources say.
In dozens of official interviews compiled by the Army for its oral history archives, officers who had been involved in training and advising Iraqis bluntly criticized almost every aspect of the effort. Some officers thought that team members were often selected poorly. Others fretted that the soldiers who prepared them had never served in Iraq and lacked understanding of the tasks of training and advising. Many said they felt insufficiently supported by the Army while in Iraq, with intermittent shipments of supplies and interpreters who often did not seem to understand English."
So, in a nutshell: we haven't done a good job of training our own trainers, and will probably need to retrain a lot of them, and to rethink the training program itself. There's no reason to think that training troops will produce a competent and motivated Iraqi army that is loyal to the government. And the commanders on the ground don't think this will work in anything like the time frame the ISG report uses, or that it can be carried out while drawing down combat troops.
(2): We should push the Iraqi government to take various steps to strengthen the country and resolve sectarian differences. Matt Yglesias has already explained what's wrong with this part, so I'll just quote him:
"As the report outlines, the fundamental problem in Iraq is the absence of broad-based national reconciliation. Absent such reconciliation, it's impossible for the US military to provide security to the country, impossible to create effective Iraqi institutions, and impossible to isolate hard-core extremists on either side of the sectarian divide.
As the report also recognizes, the main obstacle to broad-based reconciliation is that none of the relevant parties seem to want it (...)
So in review, the most conciliation-oriented Shiite figure is losing influence. The Shiite head of government has refused to disband militias. That may be because the heads of the two most influential Shiite organizations in the country are militia leaders. At least one of them has put the creation of autonomous regions as the centerpiece of his political agenda. One of the two most influential Sunni political leaders has put preventing the creation of such regions as the centerpiece of his political agenda. The other major Sunni political leader is wanted for arrest by the Shiite-dominated government.
The Kurds play relatively little role in this mess, but they "insisted that the constitution require a popular referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk can formally join the Kurdish administered region" and the ISG remarks that "the risks of further violence sparked by a Kirkuk referendum are great."
Last but by no means least, according to the ISG "Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation . . . many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq."
To make a long story short, these observations render virtually all of the ISG's recommendations moot. Absent political reconciliation, none of this stuff about embedding someone here, or training someone there is going to accomplish anything. And national reconciliation hasn't been forthcoming because the key people aren't committed to it."
Iraqi politicians seem to agree with Matt:
"The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.
They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East.
Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.
"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician."
Among the lessons I took away from the Vietnam war was: it's no good wishing a country had an effective, honest, and visionary leader when it doesn't. Nor is the solution to replace the leader: for one thing, what prevents a leader from being effective might be features of the political situation, not his own inadequacies, and for another, it's impossible for an occupying power to confer political legitimacy on anyone (except possibly by opposing that person, which is presumably not what we have in mind.) In Iraq, the democratically elected officials do not seem particularly interested in national reconciliation, and there is no reason to suppose that their replacements would be either. (At least, if we leave aside the sort of reconciliation that involves killing all one's opponents.) That being the case, I really don't see how this part works either.
(3) Diplomacy. We very badly need to engage in diplomacy in the region. However, I don't think this is going to work. For starters, just ask yourself who is going to do the negotiating. The ISG itself says that it should be done at the cabinet level or above. "Above" means Bush. Does anyone think that George W. Bush has the temperament, the patience, the knowledge, the command of detail, the anything to do a good job at this? I didn't think so.
However, he's the only person who could do it, for one simple reason: anyone else would have to be empowered to speak for the President. That person would have to be certain that he or she understood what the President wanted, and would have to be in a position to cut a deal knowing that some faction in the administration would not pull the rug out from under the negotiations just when some sort of agreement had been reached. And in this administration, no one could have that kind of assurance.
Consider this description of how Bush was convinced to sign on to the Iraq Study Group (via TAPPED):
"To bring Bush aboard, Solomon, Hamre and Abshire approached the one person in Bushland who still had a reputation for realism and who could command the President's ear, alone: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Would she propose the commission to the President? After some hesitation, Rice agreed, but she made one request: the commission had to look forward, not backward, in part because she knew the dysfunctional Bush foreign policy operation, tilted as it was so heavily along the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis, would not permit, much less sustain, scrutiny. As the trio departed, a Rice aide asked one of her suitors not to inform anyone at the Pentagon that chairmen had been chosen and the study group was moving forward. If Rumsfeld was alerted to the study group's potential impact, the aide said, he would quickly tell Cheney, who could, with a few words, scuttle the whole thing. Rice got through to Bush the next day, arguing that the thing was going to happen anyway, so he might as well get on board. To his credit, the President agreed." (Emphasis added.)
This is an utterly crazy way of making decisions. As Ezra says: "It's not just that the crew is dysfunctional and backstabbing: It's that there are multiple possible points of veto and, if one gets to Bush before another, an entire initiative can be strangled in the crib." Which is to say: Bush himself does not seem to make up his own mind on the merits; everything depends on who gets to him first. And that's not peculiar to this case; it happens all the time. Unless all of Cheney's minions were fired and Cheney himself were held incommunicado in an undisclosed location, no one could negotiate with any confidence that the resulting deals wouldn't be silently killed by the crowd that doesn't believe in negotiating with evil.
Besides, Condoleeza Rice is out of her depth in much, much shallower waters than these. Diplomacy requires skill, and this crowd doesn't have it.
For all these reasons, I have to agree with Spencer Ackerman:
"Welcome to 1968: everyone knows the war must end and victory is unachievable, but the will to actually withdraw in full remains unpalatable to the political class. Bush will have a very hard time recommitting the country to a chimerical "victory" in Iraq. But in the name of “responsibility,” thousands more will die, for years and years, as the situation deteriorates further. Someone, at sometime, will finally have to say "enough," and get the United States out."
I don't want to agree with him. One 1968 was more than enough for me; and God knows I'd rather find something hopeful to say. But I can't.
In this context, I want to note two little historical points and two random observations. First, about negotiating with Iran: we should have done it ages ago, when we had the chance:
"As the United States and its European partners consider their next steps to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, let's recall how poorly the Bush administration has handled this issue. During its five years in office, the administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an "axis of evil," thereby scuttling any possibility of leveraging tactical cooperation over Afghanistan into a strategic opening.
In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.
Finally, in October 2003, the Europeans got Iran to agree to suspend enrichment in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed."
And second, as we stare into the abyss, remember this:
"Two years before the September 11 attacks, presidential candidate George W. Bush was already talking privately about the political benefits of attacking Iraq, according to his former ghost writer, who held many conversations with then-Texas Governor Bush in preparation for a planned autobiography.
"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency." Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. "Suddenly, he's at 91 percent in the polls, and he'd barely crawled out of the bunker.""
Note to Bush: in order for a commander in chief to look like a great leader, he has to win. It took a lot of work for your Dad to make the first Gulf War look easy. Too bad you missed that little lesson.
Third point: I suspect that the combination of Cheney's influence and Bush's Oedipal dramas will ensure that this report is adopted, if at all, only in some neutered form. So its main influence will be on the debate outside the administration in any case.
Finally: on CNN, David Gergen was saying that Bush "can't" ignore a report like this. That, to me, shows that he does not really understand Bush, for whom the only relevant senses of "can't" involve physical and logical impossibility. That something is unbelievably dumb does not in the least mean that George W. Bush "can't" do it. Alas.