Sunday, December 10, 2006

Iraq Study Recommendations No Way to Win a War

Meet the Press this morning had a vigorous and fruitful panel discussion on the Iraq Study Group findings and proposals, and the way ahead in Iraq. The panelists included Kenneth Adelman, Eliot Cohen, Richard Haass, and Thomas Ricks. Cohen's remarks were drawn mostly from the points he made on the Baker Commission in an essay in this week's Wall Street Journal, "No Way to Win a War." Here's an excerpt:

Some of the commission members and their advisers cordially detest the president and his administration and opposed him and his war from the outset; others were equally passionate in their defense of both the man and the conflict. And yet this diverse group had an overwhelming mandate, from the beginning, to produce a consensus document. The commission members spent four days in Iraq, and with the exception of a one-day foray by former Marine Chuck Robb, they stayed in the Green Zone, that bubble of palaces and residences that has little to do with the real Iraq of Basra, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Baquba and Mosul. At the end, they had breakfast with the president and a few hours later posted their conclusions on the Internet for all the world to ponder. There is something of farce in all this, an invocation of wisdom from a cohesive Washington elite that does not exist, a desperate wish to believe in the gravitas and the statecraft of grave men (and women) who can sort out the mess in which the country finds itself.

A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results. "Iraq's neighbors are not doing enough to help Iraq achieve stability"--a statement only somewhat ameliorated by the admission that some are even "undercutting stability," which sounds as though Syria and Iran were being downright rude, rather than providing indispensable assistance to those who have filled the burn wards of Walter Reed, the morgue in Baghdad, and the cemetery at Arlington. The selected remedy is, first and foremost, rather like the ISG's credo for its own functioning, consensus. "The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region," as if our chief failure with Bashar Assad or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lies with the hitherto unnoticed laziness or rhetorical ineptitude of our diplomats, or as though Europe, Saudi Arabia and Israel have not yet figured out that stability in Iraq is a good thing. "Syria should control its border" and "Iran should respect Iraq's sovereignty."

No kidding--but who is going to make them? That perennial solution, "resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict," makes its appearance, including direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, but only with "those who accept Israel's right to exist." The report conveniently forgets that the elected leaders of Palestine do not, in fact, accept Israel's right to exist. And it also neglects the grim reality that one of the most terrible things about Gaza, and possibly the West Bank as well, is that no one, not even Hamas, is really in charge.

Part of Iran's price for easing up on us in Iraq is pretty clearly taking the heat off its nuclear program; the ISG recommends that that issue "should continue to be dealt with by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany." Well, what deal should the U.S. be willing to cut on Iranian nuclear weapons? Do we think the Iranians would deliver? And what are the long-term consequences?

War, and warlike statecraft, is a hard business, and though this is supposed to be a report dominated by "realists," there is nothing realistic in failing to spell out the bloody deeds, grim probabilities and dismal consequences associated with even the best course of action. Indeed, some parts of the report read as sheer fantasy--Recommendation 15, for example, which provides that part of the American deal with Syria should include the latter's full cooperation in investigating the Hariri assassination, verifiable cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah, and its support for persuading Hamas to recognize Israel.

The prescriptions for internal processes in Iraq are only somewhat better. The ISG argues that American forces should shift to developing Iraqi security forces and backing them up, which is more or less the course we are on now. It talks of milestones for Iraqi performance, as if Iraqi benchmarking were more a problem than Iraqi will, and Iraqi will more the problem than Iraqi capability. It suggests announcing our own planned redeployments without considering the most obvious consequence, which is that Iraqis of many political hues will decide that the Americans are leaving, and the time has come to cut deals with Jaish al Mahdi, or the Badr organization, or al Qaeda in Iraq, or any of the other cutthroat outfits infesting that bleeding country.

Quite apart from the psychological impact of our actions, there is the sober fact that the Iraqi army is small, 138,000-strong (and that number probably overstated), and that building effective security forces takes time. The 188,000-man police forces are corrupt, riddled with militia influence, and in need of a thorough overhaul. We cannot build the Iraqi security forces without a substantial combat presence. Nor is the problem merely one of training, as Iraqi corporals driving around in pickup trucks without functional radios might have sourly pointed out, had they had the chance to talk to a Study Group member.

At least the ISG has given considerable thought to preparing us for future conflict. Consider Recommendations 47 and 48. Congress, they declare, should allocate money to repair the clapped-out equipment the Army and Marines will bring back from Iraq. This is no doubt better than, say, heaving Bradley infantry fighting vehicles overboard on the way back to American ports in order to provide a home for new coral reefs. "As [American] redeployment proceeds, military leaders should emphasize training and education of forces that have returned to the United States in order to restore the force to full combat capability." Pentagon planners would do well to pursue this plan rather than give the troops six months of leave and then having them paint the sorely neglected rocks outside the sergeant major's office.

The great war leaders, in their private deliberations, shied away from vagueness. Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed. But a Churchill could only call the flattening of German cities "terror bombing" in private.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in a public document of this kind, euphemism and imprecision abound. The U.S. needs to give "disincentives" to Syria and Iran: But the real question has always been whether we are willing to use a variety of overt and covert means--from bombing insurgent safe houses to sabotaging refineries, from mining harbors to supporting their own insurgents--to do so. And, in fact, the report mentions no means for squeezing either country.

True, as James Baker irritably noted at the press conference releasing the report, the U.S. talked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But as the U.S. did so it also bankrupted the U.S.S.R. in an arms race, undermined its client governments in Eastern Europe by supporting Polish labor unions, and killed its soldiers by providing surface-to-air missiles to Afghan guerrillas. Real pain, and not merely tough talk sweetened by a bucket of goodies, paves the way for successful negotiations with brutal opponents.

These last remarks about power backing diplomacy are particularly incisive, given how attractive regional diplomacy sounds to most parties weary with the war. (See this weekend's USA Today editorial for another call for regional diplomatic initiatives.)

Haass also had very interesting things to say. He appeared the most pessimistic of the bunch on the ulitimate success of the U.S. project in Iraq. He even indicated that things had to get even worse before they could get better --
something Marc Rueul Gerecht has predicted will happen upon a U.S. withdrawal. Haass' comments drew partially on his piece in the new edition of Time. He argues that should the U.S. cut its losses now, the Iraq conflict will likely have just a temporary and mildly negative impact on U.S. power and international relations.

As to my postion, I continue to support a continued robust presence in Iraq, and would like to see a major troop push in 2007 before a precipitous withdrawal.
I think Fareed Zakaria's idea for lowering U.S. expectations is reasonable. Such a shift should take place in tandem with increased efforts to find a domestic political compromise among key Iraqi agents, as well as the movement to a phased drawdown and increased advisory role for American forces.

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