Study Some More

Barely two weeks old, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report is viewed by many as having already suffered crib death. Those who shaped the initial disastrous policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East have waged a tenacious and effective counter-attack against the 79 Report recommendations. Somehow, we have now reached a place where the most likely next step on Iraq will be a combination of troop escalation ("surge" in language-massaged neocon speak) and an even more stubborn refusal to talk with the country's neighbors, notably Syria and Iran. While the main culprits continue to be the neocon echo chamber and the apparently immovable ideological blinkers they have applied to this administration, elements of the Democrat and progressive foreign policy community can hardly chalk this up as having been a fortnight of strategically smart behavior.

The ISG continues to be the best tool available in trying to drive both the existing administration's Iraq policy and the neocon stranglehold on regional mischief-making onto the defensive. One can understand and sympathize with those on the progressive side -- Matt Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman here on TAP included -- who expressed their disappointment with the lack of a clear-cut ISG exit strategy. But they and much of the liberal blog community should have appreciated that, politically, one could read between the lines of the Report and appropriate it to push for a new direction on internal Iraq policy. One might also have warmly embraced the regional approach of reengagement and peace promotion that appears in the New Diplomatic Offensive outlined in the Report (to be fair, Yglesias did do this).

The Democratic and progressive foreign policy community responses to the ISG recommendations roughly fell into three categories: knee-jerk rejection, not-invented-here condescension, and strategic embrace. The rejectionists on the left, commenters ranging from Dennis Kucinich to Suzanne Nossel to Atrios to AmericaBlog's writers, failed to appreciate that the report contained ingredients which, if deftly handled, could be spun into a potent mix for a genuine new direction not only for Iraq but also for broader U.S. policy in the region. Meanwhile, some Democratic foreign policy establishment elites kept an aloof distance from the report's recommendations. In a New York Times op-ed page given over to short commentary pieces on the ISG, the two featuring Democrat elder statesman -- Madeleine Albright and Leslie Gelb -- lacked any kind of endorsement.

The smart response -- strategic embrace -- was led by the Center for American Progress, which called on the day of the Report's release for the president "to adopt the recommendations put forth by the Iraq Study Group." A number of Democratic politicians did the same, in particular the senators -- Nelson, Dodd, and Kerry -- who voted with their feet and visited Damascus in the last week. In thumbing their noses at the administration, these senators gave a practical demonstration of what following the recommendations of the report might look like by engaging (not endorsing) America's adversaries in the region. Meanwhile, on the substance-heavy foreign policy side, the International Crisis Group has built on the recommendations in its new "After Baker-Hamilton: What To Do In Iraq" report.

The strategic embrace consists not only of adopting the strategy outlined in the Report, but also of making this adoption a strategy in itself. In political terms, a Democrat push for the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton approach could build alliances with many significant Republicans and thereby wrong-foot the administration, the neocons, and perhaps the congressional GOP leadership. (Senator Hagel as ever led the smart Republican response, building on the ISG in a keynote Middle East address at Johns Hopkins.) Instead we are on the verge of an effective neocon/administration jujitsu move in which Baker-Hamilton is replaced by a troop escalation in Iraq combined with a general increase in U.S. armed forces that may send the new Democratic congress into an apoplexy of infighting and defensiveness. An aggressive Democrat congressional strategy of hearings on the ISG, cross-party alliance-building, and demonstrative actions (like the senatorial Damascus visits) could drive political and public debate and ultimately even policy -- if the administration is ever forced to a crossroads.

The tepid Democrat and progressive foreign policy community response to Baker-Hamilton is all the more surprising given the relish with which neoconservative bastions like the American Enterprise Institute and their minions savaged the Report. If the legions of the Prince of Darkness were so against this, there must be something good in it. The AEI immediately published its "Choosing Victory" counter-proposal. Prince Perle himself described the report as "democracy defeated." Frank Gaffney derided what he called "the Iraq Surrender Group," nicely echoed by The New York Post's depiction of Baker and Hamilton as the Surrender Monkeys. Any neocon miscreant not busy tapping a keyboard in the hours following the Report's publication had apparently been promised a hunting trip with Vice-President Cheney. This was a well-orchestrated campaign and it was partly designed to ensure that the president himself did not go off-reservation.

There has not yet been a concerted counter-offensive; this despite the fact that American public opinion seems to favor the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. In a Pew poll of those who were in any way familiar with the report (52 percent of those surveyed), 60 percent agreed with the recommendations, 17 percent disagreed, and 23 percent didn't know. That same poll showed 69 percent favoring U.S. talks with Iran and Syria, a figure that went up to 75 percent in a WorldPublicOpinionPoll.org survey.

So, over the holiday period, kick back and give the ISG report a second reading, best digested with a helping of the International Crisis Group paper on the side. (ICG makes explicit and develops much of what is implied in Baker-Hamilton.) It's not too late for progressives to change their outlook on this debate.

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The Iraq Study Group paper is divided into three sections -- the assessment of the situation, the way forward on the external approach, and the way forward on the internal approach. The internal approach language is the most nuanced, the external the most forthcoming. The ISG report is not a Delphic blueprint. Not all seventy-nine recommendations have the same degree of validity or coherence. But the report does provide a clear compass if one is willing to see the forest from the trees, factoring in the composition of the commission and its understandable aim of not wanting to publicly scold or abuse the president. I have a sneaking suspicion that in an era in which we have grown used to a vernacular of "axis of evil," "with us or against us," and "mission accomplished," the understated thrust of the internal approach recommendations may have been lost on some readers.

The authors openly recognized that there was no magic or quick-fix solution inside Iraq and they probably assumed that anything too explicit on the most contentious troop draw-down issue would not fly. That question is likely to be resolved by how the triangle of politics, public opinion, and realities on the ground shapes up. But in mentioning a "first quarter of '08" date, in arguing that the current volume of U.S. military resources being tied down in Iraq undermines U.S. response options to other crises (particularly Afghanistan) and negatively affects army readiness levels, and in flagging the danger of domestic polarization and the need for broad public support, the authors are laying down some pretty heavy hints.

Moreover, the internal Iraq section does include some very sound proposals. It advocates that the United States engage with all parties, militia and insurgents included (barring al-Qaeda), and avoid undercutting a far-reaching amnesty. Delaying the Kirkuk referendum, going on record to rule out long-term U.S. military bases or control of oil, and implementing honest budgeting plus an environment in the DOD where the military brass can speak truth to power: these are all crucial suggestions.

The proposed external approach and the New Diplomatic Offensive are in many ways gutsier and more compelling, directly confronting current policy. (Should the authors have entitled this section "Dude, Where's my Diplomacy?" or "Diplomatic Fools and the Foolish Diplomatic Follies they Follow," to generate interest and excitement among the progressive foreign policy community?) The ISG recommends unconditional U.S. diplomatic engagement with all of Iraq's neighbors -- Syria and Iran included -- in a policy that encompasses incentives as well as disincentives. The recommendations lay out the terms for an active return to Israeli-Arab conflict resolution on both the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian/Lebanese tracks. It may seem a statement of the obvious, but it's a narrative that has too often gone missing in action. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Report's "Way Forward" begins with the regional arena, and that the first eighteen recommendations concern the New Diplomatic Offensive. This is where the Report could perhaps have the most impact in actually turning around failed existing policy and presenting a clear alternative direction.

Baker-Hamilton assert that "the dynamics of the region are as important to Iraq as events within Iraq" and that "all key issues in the Middle East -- Arab-Israel, Iran, Iraq, political/economic reform, extremism, and terrorism -- are inextricably linked." This particular truism has been most viciously attacked, often by the same people who so recently espoused the domino effect of democratization in the region. A strawman version of this linkage -- that Israeli-Arab conflict resolution would solve Iraq -- has been knocked down, but this is not the linkage asserted by the Report's authors. Regional issues are inextricably linked, and this is how:

  • The nightly bloody soap opera of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out in the one Arab arena that is fully democratized -- satellite TV -- irrefutably fuels extremism, undermines pragmatism and moderation, and generates a genuine sense of anger and grievance not only with Israel but equally with the United States. A policy approach that seeks to limit and reduce jihadists and extremists to their more manageable and probably natural dimensions cannot be indifferent to the rallying and mobilizing effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • U.S. capacity to achieve its goals in the Middle East, and effectively make asks of its allies requires a modicum of credibility in the region. That credibility is shot. Re-engaging meaningfully on the Israeli-Arab front is not quite the silver bullet for re-establishing credibility. It is, though, an indispensable precondition.

  • The situations in and between Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories, etc, do not exist in isolated bubbles. No one claims that Syria has no impact on the Palestinian, Lebanese or Iraqi situations. The lack of a high-level political dialogue involving all the actors removes key options from the table. Notably, a re-engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian question that shuts Syria out of the discussion unnecessarily stacks the odds against success.

The ISG authors are right to remind us that the "U.S. does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict."

In a remarkably insightful piece in Salon, Gary Kamiya calls the ISG report a "bombshell with a long fuse" -- "as a guide to America's dealings with the Middle East after Bush exits the stage, it could be a crystal ball." The one point on which I might differ with Kamiya is that he, along with others, labels the Baker-Hamilton study "dead on arrival." Here's a final word about "dead on arrival." There was an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace effort known as the Geneva Initiative (in which I took more than a passing interest) that many people felt would suffer the DOA fate. In Kamiya's terms, the Geneva Initiative is still widely acknowledged as the crystal ball blueprint for whenever Israelis and Palestinians go back to negotiating. But its immediate effect was to drive that stubborn old warhorse, Ariel Sharon, to conduct the first ever evacuation of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and to withdraw from Gaza.

A politically deft deployment of Baker-Hamilton may yet move the administration on key aspects of Iraq and regional policy. Failure to strategically embrace the ISG Report as a tool for both moving the Iraq debate and shifting regional policy amounts to handing the neocons victory from the jaws of defeat.

Daniel Levy, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, was an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and Justice Ministry, was a member of the official Israeli negotiating team on the Oslo Accords in 1995 and at Taba in 2001, and was the lead Israeli drafter of the informal Geneva Initiative.

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