Can’t Stay the Course, Can’t End the War, But We’ll Call it Bipartisan

Despite the breathless hype, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG) report did not include any dramatic new ideas for ending the war in Iraq. In fact, it did not include a call to end the war at all. Rather, the report’s recommendations focus on transforming the U.S. occupation of Iraq into a long-term, sustainable, off-the-front-page occupation with a lower rate of U.S. casualties. Despite its title, it does not provide “A New Approach: A Way Forward.”

George Bush, announcing the report, said “the country is tired of pure political bickering.” It would be far more accurate to say the country–not to mention Iraq and the rest of the world–are tired of war. The report is a reaction to the American people’s and the anti-war movement’s rejection of the war in the November 2006 elections. But the ISG’s goal appeared to reflect the elite consensus in U.S. opinion of the importance of a different goal–getting the issue of the war off the November 2008 election agenda–not to end the war.

The new catch phrase of spin around withdrawal used in the report is “responsible transition.” In the introduction, the report states that “this responsible transition can allow for a reduction in the U.S. presence in Iraq over time.” It is not aimed at ending that U.S. presence. It is very clear that the Baker-Hamilton team do not propose a diminishing of U.S. efforts to control Iraq; the focus is very much on supporting (and keeping in power) the current U.S.-backed government and its army, despite the fact that neither institution reflects much of the national consciousness and accountability, let alone legitimacy, that the report claims to want.

The word “occupation” appears only five times in the entire report. Three times it is used to describe what Iraqis “believe” or “think” about the U.S. presence in their country. Twice it refers to U.S. troops in the post-World War II Army of Occupation in Germany. Never does it refer directly to the U.S. occupation of Iraq (nor to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land).

The report does differ from current Bush administration policy, and there are important components to it. It calls for talking directly with Iran and Syria, something ardently opposed by President Bush. It admits that the cost of the war has already approached $2 trillion. Diverging from Bush’s longstanding “we will stand down as Iraqis stand up” approach, the ISG cautiously suggests that the Iraqi government should be told that if they do not meet their own “milestones,” that U.S. support might be reduced. Particularly challenging the recent escalation in Bush administration threats to the Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and contrary to other Bush policies, the report calls on the administration “to engage all parties in Iraq, with the exception of al Qaeda. The United States must find a way to talk to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and militia and insurgent leaders.”

In fact, the report even acknowledges the importance of such a national reconciliation process, and recognizes that the U.S. occupation itself must be discussed by Iraq’s wide-ranging leaders. It states, “The question of the future U.S. force presence must be on the table for discussion as the national reconciliation dialogue takes place. Its inclusion will increase the likelihood of participation by insurgents and militia leaders, and thereby increase the possibilities for success.”

Overall, the report reflects the steep drop in U.S. and international support for the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and the desperation of U.S. elites to somehow rescue foreign policy and declining U.S. influence and power in the world. It recognizes that the November 2006 elections were about rejecting the war but it does not come close to reflecting what the American people (62%) AND the Iraqi people (80%) actually want: a rapid and complete end to the U.S. occupation and the troops brought home. Instead, it suggests 79 complicated (and in some cases contradictory) carefully calibrated, moderate, “bi-partisan” (NOT non-partisan) recommendations for changing the “stay the course” language without really making the course that much different for Iraqis and the majority of U.S. troops.

Military Recommendations

The military recommendations urge the transformation of the U.S. occupation from the current large-scale ground deployment of 150,000 troops to a smaller-scale, less obtrusive occupation where the war’s ground troops will be primarily Iraqi. They suggest that U.S. “combat brigades” should be largely out of Iraq by early 2008, but that “combat troops” should remain, primarily “embedded” with the Iraqi military, and engaged in rapid reaction and special operations; these combat troops would also be involved in training, air support, transportation, logistics, intelligence and other tasks. The rapid reaction and special operations would focus on al Qaeda in Iraq, but would also undertake other “missions considered vital by the U.S. commander in Iraq.” And the report goes on to affirm that “even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would maintain a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, as well as an increased presence in Afghanistan.” It states that one goal of those U.S. troops in the region would be to “deter even more destructive interference in Iraq by Syria and Iran.” It says the President should state that the U.S. does not seek permanent bases in Iraq, but says nothing about dismantling the four permanent bases already in use, and leaves a huge loophole that a “temporary base or bases,” if requested by the Iraqi government, would be considered.

The ISG recognized that “adding more American troops could conceivably worsen those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the U.S. presence is intended to be a long-term ‘occupation’.” And they admitted that “there is little evidence that the long-term deployment of U.S. troops by itself has led or will lead to fundamental improvements in the security situation.” But they still rejected the logical response of ending the occupation and bringing home all the troops.

Instead, the report puts significant responsibility on the Iraqi government. Urging again that the U.S. threaten the Iraqi government with a decrease in support if they do not make good on their milestones, the report states that, “America’s other security needs and the future of our military cannot be made hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government.”

Inside Iraq, the ISG forwards two recommendations for the Iraqi military. The first notes that there are likely not enough Iraqi troops and the U.S. should do a better job of training them. But the ISG ignores the results of large increase in trained Iraqi security forces over the last year. Even as the Iraqi security forces have added 100,000 to their ranks in 2006, violence has increased. Given the track record of the forces and their devolution into units more loyal to sectarian leaders rather than the government, increasing troops will only heap more fuel on the fire.

The second recommendation focuses on moving oversight of large segments of the Iraqi police forces from the Interior department to the Defense department. Blurring the lines between military and police forces is extremely dangerous and will lessen the already weak credibility of the police forces. This recommendation has more to do with taking power away from the Interior ministry headed by nationalist Shi’te Muqtada al-Sadr’s political party than it does with reforming the troubled Iraqi police forces and will be seen inside Iraq as yet another attempt by the Americans to micromanage internal Iraqi politics.

Diplomatic Recommendations

As anticipated, the report deals much more extensively with diplomatic approaches to the Iraq war. But the report assumes that Iraq’s neighbors share the U.S. view of Iraq’s “stability,” a concept with far differing definitions. And dangerously, the ISG appears to assume that all countries in the Middle East, at least all governments, identify primarily in the context of Sunni/Shi’a rivalry, and that they will operate in the region on a sectarian basis rather than on the basis of their self-defined national interests. Key governments in the region may well be anti-Iran, but Egypt, Jordan, other Arab countries are far more likely to be uneasy about the rising power of a wealthy, powerful, influential nation that challenges their pro-U.S. positions and dependence, than they are about Iran as a Shi’a country.

Fundamentally, while the ISG rejects the harshly unilateralist approaches of the Bush White House, it does not challenge the current understanding that U.S. power remains primary in Iraq and the region. Recommendation One calls for a New Diplomatic Offensive, whose goals include “support the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq; stop destabilizing interventions and actions by Iraq’s neighbors; secure Iraq’s borders…; prevent the expansion of the instability and conflict beyond Iraq’s borders; promote economic assistance, commerce, trade, political support, and, if possible, military assistance for the Iraqi government from non-neighboring Muslim nations.”

But the proposed diplomatic campaign is thoroughly coercive. A later recommendation calls for creation of an Iraq International Support Group, “as an instrument of the New Diplomatic Offensive,” meaning as an instrument of U.S. diplomacy. That group “should consist of Iraq and all the states bordering Iraq, including Iran and Syria; the key regional states, including Egypt and the Gulf States; the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council; the European Union; and, of course, Iraq itself….” And there is a specific reference to a potential Iranian refusal to join the “Support Group” would “demonstrate to Iraq and the rest of the world Iran’s rejectionist attitude and approach, which could lead to its isolation. Further, Iran’s refusal to cooperate on this matter would diminish its prospects of engaging with the United States in the broader dialogue it seeks.”

The ISG’s call for the U.S. to talk with Iran and Syria represents one of the strongest points of departure from the Bush agenda. It is important that the report calls for these talks. However, there is little serious discussion of changing the U.S. diplomatic posture that could make such talks fruitful. On Syria, there is a recognition that a qualified end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights must be on the table. But the ISG refused to include discussion of Iran’s nuclear issues in any new talks and the overall approach to Syria and Iran emphasizes that the reason they should negotiate with the U.S. is because of “prospects for enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States; and the prospect of a U.S. policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of (as Iran now perceives it) advocating regime change.” In other words, they should negotiate with Washington because if they don’t the U.S. will continue to isolate and threaten them. Not exactly a model of “new diplomacy.”

And on Israel-Palestine, the ISG again rejects Bush’s position by linking the Iraq crisis with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a general call for a renewed U.S. commitment to Bush’s 2002 claimed support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. But the report’s recognition that “in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests,” including Syria and Iran, still leaves out Palestine. The ISG supports the U.S. refusal to talk to the democratically-elected Palestinian Authority government led by Hamas, using the language of a call for “direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and particularly Syria….”

But the real problem is the ISG’s refusal to acknowledge or call for an end to the Israeli occupation, instead only urging new negotiations aimed at an unspecified resolution. Unlike the report’s explicit call to “return the Golan Heights” to Syria, there is no call for Israel to end its occupation and “return the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem” to the Palestinians. Reassertion of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which U.S. and Israeli routinely do is insufficient. Further, the proposed negotiations would once again be under the control of the U.S., thus insuring that U.S. policies would dominate any outcome.

The only reference to Israel’s escalating violence in the occupied territories, especially in besieged Gaza, comes in the form of an even-handed call for “consolidating the cease-fire reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis in November 2006.” The report’s call for “support for a Palestinian national unity government” does not indicate what happens if Hamas continues leadership of such a government.

Interestingly, the report’s listing of issues to be included in any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations does include a specific reference to the “right of return.” The use of that term, as opposed to the usual generic reference to “the problem of Palestinian refugees,” may well be its first use in a quasi-official U.S. diplomatic statement. Of course there is no recommendation that discussing the right of return (guaranteed in UN resolution 194) should lead to implementation of the right, but even acknowledgement is a step Bush has always rejected.

Ironically, the report does seem to acknowledge the Israeli threat in the region. In the section dealing with regional diplomacy, the ISG recognizes that “none of Iraq’s neighbors–especially major countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel–see it in their interest for the situation in Iraq to lead to aggrandized regional influence by Iran. Indeed, they may take active steps to limit Iran’s influence, steps that could lead to an intra-regional conflict.” While the Arab countries certainly remain wary of Iran’s rising influence, only Israel has both the political approach and the military capacity to take “steps that could lead to an intra-regional conflict,” referring clearly to a possible Israeli strike on Iran.

Helping the Iraqi’s Help Themselves

As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated in 2006, it has become fashionable to blame the Iraqis and the ISG report is no different. The report fails to examine how sectarian cleavages were exacerbated by Paul Bremer, the U.S. appointed “administrator” of Iraq, through his appointment of Iraqi advisors by ethnic and religious background during the onset of occupation. Indeed, it was Bremer who designed the illegal framework for the Iraqi “unity government” which is now crumbling. Instead of recognizing the weak foundation of this house of cards, the ISG puts Iraq’s future squarely on the shoulders of Iraq’s elected leaders, suggesting they should be measured on their ability to meet benchmarks for national reconciliation, security and governance.

Politically, the ISG’s strongest recommendation for reconciliation is to encourage talks between the different groups and to involve the international community. But with popular support for the government lacking within Iraq because of its close alliance and dependence on the U.S. occupation, there is little that outside players can do to provide the popular legitimacy that would be needed for it to function.

As divisions have intensified between the Sunni’s, Kurds, and Shi’ites (not to mention the other minority groups inside Iraq) national reconciliation is certainly needed. Indeed, Iraqis themselves began this process earlier in 2006. Ironically it was the U.S. who vetoed four provisions in the national reconciliation plan, two of which are now resurfacing in the ISG: discussions around U.S. withdrawal, and amnesty (the two other provisions dealt with compensation and a cease-fire).

On a positive note, the ISG recommends that the U.S. put aside one of the most divisive issues in Iraq, the future of the contested and oil-rich city of Kirkuk, suggests reducing or even ending the policy of de-Baathification, advocates for provincial elections, and argues for further review of the Iraqi constitution.

While the ISG is eager to have Iraqis take up security issues by themselves, they are not so quick to have Iraqis take charge of their economy or more importantly, the development of their massive oil reserves. The ISG team advocates for the sharing of oil revenues throughout the country, a departure from the current Iraqi constitution that states revenue from new oil fields goes to local provinces. If carried out, this reform would help lessen the pressure for division within the country.

Following this sensible proposal is one much more radical–complete privatization of the oil industry, combined with foreign investment, and technical assistance by the U.S. government. This directly contradicts the ISG’s earlier recommendation that, “The President should restate that the U.S. does not seek to control Iraq’s oil” and guarantees that the U.S. and multinational corporations will be vying for control and power in Iraq for decades. Clearly this section of the report was heavily influenced by commission members James A. Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger, whom have sought access to Iraqi’s oil for most of their political careers, as well as by the longstanding consensus of U.S. corporate and government opinion about the importance and claimed legitimacy of maintaining U.S. control of Iraqi oil.

On the economic and reconstruction front the report advocates for funding for Iraqi reconstruction to continue to the tune of $5 billion a year and proposes that the President appoint a “Senior Advisor for Economic Reconstruction”. Reconstruction is a lynchpin to improving life for Iraqis but given the poor performance and corruption of so much of the reconstruction undertaken by U.S. companies in Iraq, oversight of reconstruction is clearly needed. The ISG’s recommendation for a Senior Advisor and an extension of the Special Inspector General will provide some oversight but their mandate is limited. A better approach could be modeled upon the “Truman Committee” that not only investigated all war contracts during WWII but had the power to punish war profiteers.

Most important, Iraqis themselves need to be invested in the reconstruction process both in the planning and implementation. The ISG is silent on the critical need to have reconstruction planned, led, and staffed by Iraqis.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Erik Leaver is the Carol and Ed Newman Fellow at IPS and the policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.