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.
The ISG's central conclusion, important to say with the group's imprimatur even though the conclusion is obvious, is that the problem with Iraq is the Iraqis, a semi-nation of peoples who are very difficult to help. The ISG's report will help accomplish what it recommends -- increase pressure on Iraq's ``government'' in the hope of turning it into a government by June, when Maliki says Iraq will be able to cope with its security needs.
How likely is that? Look back two years. In June 2004, at the time the Coalition Provisional Authority was to transfer sovereignty to what it thought would be an Iraqi government, Americans were toiling to finish their work of occupation: ``A lawyer who had once clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was poring over a draft edict requiring Iraqi political parties to engage in American-style financial disclosure.'' Such surreal vignettes abound in ``Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone,'' by The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The book, which should be read along with the ISG report, would be hilarious were it not horrifying that so much valor and suffering have been expended in this context:
Halliburton, writes Chandrasekaran, hired Pakistanis and Indians for kitchen work, but no Iraqis. ``Nobody ever explained why, but everyone knew. They could poison the food.'' Of the CPA staff, ``More than half, according to one estimate, had gotten their first passport in order to travel to Iraq.'' Two CPA staffers said that before they were hired, they were asked if they supported Roe v. Wade. The traffic code the CPA wrote for Iraq stipulated that ``the driver shall hold the steering wheel with both hands'' and ``rest should be taken for five minutes for every one hour of driving.'' But Chandrasekaran's driver, who like other Iraqis had obeyed the laws under Saddam's police state, began disregarding all traffic laws. ``When I asked him what he was doing, he turned to me, smiled, and said, 'Mr. Rajiv, democracy is wonderful. Now we can do whatever we want.'''