Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Iraq Study Group report short on new ideas


True, we're supposed to respect our elders, especially when they're elder statesmen and stateswomen who are members of a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission. Granted, it's no small thing that this commission reached across the partisan divide to reach a consensus—"a classic Washington compromise," The New York Times reported last week—on Iraq.

But, really, did we need a group of elders to spend nine months to tell us:

That the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating"? That U.S. policy there is "not working" and we need "a new approach"? That a military solution is not the only answer? That there is no "magic formula" for "success" in Iraq? That the U.S. military commitment cannot be "open-ended"?

Ah, but that's just commissionese. Let's forget the blue-ribbon boilerplate and focus on the Iraq Study Group's major recommendations. That's where Washington elder statesmen and women earn their extra lines in the history books. OK, let's. Did we really need a group of elder statespersons to tell us:

That the United States could withdraw its troops by 2008 "subject to unexpected developments on the ground"? (The Pentagon planned troop withdrawals in 2003 and 2006 that were aborted because of unexpected developments, and the administration has consistently said it wanted our troops out as soon as commanders there deemed this practical.)

That the "primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations"? (Isn't this current policy?)

That we need to pressure the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks? (Been there, doing that.)

That we need a diplomatic effort "to engage" Iraq's neighbors—mainly Iran and Syria—"constructively" in stabilizing Iraq? (Wouldn't foreign policy realists argue that Iraq's neighbors would have been doing this with or without U.S. diplomatic engagement if it were in their national interests?)

That Iran should "stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity and use its influence with Iraqi Shiite groups to encourage national reconciliation"? (Doesn't part of this also suggest the need for military engagement, particularly if Iran is uninterested in stemming the flow of arms and training to Iraq?)

That Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents and terrorists in and out of Iraq? (Does this also suggest the need for military engagement, particularly if Syria is uninterested in doing all this?)

Of course, the group's recommendations are bipartisan, which seems to have become the point. Asked why anyone should take this group's recommendations seriously, co-chairman James Baker said it's "the only bipartisan report that's out there."

Well, that settles it, doesn't it?

Of course, bipartisan consensus is not nothing when it comes to Iraq. The more of it we can achieve the better, and the administration would do well to embrace as many of the 79 recommendations as it can, no matter how mushy or un-novel. At the least this would show the public it's doing everything it can to secure success in Iraq.

Moreover, specifics aside, the Iraq Study Group reached an important consensus on what the U.S. goal should be—an important consensus that's missed by those who call the ISG the "Iraq Surrender Group":

Its unmushy consensus is that the U.S. objective should be "success," as President Bush defines success. "We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq set forth by President Bush—an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," Lee Hamilton, an ISG co-chairman, told a news conference.

The group also believes that's still possible. "The task ahead of us is daunting . . .," the former congressman said, "but it is not by any means lost."

Again, that's not nothing.

But bipartisan consensus is also not everything. Iraq most surely requires a political solution, but it also requires a military fix. It also will be good to hear the post-Rumsfeld recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Who knows, they might know more about achieving success on the ground than bipartisan consensus in Washington.

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