WASHINGTON -- The Iraq Study Group, like the policy it was created to critique, was overtaken by the unexpectedly rapid crumbling of the U.S. position in Iraq since the ISG was formed in March. The deterioration was manifested in last week's misbegotten summit between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which made brutally clear how difficult it will be to apply even the ISG's temperate recommendations to the deteriorating reality.
Summits usually do, and generally should, resemble American political conventions -- they should not be deliberative events but should ratify decisions taken earlier. The ISG's recommendations must be read in light of these facts from the week when the recommendations were being written:
Calling Iraq's prime minister ``the right guy'' for Iraq, Bush met him in Jordan, presumably because Iraq is too dangerous a venue for discussing how to, in Bush's words, ``complete'' the job. The job is to stabilize Iraq, which cannot be done without breaking the Mahdi Army, which cannot be done without bringing down Maliki, who is beholden to Moqtada al-Sadr, the cleric who more or less controls the Mahdi Army, which probably is larger and more capable than Iraq's army.
Also in the week before the ISG's report, the leaked Rumsfeld memo urged policy to ``go minimalist.'' That is generally good advice to government, but much of the rest of the memo, with its 21 ``illustrative new courses of action'' -- a large number, and evidence that none is especially promising -- echoed the 1960s Great Society confidence in government-engineered behavior modification: jobs programs for unemployed young Iraqis, reallocation of reconstruction funds to ``stop rewarding bad behavior'' and ``start rewarding good behavior,'' and bribery (``provide money to key political and religious leaders'').
It is beyond dispiriting that after 45 months of war an American official can think that this semi-genocidal conflict over the survival of groups divided about the meaning of God's will can now be dampened by clever economics. By what the ISG did not recommend -- e.g., many more troops and much more money -- it recognized that the deterioration is beyond much remediation.
When the ISG made a four-day visit to Iraq in August, its members were taken to the Green Zone, in a city so dangerous that only one ISG member -- former Sen. Chuck Robb, a Marine veteran of Vietnam combat -- left it, to visit Marines in the turbulent Anbar province. But, then, long before the ISG came to study it, Iraq seemed impervious to America's plans for ameliorating its dysfunctions.