The Study Group Reports

Thursday, December 7, 2006

THE REPORT OF THE Iraq Study Group outlines a military strategy for Iraq that has already been embraced in large measure by the Iraqi government and U.S. military commanders, if not explicitly by President Bush. It foresees a year-long shift of U.S. forces from fighting insurgents and preventing sectarian war to advising and supporting an Iraqi army that would take responsibility for those missions. If all went well, most U.S. combat units would withdraw by early 2008, but a "robust" American force would stay on to guard against the collapse of the Iraqi government, to fight al-Qaeda and to deter intervention by Iraq's neighbors.

As the study group concedes, this last-ditch strategy to stabilize Iraq might not work. But it is an option worth trying, and one Americans and Iraqis can agree on. The biggest contribution of the group may have been to unite five prominent Republicans and five prominent Democrats behind this plan. As chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton repeatedly noted, the country desperately needs to build a bipartisan consensus on the war.

The study group's diplomatic proposals are more ambitious and will be more controversial. The report outlines a broad attempt to solve the problems of the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the related disputes among Israel, Syria and Lebanon -- worthy goals that have eluded this and every U.S. administration over the past four decades. More practically, it calls for the establishment of an Iraq International Support Group, made up of all of Iraq's neighbors, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and possibly other parties that would promote the country's stabilization. This is a good idea that should have been tried long ago. It implies a modification of the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran or Syria, so it is encouraging that the White House did not rule it out yesterday.

There are other useful recommendations in the report, including an increase in reconstruction aid to Iraq, which is close to running out, and improvements in intelligence-gathering. There is also a proposal to push the Iraqi government toward meeting "milestones" on the way to political reconciliation by threatening to withhold aid or withdraw troops if it does not. The pressure for action is certainly needed. But the danger is that Congress will interpret the policy as a license to place crippling conditions on U.S. support for a government that could not survive without it.

What's missing from the study group report, unfortunately, is any evaluation of what should be done if the new strategy doesn't work -- if, despite the stepped-up training, diplomacy and pressure for Iraqi political reconciliation, the incipient civil war intensifies or the army and government remain too weak to survive on their own. In that all-too-likely scenario, Democrats would probably press for troop withdrawals to proceed regardless, while Mr. Bush has said he will not "pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

While the study group has papered over this old debate between "stay the course" and "cut and run," it has not made it go away. With luck the next year will bring both measurable progress toward stability in Iraq and a reduction in U.S. forces and casualties. But it would be well to have a study group or two, inside the administration or out, preparing for the possibility that the United States will face another difficult choice a year from now between a continued commitment of U.S. combat forces and the "slide toward chaos" of which Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton grimly warned.

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