War Stories

So Much for Plan B

The Iraq Study Group chickens out.

James Baker and Lee Hamilton

So many careers and reputations have been ravaged by Iraq. Even James Baker, the canniest of operators, has now met his Waterloo.

The report of the Iraq Study Group—which Baker co-chaired with Lee Hamilton, that other Wise Man-wannabe—was doomed to fall short of expectations. But who knew it would amount to such an amorphous, equivocal grab bag.

Its outline of a new “diplomatic offensive” is so disjointed that even a willing president would be left puzzled by what precisely to do, and George W. Bush seems far from willing.

Its scheme for a new military strategy contains so many loopholes that a president could cite its language to justify doing anything (or nothing).

Contrary to the leaks of the last several days, the report does not call for a pullback of American forces in Iraq. One and a half sentences in the executive summary seem to do that: “By the first quarter of 2008 … all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces.”

First, notice that the verb in those passages is “could,” not “should.” But read that half-sentence in full, and then read on:

At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams, and in training, equipping, advising, force protection, and search and rescue. Intelligence and support efforts would continue.

In other words, the commission does not say that U.S. combat forces should be deployed “only in units embedded with Iraqi forces.” It says they should (or, rather, “could”) be deployed “only” in Iraqi units and all those other kinds of units, too.

The meaning of “special operations teams” is clear: They’re the Delta forces, SEALS, and other shadow soldiers currently chasing down al-Qaida forces and other terrorists. But what is the definition of “rapid reaction” teams? Anything a president or commander wants it to be. How many troops are needed for rapid reaction? As few or as many as he’d like. Ditto, by the way, for “force protection,” “search and rescue,” and “intelligence and support efforts.”

On Page 73, the report’s authors go further still:

We could … support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping missions, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective. [Italics added.]

If President Bush wants to pour more troops into Iraq, he could cite this passage to support the increase. What does “short-term” mean, in this context? A week, a month, a year, five years? Again, it means whatever the president (or his commander) wants it to mean.

These extra troops, by the way, would be in addition to the 10,000 or so extra troops that the report explicitly recommends sending as advisers embedded inside Iraqi combat units. At this morning’s press conference, one of Baker’s commissioners—William Perry, a former secretary of defense in the Clinton administration—said these advisers might be taken from U.S. combat brigades currently in Iraq. But this seems unlikely. The 1st Infantry Division in Fort Riley, Kan., is training a new crop of advisers precisely for this mission. It’s unlikely that a commander would break up an existing brigade when soldiers trained to be advisers are on their way.

In other words, the bedrock question about Iraq—whether U.S. troop levels should go up or down—is left unanswered.

The report’s authors pull no such punches on the question of a diplomatic offensive. They call unequivocally for the United States to hold talks with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

But they don’t address the question of why Iran and Syria should want to talk with us. More to the point, the authors sidestep the question: What might we have to give Iran and Syria in exchange for talking with us—in exchange (still more to the point) for getting us out of this mess? Baker is no naïf. When he was secretary of state under Bush’s father, he had lots of diplomatic dealings with these countries. He knows that dealings involve deals; we have to give up something to get them to do what we want. But he doesn’t want to say this, because he knows that the current President Bush doesn’t want to give up anything. If this Bush actually follows Baker’s advice and opens up talks with Iran, he’ll find this out soon enough—and then he’ll back out. (For more on what the report says about Syria, see “ This Is What We’ve Been Waiting For?” by Shmuel Rosner.)

The report’s authors try to make a case that Iran and Syria will want to cooperate. They write in the executive summary, “No country in the region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq.” Yet the key phrase here is “in the long term.” In the short term, Iran and Syria are benefiting quite nicely from an Iraq that’s mired at least somewhat in chaos.

The authors recognize this. On Page 27, they repeat the business about how nobody wants a chaotic Iraq, then they add: “Yet Iraq’s neighbors are doing little to help it, and some are undercutting its stability. Iraqis complain that neighbors are meddling in their affairs. When asked which … one senior Iraqi official replied, ‘All of them.’ ” On Pages 28 and 29, they go further: “Iran appears content for the U.S. military to be tied down in Iraq, a position that limits U.S. options in addressing Iran’s nuclear program and allows Iran leverage over stability in Iraq. … One Iraqi official told us, ‘Iran is negotiating with the United States in the streets of Baghdad.’ “

On Page 51, the authors acknowledge that the United States should offer Iran and Syria incentives, “much as it did successfully with Libya.” But the Libyans had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, when they agreed to give up their nascent (and still very primitive) nuclear program. The Iranians, by contrast, have great wealth and enormous leverage, not only in the Middle East but with European and Asian countries that depend on their oil.

The authors do take a bold step here. They list a few “possible incentives” that Bush might offer Iran, among them “the prospect of a U.S. policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of … regime change.”

Will Bush drop his avowed desire for “regime change” in Tehran in exchange for Tehran’s help in stabilizing Iraq? That’s the big question. Every time it’s come up so far, Bush has firmly said no. Will he make a fundamental shift now? Doubtful. And what is Tehran’s view of a stable Iraq? Is it the same as Washington’s view? Again, doubtful—which is one reason Bush probably won’t make a shift. Maybe some compromise can be worked out, but what conditions will be set for starting, much less completing, negotiations?

The authors recommend the creation of an Iraq International Support Group, consisting of all the Gulf states, Iraq’s neighbors, Egypt, the European Union, and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. This might be a good idea, but the report musters no reasons why these countries should cooperate. The report calls on the United States to “energize countries to support national political reconciliation.” It’s unclear what this means.

The report is at its best, and most devastating, when it details the “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq. “Current U.S. policy is not working,” it states bluntly. Forty percent of Iraq’s population lives in “highly insecure” provinces. Iraq’s military lacks leadership, personnel, equipment, and logistical support; Iraq’s police force is worse still. (The army provided just two of the six battalions it promised to send to Baghdad; the police refuse to go into Sadr City.) Donor nations promised to send $13.5 billion in aid but have sent less than $4 billion. The United States is cutting its Iraqi reconstruction budget to $750 million a year, when the authors say it should be boosting this budget to $5 billion a year. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad employs 1,000 people, but just 33 of them speak Arabic and only six do so fluently.

It’s a mess. Not even Jim Baker really knows what to do about it.