There’s good news and bad news in the long-awaited report of the Iraq Study Group. Happily, it starts the United States down the path of withdrawal. Unhappily, its most basic premise–that the United States can somehow support the nonexistent Iraqi government and bolster its viciously sectarian armed forces–is fatally flawed.
Let’s start with the good news. The ISG has delivered a stunning body blow to the White House. Stripped of its details, the ISG’s message is that President Bush’s Iraq policy is a complete failure that has brought Iraq and the Middle East to the brink of catastrophe. As a result, the United States must execute an about-face. Almost immediately, the United States must begin withdrawing virtually all of its combat forces from Iraq, a withdrawal that should be completed early in 2008. At the same time, it says, the United States will have to scramble to launch a diplomatic effort involving Iraq’s neighbors–including Syria and Iran–the Arab League, the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and other world powers to prevent Iraq from spiraling into chaos.
Further, says the ISG report–which was handed personally to Bush by Hamilton and his co-chair, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, Wednesday–the United States must renounce any idea of permanent bases in Iraq, “reject the notion that the United States seeks to control Iraq’s oil” and urgently seek national reconciliation in Iraq. To that latter end, the ISG proposes that the United States “must also try to talk directly to Muqtada al-Sadr, to militia leaders, and to insurgent leaders”–in other words, instead of seeking to crush the Iraqi resistance and smash Sadr’s Mahdi Army, it’s time to talk to them. And to top it all off, the ISG proposes a vigorous effort to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
It’s hard to imagine a more sweeping rebuke to the President’s disastrously misguided Middle East policy. The report breathes not one word about “victory” in Iraq. Ever the master of understatement, Baker said that the idea of staying the course in Iraq “is no longer viable.”
The Baker-Hamilton report instantly isolated President Bush against a snowballing consensus among the mainstream political establishment. In a collective I-told-you-so, Democrats mostly heaped praise on the ISG report. “If the president is serious about the need for change in Iraq, he will find Democrats ready to work with him in a bipartisan fashion to find a way to end the war as quickly as possible,” said Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House, who added that the ISG report echoed virtually all of the Democrats’ main talking points on Iraq.
Over on the Republican side, moderates and mainstream conservatives such as Senators Chuck Hagel, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe also cheered its conclusions. “It gives impetus to both the Congress and hopefully the President,” said Snowe. “The time has come to change our course and to support a plan…that ultimately leads to a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.”
Against the emerging political consensus, Bush has no real option other than to come around. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of four think tanks that sponsored the ISG, noted that the ISG report frees Republicans to break with Bush. “With the issuance of this report, it has become far easier to claim that one is a loyal Republican and that one differs strongly with the Bush Administration on Iraq. When some Congressional Republicans did that in September, it set off a tremor. This could provoke an earthquake and leave the President very isolated if he refuses to change course.”