By Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 7, 2006
The Iraq Study Group report released yesterday might well be titled "The Realist Manifesto."
From the very first page, in which co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton scold that "our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people," the bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration's diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and to the whole region.
Throughout its pages, the report reflects the foreign policy establishment's disdain for the "neoconservative" policies long espoused by President Bush and his aides. But while many of its recommendations stem from the "realist" school of foreign policy, it is unclear at this point whether a radically different approach would make much difference nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq.
The administration's effort to spread democracy to Arab lands is not mentioned in the report, except to note briefly that most countries in the region are wary of it. The report urges direct talks with Iran and Syria, both of which the administration has largely shunned. It also calls for placing new emphasis on resolving the Israel-Arab conflict, including pressing Israel to reach a peace deal with Syria, on the grounds that the issue shapes regional attitudes about U.S. involvement in Iraq. Overall, it strongly suggests that Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have bungled diplomacy in the region with unrealistic objectives and narrow strategies.
"We took a very pragmatic approach because all of these people up here are pragmatic public officials," Hamilton told reporters, referring to the five Democrats and five Republicans who unanimously endorsed the report's conclusions and recommendations. The bipartisan nature of the report -- and the fact that Baker was secretary of state for Bush's father -- will make it difficult for the White House to ignore. By endorsing the critics' view of the war, the report will also help incoming Democratic congressional leaders frame the debate over Iraq as a disaster largely of the administration's making.
In a lengthy preamble to the recommendations titled "Assessment," the report gives a dispassionate account of the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq, echoing books and news reports that the administration had previously criticized as one-sided or overly negative. The report's description of the violence in Iraq, which amounts to an attack on the administration's understanding of the facts on the ground, will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed.
"The ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing," the report warns.
The report is replete with damning details about the administration's inept handling of Iraq. It notes, for instance, that only six people in the 1,000-person embassy in Baghdad can speak Arabic fluently. It recounts how the military counted 93 acts of violence in one day in July, when the group's own reexamination of the data found 1,100 acts of violence. "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals," the report says.
The report calls for seeing Iraq differently, for scaling back the administration's goals and for ending the president's open-ended commitments to the war-torn country. It also argues that the administration should support a "far-reaching" amnesty of insurgent fighters, pointedly warning that neither the executive nor legislative branches should try to undermine an amnesty program.
Administration officials yesterday gamely insisted that the report is not a criticism of the administration's approach. White House spokesman Tony Snow said many issues raised in the report are being discussed and addressed by the administration. "You're asking if that is a repudiation of policy," he told reporters. "No, it's an acknowledgment of reality."
On both the diplomatic and military fronts, the report differs sharply from the administration's current approach. Perhaps befitting a panel with two former secretaries of state -- Lawrence S. Eagleburger is also a member -- a large section of the report outlines what it labels "the New Diplomatic Offensive."
The section appears to be an implicit rebuke of the policies pursued by Rice, arguing that her current efforts to build a regional "compact for Iraq" are too narrow, that her efforts to engage moderate Arab states lack ambition, and that her pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be reinvigorated. Bush has shunned a hands-on role in the issue, but the report says that "the United States does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israel conflict."
"Everybody said that if you're going to settle Iraq, it is important that you do what you can to settle Israel-Palestine," Eagleburger said, asserting a linkage that until now the administration had rejected. The report makes no mention of the moribund U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map.
The report also urges high-level talks with Iran and Syria without preconditions, although it sets goals for those talks that struck some analysts as unrealistic. Iran and Syria might have been more amenable to serious negotiations several years ago -- the panel noted, for instance, that Iran was helpful in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban -- but that moment has probably passed, now that Iran and Syria believe the United States is on the ropes. Baker, who said "you talk to your enemies, not just your friends," suggested that one goal of such talks would be to demonstrate to others in the region that Iran and Syria want Iraq to fail.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also comes in for some pointed commentary, with the group's 46th recommendation being that his successor repair relations with the top military brass.
The report's core military recommendation -- that almost all U.S. combat troops be withdrawn by the beginning of 2008, but that a large force be left to train and advise Iraqi forces -- struck some military experts as appropriate, but others called it overly ambitious.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, criticized the recommendation to quadruple the current number of U.S. advisers and trainers to about 20,000 soldiers, saying: "The U.S. is to rush in more qualified trainer and embeds that it doesn't have and assign more existing combat forces unqualified for the mission." Indeed, among the lessons brought home by U.S. trainers over the past three years are that many were unprepared for the task and that the mission is extremely difficult. It requires knowledge not only of U.S. combat operations but also of foreign weaponry and, most of all, of Iraqi culture.
Quang X. Pham, author of a memoir about his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his father's time as a pilot for the South Vietnamese military, said he considers the troop plan a thinly disguised form of quitting. "In one year, during the 2008 election year, the United States will abandon and betray Iraq as it did South Vietnam," predicted Pham, who was a pilot during the Persian Gulf War.
Meanwhile, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), head of the "Out of Iraq" congressional caucus, said it appears to her that the group is calling only for improvements to the Bush administration's plan to stand down U.S. forces as Iraqi forces stand up.