Friday, April 6, 2007

Foreign Policy: "Iraq Study Group Has Set U.S. Policy On Iraq"

Everyone in Washington seemed to agree that the Iraq Study Group’s ideas for fixing Iraq were duds. So, four months after many pundits and politicians accused Baker and Hamilton of failing to think big, why are the White House and Capitol Hill rushing to implement the very recommendations of the ISG that they once dismissed?

Quiet victory: Without anyone noticing, James Baker and his Iraq Study Group have set U.S. policy on Iraq. Foreign Policy reports, "Mission Accomplished":
When the bipartisan Iraq Study Group released its report containing 79 fixes for the mess in Iraq last December, official Washington welcomed it the way one might greet an IRS audit—with very little enthusiasm. “[I] find some of its recommendations misguided or poorly worded,” concluded veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. Lawrence Kaplan, former executive editor of The National Interest, pronounced the report “half-baked.” On Capitol Hill, the ISG took blows from the right and left. The subtitle of the commission’s report proclaimed “a new approach.” But the leading antiwar Democrat, Rep. John Murtha, snuffed that the commission’s approach was “not different from the current policy,” while the most prominent congressional Republican war supporter, Sen. John McCain, called it “a recipe that will lead to … our defeat in Iraq.” President George W. Bush thought so much of the commission that he decided to form his own competing one.

Much of the disappointment could be forgiven. Everyone was awaiting a miracle solution, and ISG co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton did little to dampen the media hype. But bits of the commission’s final report, including its prognosis that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” were painfully obvious. Public opinion polls showed that some two thirds of Americans already knew that to be true. Other parts, such as the commission’s suggestion that the Iraqi government be forced to meet benchmarks, lacked teeth. Why would these elder statespersons suggest only that the United States could withdraw if the benchmarks were not met? This is to say nothing of the fact that some ISG recommendations even appeared to be obviously recycled. Baker and Hamilton’s suggestion, for instance, that the Iraq conflict was “inextricably linked” to the Israel-Palestine crisis was pointed out by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft way back in 2002. And so the ISG was thanked for its 79 recommendations for fixing Iraq—and then it was simply ignored.

Or was it?

In the four months since the ISG’s report landed on desks in Washington with a resounding thud, both the White House and Congress have quietly implemented many of the very recommendations they once coldly dismissed. Just look at the ISG’s first 12 recommendations, which broadly call for heightened diplomacy, globally and within the region. In January, the Bush administration pooh-poohed Baker-Hamilton’s most hyped suggestion—a sit down with Iran and Syria—in favor of a plan to secure Baghdad with more U.S. troops instead. Since then, however, the administration has pursued talks, including a regional conference on Iraq planned for as early as this month that is to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from Syria and Iran. The change in Bush’s thinking has apparently been so profound that not even Iran’s decision to capture 15 British sailors and marines has knocked the State Department off this diplomatic course. The ISG also recommended renewing efforts to help broker a broader Israeli-Arab peace, dedicating five of its 79 recommendations to the subject. Here too, the Bush administration is heeding the ISG’s advice. Secretary Rice has already made three trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2007, and has said that she and Bush have had “endless conversations” on how to formulate a peace agreement.

Throw a dart at the ISG report, and you’re liable to hit a recommendation that the White House is implementing. The ISG called for additional economic and military support for Afghanistan—and the Bush administration has announced an increase in both. It’s sending more U.S. troops and financial aid in order to combat a resurgent Taliban. The ISG called for reforming Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior—and the Bush administration now agrees. The president’s plan for Iraq, released on January 10, is requiring reform within the ministry. The ISG called for bringing foreign investment into Iraq’s oil sector—and the Bush administration has hopped on board. Bush’s January plan calls on Iraq to pass an oil law, currently pending in the Iraqi legislature, to bring foreign investment into Iraq’s oil operations. This list goes on and on. More foreign aid for Iraq? Bush asked for it after the ISG recommended it. A revenue-sharing plan for Iraq’s oil? Same story.

The White House, of course, hasn’t embraced all of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recommended fixes. For instance, it has steadfastly opposed deadlines for troop withdrawals. Fortunately for the Baker-Hamilton Commission, Congress is picking up the slack. Following the ISG’s suggestion that the United States begin to draw down its troops in Iraq by early 2008 (recommendations 40 through 45 in the final report), U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama introduced a bill setting March 31, 2008, as the date for withdrawing troops. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, led the charge on calling for a redeployment of troops out of Iraq by March 2008, except for troops in those functions recommended by Baker-Hamilton. Countless other measures in Congress have borrowed heavily from the ISG’s approach, and not just on troop withdrawal, but on reconstruction, and, most notably, on the plan for setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government, put forward by House Democrats.

All of this is not to say that leaders in Washington have gone back to Baker and Hamilton’s report only to realize its omnipotence. They haven’t. The ISG’s work was neither brilliant nor particularly prescient. But the pundits and politicians who condemned it minutes after it was released were too quick to judge. The report wasn’t worthless. In fact, its mundane set of recommendations convinced foreign-policy minds in Congress and the White House that they could do better. So folks went back to the drawing board. And what they discovered is what Baker and Hamilton had tried to tell them in the first place: There are very few good options for fixing Iraq.

And that may be the most important conclusion of all.