I was privileged to serve as one of the “expert” advisers to the Iraq Study Group (ISG), along with former ambassadors and CIA operatives, retired military officers and distinguished academics. It was a stimulating, edifying, and — ultimately — disappointing experience.
We were divided from the start: A minority thought the mission was to find a way forward in Iraq; a majority thought the mission was to find a way out of Iraq, a way to manage what they view as America’s inevitable defeat.
The ISG principals, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, ended up splitting the difference. They entitled their report: “The Way Forward — A New Approach.” But their 79 recommendations do not add up to an innovative or robust plan to salvage a difficult situation. What they propose instead is slow-motion surrender — not cut and run, but something like cut and slink away by 2008.
I am not starry-eyed about what can be achieved in Iraq. We have made too many mistakes in a land suffering from too much pathology, and surrounded by too many malevolent neighbors. President Bush’s original vision of helping Iraqis build a nation that would provide “an inspiring example to reformers in the region” no longer looks attainable. But there is a middle ground between achieving “victory” thus defined and resigning ourselves to catastrophic failure with ramifications we would feel for decades.
In that middle ground is what both Bush and the ISG agree should now be our modest goal: helping Iraqis build a decent state that can “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.” Surely there are ways to get there from here — ways the ISG did not recommend to the president.
We might start by stabilizing Baghdad — as we said we would. When the United States says it’s going to do something that should not mean trying for a while, then giving up. If stabilizing Baghdad requires more troops — or different commanders — send them. A victory in the Battle of Baghdad, the most diverse area of Iraq with more than a quarter of the country’s population, would have major and beneficial consequences.
Second, we are at war with al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s most lethal forces are in Iraq. So we must stay and fight them in Iraq. We don’t flee the battleground.
Third, when we chased Saddam Hussein from his palaces, we thought we had broken his regime. Big error. Baathist insurgents still need to be hunted down.
Fourth, we have to deal with the regimes in Iran and Syria. That means finally demonstrating that we can and will hurt them if they to continue to conspire to kill Americans and Iraqis who work with us. Once that is done, once they understand we have the power and the will to take them on, sitting down to talk may make sense.
Fifth, we intensify and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces so that sooner, rather than later, they can stand up to the bad guys on their own.
Sixth, we act as an honest broker between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. Who else can play that role? It may be that these populations need fences to be good neighbors — a process of separation is already underway. We can make that process less painful and perilous. We ought to consider what Brookings scholar Michael O’Hanlon calls the Bosnian model: Each of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups would establish autonomy within a unitary Iraqi state. Oil wealth would be shared by all cooperating and stabilized areas of the country.
Iraqis are not hopeless. But insurgents, terrorists, and death squads have effectively used violence to persuade many to relinquish dreams of freedom in exchange for security. Made-for-TV violence has caused Americans to despair as well.
George Orwell wrote: “The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory.”
That is precisely how much of the political class sees the conflict in Iraq. But most Americans disagree. Gallup polls have consistently found no less than 60 percent of us believe the U.S. has not been defeated and can still win. Next month, President Bush will have what is probably his last chance to tell Americans they are right; to tell us we can move forward in the Battle of Iraq and the broader war against freedom’s 21st century enemies; to tell us that he has a new and much improved strategy that deserves our renewed support.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.