No Middle Ground

Given the specific lineup of the 10 wise men and women serving on the Iraq Study Group, the most conspicuous absence is that of supermodel Heidi Klum. Sure, she has no relevant experience in foreign policy, nor any real knowledge of Iraq -- but neither do commissioners Sandra Day O'Connor, Vernon Jordan, Alan Simpson, or Edwin Meese. What Klum does have to offer is a lesson completely lost on the commission, one taught each week on her hit reality show Project Runway: you're either in, or you're out. When it comes to Iraq, it's good advice.

From the commission's perspective, however, such advice would represent a dangerous breakdown of Washington's most enlightened foreign-policy tradition -- that is to say, bipartisanship. The Iraq Study Group, led by George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, and 9-11 Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton, made a point from the outset of its work to rule out the outer boundaries of the Iraq debate. Its report refuses to bless the idea of sending new combat forces to Baghdad, the favored solution of hawks like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman; and it also blanches at what Baker called "precipitous withdrawal," the position held by many in the Democratic Party, the country as a whole, Iraq, and the world. A safe consensus is what the commission is out for, as reflected by the name for their strategy: "responsible transition." That's something that anyone could embrace. (Except, well, George W. Bush.)

The trouble is that the Iraq Study Group is ultimately providing false hope for an extended war. Its assessment is appropriately bleak. For example, "Key Shia and Kurdish leaders," the commission finds, "have little commitment to national reconciliation." Now, given that these leaders comprise the Iraqi government, one might think that would lead to the conclusion that Iraq is doomed to an intensifying sectarian conflict, and unless one believes it is in the United States' interest to pick a side in someone else's civil war, that means it's time to go home. Instead, the commission, despite its own better judgment in its report, is gearing up for what Hamilton called "one last chance at making Iraq work." It's hard to see what's responsible about this.

The most robust recommendation contained within "responsible transition" is to deemphasize U.S. combat missions and increasingly emphasize the training of Iraqi security forces. And despite the hostility that President Bush has shown to the Iraq Study Group -- as evidenced by his recent remark that "a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all" -- withdrawal of U.S. troops from combat is also the option that a parallel Pentagon review is likely to embrace. Indeed, the most significant recommendation in the report is the idea that 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." At first blush, it's a dramatic statement: in little more than a year, Iraq won't be our war anymore.

But take a closer look. First, the commission isn't actually calling for withdrawal; it's calling for a reorientation of military effort -- troops won't conduct combat missions, they'll just be helping Iraqi forces conduct them. This is new lipstick on a very old pig. Despite what the commissioners said at today's press conference, it's just a marginal tinkering with the years-old strategy of "putting an Iraqi face" on security operations.

Second, the commissioners say that we "must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq." But that's exactly what the commission's recommendation entails. I asked the Iraq Study Group how many troops the training mission would require, and for how long. Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese gave the vaguest of answers, but he did say that it would necessitate "a considerable force" for logistics, training, force protection, and special operations. "We don't say specifically how long it will last," but it will require a "sustained period of time." There's a reason why the Pentagon is calling this the "Go Long" option.

Finally, it's unrealistic to suggest that with such a U.S. force in Iraq for such an indefinite timeframe, forces won't respond to insurgent or death-squad attacks if either directly fired upon or if their Iraqi counterparts aren't up to the challenge. Indeed, if U.S. troops are in a combat situation but are not positioned to respond as such, the Iraq Study Group's wishful thinking -- and the Pentagon's -- will put them in the worst of all possible situations.

Similarly, the commission's assessment of the Iraqi government undermines its recommendations instead of supporting them. The Shiites are said to be "hostage to extremes." The Sunnis "have not made the strategic decision to abandon violent insurgency in favor of the political process." (In truth, the Sunnis believe they can win a civil war, and are seeking both parliamentary strength and insurgency to do so.) And the Kurds want out at some point in the future. The commission quotes a senior U.S. general as saying that the Iraqis "still do not know what kind of country they want to have." The bottom line, the commission says rather aptly, is "there are many armed groups within Iraq, and very little will to lay down arms." Put differently, each side believes it has more to gain through war than through negotiation.

The commission is right about this. Where it goes wrong is in its recommendation that we should be actively supporting an Iraqi political process that is hostage to such dysfunction and sectarian chaos. After all, if none of the relevant actors within the Iraqi government or in the political structure at large is interested in peace, pressuring them to just make nice with one another isn't going to work. Indeed, the commission gets downright incoherent on this point. "A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe," it warns, but in the next breath argues that "if the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government." But to be as fearful of chaos as the commission sounds in the first line should make the commission cling even harder to the Iraqi government.

Worse still, it's not even clear that the commission knows what it means by "national reconciliation." The proposals go from vague to vaguer: a constitutional "review"; a rollback of de-Baathification; the sharing of oil wealth. To say that the lack of cross-sectarian trust will create differing understandings of what this all means is the understatement of the year. This is exactly why the 2005 constitution proved to be the spark for the sectarian powder keg: if everyone was simply bargaining over a piece of the pie, a compromise could be reached. But the Sunnis aren't merely registering their grievances over their lack of resource wealth -- their marches inveighed against the "Zionist-American-Iranian Constitution." Indeed, it's because of this very deeply felt sectarian distrust that the training of Iraqi security forces has only served to equip and prepare more and more combatants for the civil war.

There is something of an upshot to the commission, however. Even though it doesn't really propose ending the war, it will shift the Iraq debate in favor of the modalities of extrication. Welcome to 1968: everyone knows the war must end and victory is unachievable, but the will to actually withdraw in full remains unpalatable to the political class. Bush will have a very hard time recommitting the country to a chimerical "victory" in Iraq. But in the name of “responsibility,” thousands more will die, for years and years, as the situation deteriorates further. Someone, at sometime, will finally have to say "enough," and get the United States out. Even Heidi Klum understands that.

Spencer Ackerman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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