Today's Papers

Reporting Failure

All the papers lead with the long-awaited release of the Iraq Study Group’s final report, which in 96 pages includes 79 recommendations on how to proceed in Iraq. Much of the report’s main points weren’t a surprise, as their gist had been leaked to the press, but most didn’t expect it to include such harsh criticism of President Bush’s strategy in Iraq. “The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing,” Lee Hamilton, the commission’s co-chair, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. Members of the ISG were sure to point out there are no guarantees of success, even if all of their recommendations are implemented.

All the papers accompany their lead stories with Page One analysis. The Washington Postsays the report “might well be titled ‘The Realist Manifesto’ ” and goes on to emphasize how “the bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration’s diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and to the whole region.” The Los Angeles Timessays the report was delivered “in two parts and two different tones” in order to make it easier for Bush to accept the recommendations. The first part had tough language and was critical of the administration, but the second was a carefully crafted list “of relatively moderate recommendations for the future” making it easier for Bush to pick and choose. USA Todaynotes that although Bush was gracious with the commission’s members, he did not make any commitments to implement any of their recommendations. The Wall Street Journal talks to a senior administration official who tells the paper the White House is unlikely to implement most of the report’s recommendations. In analyzing the report’s military aspects, the New York Times is blunt and says the recommendations “are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisers.” The ISG’s projection that an increase in military trainers will bring a marked increase in the abilities of the Iraqi forces is quite unrealistic, say experts.  

The WP’sanalysis, which is worth a read, mentions that the report criticizes several ways in which the Iraq mission has been handled poorly. For example, out of 1,000 people who work at the U.S. embassy in Iraq, only six can speak Arabic fluently. And, as McClatchy mentions in a separate story, the commission said the administration has repeatedly underreported the violence in Iraq, and officials need to create a new system in order to provide “a more accurate picture of the events on the ground.”

All the papers mention the ISG’s report calls for a withdrawal of almost all the combat brigades by early 2008, as long as conditions on the ground allow. Slate’s Fred Kaplan analyzed the report’s language and points out it is so vague that it could be used to justify almost any sort of troop increase, as well as keeping as many units in Iraq well after early 2008.  

As the LAT emphasizes in a separate story inside, the report calls for an increase in military advisers to train security forces, but military experts say that’s not quite as simple as it may sound. If U.S. troops are embedded with Iraqi units and there is no support from American forces, this tactic could turn out to be quite dangerous for the soldiers and Marines.

As was expected, the report focused a lot of its attention on pushing for new diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. The commission called for the creation of an International Support Group that would join Iraq’s neighbors, as well as allies in the region such as Egypt, Persian Gulf states, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the European Union. But as far as incentives to get these countries to cooperate, well, there weren’t many listed. The WP talks to a senior Iranian official who was not impressed. “The only carrot they offer is no regime change,” said the official. “That’s a helluva way to ask for help.” According to the NYT, Hamilton and Baker admitted it was unlikely they would get cooperation from Iran but said as a result “the world would see their rejectionist attitude.”

The ISG also called for a new push to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The NYT says some administration officials suggested all these diplomatic tactics were more appropriate to the Middle East 15 years ago, which happens to be when Baker was secretary of state. Haaretz U.S. correspondent Shmuel Rosner writes in Slate,“More than anything else, these proposals are no more than a reiteration of the old James Baker formula for peace.” And, as some analysts mention in the papers, Rosner points out there is no “plan B” if these tactics fail. 

The WP fronts a dispatch from Baghdad reporting on the reaction to the ISG’s report by Iraqi analysts and politicians. Those interviewed said the commission doesn’t understand the complex issues facing Iraq, and as one Sunni politician said, it is a “report to solve American problems” and not those facing Iraqis. In its inside pages, the NYT reports that, as opposed to other Iraqi politicians, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was relieved after Baker briefed him on the commission’s findings.  

For those curious about the ISG’s progression from its creation, which received very little attention, to yesterday, the WP publishes a good chronology of events in its inside pages.

As if to underscore the urgency outlined by the ISG, everyone notes 10 U.S. servicemen, and at least 84 Iraqis (according to the LAT), were killed on the day the report was released.

A day after Robert Gates sailed through committee hearings, all the papers report he received an almost-unanimous confirmation from the full Senate. He will be sworn in as the new defense secretary  on Dec. 18.

The WP and LAT front, while USAT and NYT reefer, NASA revealing new evidence that suggests water still occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. Until now, it has been unclear whether water in liquid form still exists in Mars, but by comparing two photographs taken years apart, scientists now believe they have found evidence that it does. There are still several issues that need to be answered. “The big questions are: How does this happen? And does it point to a habitat for life?” said the lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. 

British authorities announced yesterday they are officially classifying the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko as a murder. As they continue with their investigation, officials said small traces of radiation were found at the British Embassy in Moscow.

USAT goes inside with a new Government Accountability Office report that found there are still tens of millions of dollars going to waste in FEMA’s relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina. In an interview with the paper’s editorial board, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin accused the federal government of abandoning his city.

In the editorial pages … All the papers weigh in on the ISG’s report through their editorials. USAT says the report gives no “magic answer” for the problems in Iraq but instead provides “a strategy that navigates a midcourse between ‘cut and run’ and ‘stay the course.’ It might be called ‘cut and stay.’ ” The NYT’s editorial board concludes the report’s diplomatic language is “the kind of shades-of-gray thinking that Mr. Bush despises,” but it is “exactly what he needs to get the country out of the hole he has dug.” The WP calls the creation of an Iraq International Support Group “a good idea that should have been tried long ago,” but it emphasizes, “What’s missing from the study group report, unfortunately, is any evaluation of what should be done if the new strategy doesn’t work.” The LAT recognizes that “it’s easy to make fun of the Iraq Study Group, which in many ways epitomizes Washington’s tendency to disguise the obvious as profound.” But it “would be a mistake to dismiss” its recommendations, because these type of commissions usually have a long-lasting influence that goes beyond the report. The WSJ, which is by far the most critical of the report’s findings, recommends Bush reject any proposal that conditions U.S. support for Maliki based on benchmarks. “The more the U.S. looks like it is forcing a political solution on Baghdad’s moderate Shiites, the less likely a genuine ‘reconciliation’ will become.”