Early in the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the blue-ribbon panel created by Congress this past spring and chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, Hamilton called for a show of hands among the forty-four experts advising the group, most of them veteran US military, intelligence and foreign policy officials. On the table, according to an insider, were two options. The first, which by then had come to be known as Option 3, called for an all-out effort by the United States to stabilize Baghdad, suppress the insurgency and strengthen Iraq’s army and police forces. The second, Option 4, was what opponents term the “cut and run” approach, disguised as an orderly redeployment of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq back home or to neighboring countries.
The vote, which took place late this past summer, was lopsided. Only two people voted for Option 4. Despite evidence that Iraq is enmeshed in a civil war that is killing more than 3,000 Iraqis every month, the group’s best and brightest weren’t ready to face the need to get out. For them, Option 4 meant defeat–a recognition that the entire American project in Iraq was a failure. Not only that, but many of the experts believed that an American pullout would inevitably lead to increased civil conflict. “The fear was that Iraq could be facing a horrific civil war that leaves a million dead,” says one ISG expert. Such a conflict could create a black hole that pulls in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, igniting a regional conflagration. Says the ISG adviser: “Option 4 was just too horrible to contemplate.”
By fall, however, opinion within the ISG had shifted radically. After months of glumly sorting through the bleak options for Iraq, another vote between the two strategies was taken–and this time the ISG divided nearly down the middle. “The vote was about 50-50,” says the participant. For half the ISG’s experts, at least, reality had begun to sink in.
Indeed, over the past year or so, the American foreign policy establishment has slowly started to come to grips with the fact that the Iraq War is lost. Despite the costs–$350 billion, nearly 3,000 American lives and several hundred thousand Iraqi lives–the Bush Administration and the military have no formula that can create an Iraq that even approximates the Administration’s vision. And so, from every direction–a new White House task force under the supervision of the National Security Council, a Pentagon review under Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Peter Pace, newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill, a host of Washington and New York think tanks and elsewhere–plans for how to disengage from Iraq are under way.
First among equals, and the one that most politicians and pundits are waiting for, is the Baker-Hamilton task force. Bipartisan, and relentlessly realist in its composition, the ISG is widely expected to set the tone for debate on Iraq in 2007. Still, like its experts, the ISG members themselves are reportedly sharply divided about whether to recommend a phased withdrawal of US forces. Even if it does reach agreement, its conclusions might be rejected by the White House. And for Democrats on the Hill, the Baker-Hamilton report is likely to be the start, rather than the end, of a long debate, replete with Democratic-led Congressional hearings and a search for a bipartisan accord.
Option 3.5: The ‘Surge’
As the second straw vote at the ISG showed, support for some version of what Bush used to talk of as “staying the course”–perhaps through one last push in Iraq to secure, if not victory, then some level of stability–lingers on, and not just among neoconservatives.