The report of the Iraq Study Group, awaited eagerly for guidance lo these many months, hit the book shelves in mid-December with a dispiriting thud; it says, effectively, that we must stay in Iraq. How long depends on the ever-familiar "situation on the ground." The report says many other things as well, chief among them being that the Bush administration has botched this adventure badly and that the current situation is both grave and deteriorating.
The study group does, by inference, come out against the Bush objective of military victory; nowhere does that phrase appear. It also calls for bringing the war to a conclusion and withdrawing at some point (perhaps starting in 2008), but with the caveats that the US has a special commitment and obligation to Iraq, that Iraq will need our assistance for years to come, and that we have long-term interests at stake in the region and must "stay engaged."
In the last analysis, the study group seems to be seeking a way to leave Iraq without leaving. It wants to win the support of the American people for what it calls a "new approach" and a "better way forward," based on diplomacy and Iraqification of the war. The president, who has rejected the specifics of the report out of hand, has nevertheless cleverly seized upon those words to craft a new slogan he calls "a new way forward." Regardless, his recent surge pronouncement indicates he remains wedded to the basic stay-the-course approach outlined at an election campaign appearance in late October. "We will stay in Iraq, we will fight in Iraq and we will win in Iraq," he promised then.
The study group report was an obvious affront to the White House, which against its advice wants to add, not subtract, troops (up to 20,000 or more) and increase the budget for the war by $100 billion; the Bush team plans to dig the proverbial hole deeper. To the president, any revision in tactics amounts to admitting past failure and past mistakes, something George W. Bush is constitutionally incapable of doing. Yet, to any objective observer, it is apparent the study group is essentially on Bush's side. It agrees with him that Iraq is "a centerpiece of American foreign policy" whose role is "vital" and "critical;" it has no strategic quarrel in hindsight with the proposition that the US should have gone into Iraq and no quarrel with the desirability of wielding American influence in that part of the world.
The neocon crazies and the foot soldiers of the radical right to the contrary notwithstanding, the Iraq Study Group is not a collection of peaceniks. These are people who want a bipartisan consensus that will unite the country behind a smarter, more efficient path toward winning the latest good war. They may define winning differently than the president, viewing it more as a multifaceted diplomatic-political-military exercise that preserves American credibility and interests (such as oil) and less as a purely military conquest that leaves us with a permanent physical presence reminiscent of the Roman Empire. But to reiterate, the study group is not the intellectual wing of MoveOn.org.
The 10 members of the group are pillars of what now passes for the Washington establishment. That is, they are predominantly moderate-to-conservative. On the overthrow of Saddam, they were largely neutral or supportive. The Republicans among them are all standard-issue party stalwarts; the Democrats are all Clintonites, which is to say, they're centrists. In short, the panel charged with finding a way out of Iraq contains no out-and-out liberals and no vocal opponents of the war.
The fact that such a center-right collection of individuals has been as critical of the administration as it has speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of the Bush Iraq policy. To this extent, the study group is to be commended for its honesty. That doesn't mean its recommendations should necessarily be followed to the letter. It has rejected the one sound strategic alternative advanced for fixing the problem: devolution of Iraq into three semi-autonomous sectarian regions.
Instead, it has endorsed a hodge-podge approach, the now-famous 79 recommendations, which together amount to continuing current occupation activities at a reduced level, while looking for a graceful way out of what has become an untenable situation. It's a variation of the Vietnamization strategy of a generation ago in Southeast Asia: Hang around for a while and hope the locals can get their act together, politically and militarily. If they do, leave leisurely in triumph with trumpets blaring; if they don't, slip out in the dead of night like the Colts leaving Baltimore and hope no one notices. (Good luck in both instances.)
There is another way, but it involves thinking the unthinkable. Why not just depart sooner rather than later and cut our losses? The proposed study-group policy basically throws good money after bad, and in the end, the result is likely to be the same. Except for a secularized, cosmopolitan minority in Baghdad, many of whom (an estimated 1.6 million) have already left the city as expatriates, Iraqis appear unready for democracy. Perhaps they should be allowed to fight their civil war, leaving the US and the West to deal with whoever is left standing. It won't be pretty, and there will be recriminations all around, starting with a politicized war of words in this country over establishing blame for a national embarrassment. Expect a "Who lost Iraq?" debate analogous to the "Who lost China?" dispute of the late 1940s. That's a price we'll have to pay.
In any event, Iraq is irretrievably lost, even if it was not ours to lose in the first place. It's a question now of whether we will drag things out and endure an expensive, humiliating, slow-motion defeat over several years' time, or tear the scar tissue now and accept the pain all at once to get it over with and done. The arrogance and stupidity of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have created the worst foreign-policy disaster in US history and placed the country in a classic no-win position. This generation of Americans will have to accept the results and learn from them as best it can.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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