There are some sound ideas contained in the Iraq Study Group report that was finally released after weeks of leaks this morning. The confirmation that the circumstance in Iraq is “grave” and rapidly deteriorating, while not exactly news, is important — especially coming a day after President Bush’s nominee for secretary of defense acknowledged that the United States is most definitely not “winning” the war in Iraq. For those in the Bush administration and its media echo chamber who as recently as a few days ago were prattling on about how successful the mission really is, this is a necessary dose of reality.

So, too, is the recognition by the ISG members that, “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional instability.” The reports call for an intense and comprehensive diplomatic initiative to resolve disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinian inserts regional realism into a discussion that has been largely devoid of that essential component.

The same goes for the emphasis on diplomacy, particularly as regards relations with Syria and Iran, that is the critical focus of the report from the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. If there is to be a serious exit strategy for U.S. forces, it is going to require support and involvement from other countries in the region.

But, for all the encouraging bows toward reality that can be found in the 142-page-long report, “The Way Forward: A New Approach,” there are also some deeply troubling proposals contained the 79 recommendations made by Baker, Hamilton and their compatriots. This is especially true of a core recommendation of the report: “The primary mission of U.S. forces should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army.”

On the surface, and especially coming in the context of the suggestion that the U.S. military presence in Iraq should be drawn down, that may sound smart. In reality, it’s a recipe for more disaster.

The report says, “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”

So far, so good.

But, the report then adds, “At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams and in training, equipping, advising, force protection and search and rescue.”

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who has written extensively on the Iraq imbroglio, says, embedding U.S. troops in this manner creates “tens of thousands of hostages in uniform.”

Actually, that’s a nice way of putting it.

Considering the condition of the Iraqi Army — which could charitably be described as “fully dysfunctional” — and the likelihood that if the Iraqi military moves into a more high-profile position its units will become the primary targets of the insurgency, this scheme could actually get more Americans killed. In particular, it could set up precisely the sort of “Blackhawk Down” scenarios where very bad things happen to Americans, and those developments then become excuses for dispatching more U.S. troops to danger zones. In effect, the embedding of substantial numbers of Americans in Iraqi military units could establish the slippery slope on which positive steps toward the withdrawal of U.S. forces end up being reversed.

Perhaps worst of all, the embedding of U.S. troops within Iraqi units opens up the prospect that Americans will come to be seen as siding with the ethnic grouping that eventually will dominate the military. If that happens, the choice to embed U.S. units could harm rather than help prospects for diplomatic solutions, as it will stir concerns among neighboring countries that are aligned with — or, at least, sympathetic to — Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities.

James Baker says that staying the course in Iraq is “no longer viable.”

He’s right. But the key is to make a proper change of course — one that aims for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country — rather than one that could, as remarkable as this may seem, make things worse.

John Nichols covered the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and has reported extensively from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and other Middle East countries.


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