According to the New York Times and Washington Post leaked versions of the Iraq Study Group’s consensus position (Nov. 29 and 30), their recommendations will tinker around the edges of Bush’s strategy, but not propose a wholesale alteration, let alone an actual policy reversal. They will likely add a more active diplomatic component to the current military primacy (something already underway) but will not call for ending the occupation and bringing all the troops home, not immediately and not in a phased withdrawal. Given the clear reluctance of James Baker, and the Iraq Study Group (ISG) as a whole, to challenge George Bush’s stated and re-stated (again on Nov 29) commitment that he would not pull the troops out of Iraq until the “mission is accomplished” it should not be surprising that the ISG’s recommendations will be rather modest.
While calls to bring home all the troops in a phased withdrawal (rather than immediately) may yet emerge from establishment sources, there is no indication that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations will include such a call. At most, they will propose what the New York Times called a “pullback” and the Washington Post a “drawdown” of perhaps up to half the 140,000+ troops in Iraq, with even that possibility conditioned on military circumstances on the ground – virtually the same position as Bush’s own “when Iraqis stand up we will stand down.”
In other words, the anxiously-awaited report will likely call for a much less far-reaching policy shift than has been anticipated.
The report will recommend moving some or even all of the officially designated “combat brigades” – but as the New York Times makes clear, “the report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries.” So far, here is no indication that the recommended “pullback” will mean anything other than a shift of some combat troops out of the cities and into the permanent U.S. bases, with perhaps some sector of them being transferred to U.S. bases in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the region, or to U.S. ships (“over the horizon” or not) deployed in the region. That is not withdrawal, that is not ending the occupation, that is not bringing the troops home.
Most likely, the goal of the Bush administration is to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq from the current 140,000+ to something like 60-70,000. That seems consistent with what the NY Times leak indicated: regardless of the “pullback” of some or even most “combat troops,” the 70,000 “trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force” (such a force should certainly qualify as combat troops as well) will remain in Iraq no matter what.
The call for greater emphasis on military trainers (including 20,000 U.S. troops) reflects a kind of reverse of the Viet Nam trajectory, in which thousands of U.S. advisors backing the South Vietnamese Army soon turned into a major deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. Then, as now, the massive deployment of ground troops proved unable to “win” the war, and the Baker-Hamilton team will apparently call for shifting towards a smaller U.S. occupation force with more “embedded advisers” fighting with the Iraqi troops.
‘Staying the course” is off the table as a slogan – but “Staying the only-slightly-different course” seems very much what the ISG will propose.
THE DIPLOMATIC SIDE
The diplomatic front will apparently hold center stage in the ISG report. But here again there are serious deficiencies. There is no indication in the initial set of New York Times leaks that the ISG will recommend opening serious public negotiations with any of the myriad of resistance forces fighting the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
The report will almost certainly recommend “more robust” regional diplomacy, including engaging with Iran and Syria. That is a good thing, as talking is always better than fighting. It is particularly important because the Bush administration till now has implemented the neo-con unilateralist view that it is neither necessary nor useful to talk with “axis of evil” countries, or indeed any country or political force with which the U.S. disagrees. But it will almost certainly NOT recommend any of the real changes in U.S. diplomatic posture that would be required to give other regional powers, specifically Iran and Syria again, a real motivation to engage with the U.S. Some new regional diplomacy is already underway – Cheney’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and very likely Iraqi President Talabani’s visit to Tehran are linked to this new diplo-initiative, as well of course the stumbling Bush summit in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. But so far there is little evidence of a shift in the substantive U.S. posture.
The Bush administration position seems to be that all they need to offer to Iran, in return for a host of significant Iranian precondition concessions (on the nuclear, Iraq and Lebanon fronts), is the opportunity to talk to some U.S. official about a singularly limited – “stabilizing Iraq” – agenda. Similarly, Damascus is expected to be so grateful for the opportunity to talk to someone in Washington that Syrian officials will accept a set of preconditions without any U.S. commitment even to talk about issues important to Syria.
If the U.S. was serious about diplomacy – and if the Baker-Hamilton ISG was serious about new diplomatic recommendations – the keys would lie in explicit U.S. commitments to negotiate with each regional actor on the basis of equality. That means if the U.S. wants to talk with Iran about “helping to stabilize” Iraq, Washington must also be prepared to treat Iran respectfully, as what Zbigniew Brzezinski called a “serious country.” That means negotiating on such issues as a providing Iran security guarantees, ending economic sanctions and threats of regime change, and dealing with Iran’s nuclear capacity in the context of efforts to create a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East (something already an official, if rarely acknowledged, U.S. position defined in Article 14 of UN Security Council resolution 687 ending the 1991 Gulf War). For Syria, the U.S. would expand the issues on the table beyond demanding that Syria tighten control of its border with Iraq and accept an international investigation into possible Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, to include issues important to Syria such as pressuring Israel to end its almost 40-year-long occupation of the Golan Heights, ending U.S. efforts to split the Syrian government, and removing Syria from the so-called “terrorism list.”
Possibilities for diplomacy are endless – but there is no indication so far that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations will go beyond the limited only-U.S.-opinions-matter approach of the existing Bush administration’s diplomatic outreach.
The information we have so far indicates that the Iraq Study Group, which was so eagerly anticipated to come up with new approaches for ending the war in Iraq, has fallen far short. The insistence on keeping it “bi-partisan” – instead of non-partisan – and on relying solely on Washington insiders instead of reaching out to analysts with new and different ideas, seems to have succeeded in insuring that nothing the Baker-Hamilton team calls for will seriously challenge the existing stalemate facing the Bush administration in Iraq. For several weeks already Bush officials have been downplaying the significance of the ISG, including setting in motion competing “internal” administration reviews of Iraq policy, one based at the Pentagon and another at the State Department. This will allow the White House to claim they’re taking bits and pieces from many places, not being bound by any one opinion. and ultimately, not moving to end the war.
MEANWHILE, ON THE GROUND
There are significant changes underway in Iraq, driven not by the ISG’s recommendations but by the serious escalation in violence, the failure of U.S. policies in Iraq overall, and the nose-dive of U.S. influence and power to control events throughout the Middle East region. It is those failures that are driving developments such as the reported U.S. covert overtures to some resistance forces in Iraq, and the possibility that efforts are underway to at least consider shifting U.S. support away from the al-Maliki-led Iraqi government to a different set of Iraqi actors, including Baathist, other Sunni, and a different set of Shi’a forces to mobilize against Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia (major U.S. media outlets have already shifted from identifying al-Sadr as “the fiery young cleric” to “anti-American cleric”) and other resistance forces.
At the end of the day, the Baker-Hasmilton commission’s recommendations are likely to change very little. The basic demand of the U.S. and global peace movements, the only way to end the escalating death and destruction in Iraq, remains unchanged:
Bring All the Troops Home Now, Close the Permanent U.S. Bases, Bring Home the Mercenaries, Give Up Control of the Oil, Stop Supporting Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian Land, and End the Military and Economic Occupation of Iraq!