Even if the Iraq Study Group represents a collection of the usual self-congratulatory swells who are positively breathless in their admiration of each other's ability to come to -- all bow -- a "bipartisan consensus," the 10 members are right about this much: If the American public isn't on board, U.S. policy in Iraq is, as co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton wrote, "doomed to failure."
Perhaps that is why the group produced a report with pronouncements that both sides of the Iraq war debate can embrace. For Republicans, the ISG report rejects calls for "immediate withdrawal" of U.S. troops from Iraq. It also quotes an Iraqi official who told the group, "Al-Qaida is now a franchise in Iraq, like McDonald's" -- and notes that al-Qaida will portray any U.S. failure in Iraq as "a significant victory that will be featured prominently as they recruit for their cause in the region and around the world."
For Democrats, the report rejects "an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq." (Note: It helps if you don't think of 70,000 soldiers needed to train and equip Iraqi forces after U.S. combat troops are redeployed as a large number.) Add the ISG's criticism of President Bush for failing to negotiate with Iran and Syria.
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and NBC reporter David Gregory were able to brand the report "a rejection" of Bush's handling of Iraq. The ISG report lays out the treacherous ground in Iraq, where the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds collide, and those who work for the elected Iraqi government tend to serve the interests of their own ethnic or sectarian groups, not the Iraqi nation.
In such an environment, every reform potentially can trigger an adverse reaction. And that includes the ISG's 79 recommendations, which easily could lead to more woes in Iraq.
On their face, many proposals seem benign -- such as calling for Bush to negotiate with Syria and Iran. Readers have e-mailed me with the simple question: What's the matter with talking to Iran? Of course, the answer is that there is nothing wrong with talking to Iran, but there is something wrong with what Iran wants to get out of talks, and the result could be a nuclear war -- and that might be problematic.
Ditto the report's take on Israel, which it writes "should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops" if both sides want them. Great. U.S. troops in Israel to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, because Iraq is a quagmire. Throwing Israel into the Iraq mix seems to me a good way to guarantee failure.
Then, there is this controversial proposal: "If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support."
Maybe that approach would work. Or maybe the promise to withdraw money and U.S. troops sends a dangerous signal to Iraqi terrorists. To wit: If they kill enough Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops, America will withdraw U.S. troops sooner. Besides, the 2008 elections present a timetable of sorts. If the Iraqi government fails to improve, the 2006 elections suggest, Americans will elect a president who promises complete and immediate withdrawal.
Some of the more modest recommendations make more sense. Recommendation 73, for example, notes that the U.S. embassy in Iraq employs 1,000 people, but only 33 Arabic speakers, six of them fluent. President Bush should find that situation unacceptable. The ISG also calls for increasing U.S. economic assistance to Iraq to $5 billion per year, and noted that Americans can't expect the Iraqi army to perform on an annual $3 billion appropriation -- or less than what the U.S. spends in Iraq every two weeks. The best summation of the situation in Iraq came from an unnamed U.S. official who told the study group: "Our leaving would make it worse. ... The current approach without modification will not make it better."
Bush and his new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, now must find a way to make it better.