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Iraq Study Group missed a great opportunity

It didn't take long for the much-anticipated report of the Iraq Study Group to land with a thud. Everyone was hoping that the blue ribbon panel led by James A. Baker III and former 9/1 1 Commission Co-Chair Lee Hamilton could come up with an idea that could lead the United States out of "the Iraq quagmire." In a false desire to achieve unanimity, the report fell between two stools, being insufficiently political and insufficiently military.

The commission realized early on that there was nothing new or original of a military or political action that it could recommend that had not already been thought of, or tried. It therefore fell back on the tired recipe of negotiating with outside actors who also have a stake in the matter, the most famous recommendation of which was to engage in talks with Syria and Iran.

No one on the commission seemed to realize that the commission itself could play a role in solving the domestic and international political problem that Iraq poses. The political problem the United States faces is how to conclude its military presence in Iraq without a withdrawal being seen as a humiliating failure and as an example of weakness of will.

The insurgent violence that was directed against American forces in the 2004-2005 era had the strategic purpose of showing that the American policy of bringing democracy to Iraq was a political failure, and of wearing down domestic American will through a steady stream of casualties. Every act of violence was seen as a failure of American policy. Iran, Syria, elements in Saudi Arabia, as well as al-Qaida had, and have, a strategic interest in fomenting violence in Iraq in order to humiliate the United States.

However, engaging in tactical operations against capable U.S. forces was costly, and in 2006 the emphasis switched to killing civilians and stoking internecine conflict.

In this the forces of chaos were successful for several reasons. First, it's easier to kill unarmed, unarmoured, unwary civilians than trained American soldiers. Second, internal political factions are engaged because they stand to gain or lose political prospects directly by killing, or being killed by, their Iraqi rivals. Third, the Iraqi people have 35 years of political tension and hostility against each other to release, and it is easy to start a cycle of revenge killings. Fourth, a culture in Iraq that accepts honor and revenge killing as morally permissible.

All the puppet-masters need to do is to keep Iraqis killing Iraqis, and American policy is perceived to be a failure. If America withdraws before a stable security situation arises in Iraq, America will be perceived as being humiliated -- its will broken.

The commissioners were aware of all this when they completed their report. What the commission could have done was provide a third reason for the withdrawal of American forces between incontestable victory for Bush's policy of democratization and humiliating failure. That third way was to express contempt for the political leadership of Iraq and to describe the Iraqi people in their present mood as unworthy of further American sacrifice.

In political as in military matters, leadership is everything. Where is Iraq's Nelson Mandela? Where are the acts of vigor and courage by Iraq's elected prime minister and other cabinet ministers? We have weasels; where are Iraq's lions? Why is Moqtada al-Sadr still alive? These and other pertinent questions could be put by the commission to demonstrate that Iraq's political leaders are not up the challenge of bringing peace to their own country.

The Iraqi people themselves are also allowing their passions to overwhelm political maturity. Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys peace and prosperity without the presence of coalition forces, and by remaining inside the Iraqi federation the Kurds demonstrate political maturity of a high order.

It is in the Arab provinces that violence is given reign, and this foolishness could not be sustained without the financial and security footprint of coalition forces. The commission could argue persuasively that politically immature inter-Arab fighting should not be the cause of American humiliation.

The Baker-Hamilton report suffers from a lack of vision and imagination. The lack of imagination was obvious to the commissioners themselves when they wrote the report, and to produce something at all they fell back on old bromides and old habits. Had the commission allowed itself a minority opinion, a new and unexpected policy option could have been created while still maintaining good diplomatic form. The suggestion of a U.S. withdrawal in disgust as a minority opinion would put the idea into the public forum without the commission appearing to deviate from diplomatic correctness.

The sudden prospect of an American withdrawal under those conditions might have a sobering effect on those in power and on the Arab population of Iraq. A withdrawal out of disgust would not be the kind of humiliation and failure of will that al-Sadr, al-Qaida and Iran have in mind. Turning the tables, it would be a shocking kind of cultural judgment that would be hard for wounded Arab pride to refute. And the possibility of soon lacking a protector might galvanize the Iraqi leadership into ruthlessness, and to take measures necessary to put down the troublemakers and to demand from their followers the kind of loyalty that the religious leaders seem to get easily.

An American withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable. The question was always the political perception of that withdrawal. Hitherto, the two possible answers were with mission accomplished or as a humiliating failure of will. The commission could have, but failed, to produce a third reason for withdrawal which was not humiliating but instructive: disgust.

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