More on the ISG report

I’ve finished reading the report of the Iraq Study Group. The complete report (PDF) is here; a linkable HTML version is here. Scott Kirwin of The Razor has synosized the report’s 79 recommendations here.

In my view the strongest parts of the report were the unflinching look at the seriousness of the situation in Iraq:

Attacks against U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi security forces are persistent and growing. October 2006 was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since January 2005, with 102 Americans killed. Total attacks in October 2006 averaged 180 per day, up from 70 per day in January 2006. Daily attacks against Iraqi security forces in October were more than double the level in January. Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month.

and its analysis of the factors in Iraq, the U. S. military, and in the region (the “Assessment” section).

The most affirmative part of the report is its re-statement of commitment to the region:

The United States has long-term relationships and interests at stake in the Middle East, and needs to stay engaged.

In this consensus report, the ten members of the Iraq Study Group present a new approach because we believe there is a better way forward. All options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world, and protect America’s credibility, interests, and values. Our report makes it clear that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people also must act to achieve a stable and hopeful future.

The most negative parts of the report are, of course, its characterization of the current situation and the failures of the U. S. approaches to stabilizing the country to date.

The weakest part of the report is that, in my view, it is operating on flawed assumptions. The first of these flawed assumptions is the assumption that the Iraqi government as presently constituted is capable of entering into a process to secure the country if only it tried harder. This problem was not lost on Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post:

For some Iraqis, the statement suggested that the report’s authors did not grasp, or refused to acknowledge, the diverse ambitions, rivalries and weaknesses that plague the government. The Kurds have dreams of creating an independent state. The Sunnis appear leaderless, yet seek a political voice. The Shiites are riven by feuds. There are disagreements over partitioning Iraq, over whether to restore members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to their old jobs, over whether amnesty should be given to opponents of the government and the U.S. occupation.

The present government is a creature of the militias as is the new Iraqi Army, that was inevitable under the conditions in which the government was formed, and the notion that the Iraqi government can bring the militias on which it relies for its legitimacy to heel is farfetched.

The second flawed assumption is in the thinking on negotiating with Iran and Syria. I’m completely in favor of negotiating with the two countries (however futile it may be) but the incentives enumerated for Iran and Syria:

  1. An Iraq that does not disintegrate and destabilize its neighbors and the region.
  2. The continuing role of the United States in preventing the Taliban from destabilizing Afghanistan.
  3. Accession to international organizations, including the World Trade Organization.
  4. Prospects for enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States.
  5. The prospect of a U.S. policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of (as Iran now perceives it) advocating regime change.
  6. Prospects for a real, complete, and secure peace to be negotiated between Israel and Syria, with U.S. involvement as part of a broader initiative on Arab-Israeli peace as outlined below.

are meager gruel indeed.  If realism in international relations means anything at all, it means that states are rational actors, have interests which they perceive as rational, and are able to distinguish between means that further those interests more effectively than those that don’t.  The analogy used by the group with Afghanistan is strained:  Iran’s interests in Afghanistan which is not geopolitically particularly interesting and where it had a relatively weak hand are quite different from those in Iraq which is geopolitically important and in which its hand is strong.

There are more details of the incentives to be offered to Iran and Syria in the recommendations themselves including return of the Golan to Syria.  There’s not much in the way of incentives offered to Iran:  acceptance of Iran’s nuclear development program is specifically retained within the province of the UNSC.

Another area in which I believe the ISG’s assumptions are flawed is in its assumptions about the political situation within the U. S.  In particular I think there’s a significant minority of Americans in both political parties who reject U. S. involvement in the Middle East outright.   For them withdrawal from Iraq is an objective in itself, withdrawal of U. S. forces from the region entirely would be all the better.  For an example of such thinking see here.

At bottom the ISG report is a political document produced for domestic political purposes with a domestic political calendar in mind.  It provides an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to abandon their previous rhetorical positions to support a unified position.  Whether they’ll take the opportunity or whether this report with its many flaws is a worthy vehicle for that purpose remains to be seen.

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