Politics & Policy

Studying the War

How the ISG did. What the ISG did.

In the wake of the release of the Iraq Study Group’s report, National Review Online asked a group of experts What does the Iraq Study Group’s report change, if anything? What would be the administration’s most constructive response to it?

Peter Brookes

The Iraq Study Group got some of it right — and some of it wrong. The report was right to call for putting the Iraqi government on notice regarding its responsibilities for security and national reconciliation; pumping up Iraqi army and police training; rejecting the partition of Iraq; and discarding the idea of an immediate withdrawal with specific timelines.

The report also correctly recognized that the struggle in Iraq includes the fight against al Qaeda — a point many seem to have forgotten.

The ISG was wrong to call for the U.S. to invite Iran and Syria to play a greater role in Iraq. They’re a big part of the problem — and can’t be trusted to be part of the solution. Plus the quid pro quos for cooperation — such as giving Iran a pass on its nuke program and letting Syria back into Lebanon — would be too high.

In the end, the report provided some good food for thought — and will add texture to the Iraq reviews that both the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council already have underway. All three will provide the president with a good point of departure for adjusting our strategy and tactics in Iraq.

– Heritage Fellow Senior Fellow Peter Brookes is the author of A Devil’s Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States.

Victor Davis Hanson

First impressions? The bit about Libya was surreal — as if it would have ever acted reasonably without the American removal of Saddam. Reading this I felt a great deal of sadness for the brave Lebanese that resisted Syrian threats for the idea of a democratic and free nation, or the Iranians who resist the mullahs, or the millions of Iraqis who voted in numbers proportionally greater than our own electorate. Did it all come to this?

The report is strange, to say the least — like a depressed doctor who makes the proper diagnosis of a formidable brain tumor, but then in panic prescribes hip surgery.

I would hate to see this group’s suggestion for Lincoln around July, 1864, or to Churchill about March, 1942, or to Truman in December, 1950: e.g., call in McClellan or the U.K. to negotiate with Jefferson Davis; let the British Royal Family and Stanley Baldwin in concert with Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland find some polite and face-saving accommodation with the Third Reich and Japan; or have three-party talks with Mao and Stalin to stop the southward drive of the Peoples’ Army through North Korea?

Do we really believe that Iran and Syria fear chaos in the region, when chaos alone gives them a reprieve from U.S., U.N., and European scrutiny about serial assassination, terrorist promotion, and nuclear acquisition? For all the Arabist solidarity rhetoric, compared to the frightening specter of a democratic and prosperous Iraq on their borders, a returned Golan Heights, or Israeli-free West Bank means little to Syria or Iran. Did we learn after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza, or the pre-9/11 American sudden flight from Lebanon and Somalia, that perceptions are far more important in the Middle East than even land?

Rightly or wrongly we are in high-stakes struggle for the future of the post 9/11 Middle East, and those who are part of the problem surely won’t be part of a reasonable solution –unless the perceived solution is in their interest.

And what would that be? Hands-off current multilateral investigations, a blind eye to Lebanon, Israeli concessions, an “honorable” withdrawal of U.S. forces with assurances of a year or two grace period before the Finlandization of Iraq ensues.

I was struck by Sec. Baker’s tough quip that we talked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War (so why not Iran or Syria?) — as if either of those rogue states (so far) has 7,000 nukes pointed at the U.S. Suddenly, apparently Iran and Syria have assumed the terrifying proportions of the Red Army with 400 divisions on the border of West Germany?

This talk that there is no military solution is only half-true; only a sense that the jihadists can’t win militarily and their supporters have much to lose by allying with them, and much to gain by not, will give the political process of reconciliation the critical window it needs.

The present readjustments of putting more Americans within Iraqi units, changing the ratio of rear echelon to forward-based troops, and widening the parameters of offensive action could provide that window. I wish the Iraqi Study Group had suggested, George Marshall-like, that they were looking for a colonel or one-star general who wished to be a four-star commander of a victorious American army. Somewhere amid the ranks we have still confident, gifted military officers who believe that they have the know-how and expertise to stop these killers, provide stability for the political process to continue — and impart a victory to the United States.

– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War .

Clifford D. May

The cover of the Iraq Study Group report is red, white, and blue. The title sounds promising: “The Way Forward — A New Approach.” It’s pretty much downhill from there.

True, ISG co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton do say: “[W]e believe it would be wrong for the United States to abandon [Iraq] through a precipitate withdrawal of troops and support. A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions.”

They add: “We agree with the goal of U.S. policy as stated by the president: an Iraq than can ‘govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.’”

The report then goes on to propose 79 recommendations that range from the obvious (“The United States should encourage dialogue between sectarian communities”) to the fatuous (“Diplomatic efforts …should seek to persuade Iran that it should take specific steps to improve the situation in Iraq.”).

I am disappointed — the more so because I had been cautiously optimistic. The “experts working group” which advised the ISG principals — and on which I served — was divided. On one side were the few of us who believed our mission was to provide creative options to move forward in Iraq. On the other side were the majority of the “experts” who believed the mission was to find a way out of Iraq — a “graceful exit,” as President Bush has put it.

I had reason to hope the principles would adopt the former approach; the report’s title and stated goal appeared to bear that out. But as I’ve read the report it has become clear that the principals did not will the means necessary to achieve the ends they profess to desire.

The report’s authors seem to have given little thought to what it would require to actually defeat the barbarians dispatching suicide bombers to slaughter Iraqi civilians. They put a lot of stock in what they call a “New Diplomatic Offensive.” This might be called a faith-based initiative: It expresses the conviction that America’s enemies are really friends who have been inadequately exposed to the discreet charms of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Finally, it should be clear that the president has been ill-served by a process that transmogrified a laundry list of uninspired proposals into The Law, written in stone and handed down from Sinai. If Bush does not embrace these 79 Commandments, he will be branded a sinner – at least by the mainstream media.

I’m certain that Baker, Hamilton et al. worked hard and meant well. Let’s hope this is not the effort that caps their long careers.

– 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.

David Schenker

This was a great week for Syria. First, Hezbollah moved one step closer to toppling the democratically elected Lebanese government. Then, Damascus’s leading nemesis, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, submitted his resignation to President Bush. Still basking in the warm afterglow of Bolton’s departure, on Wednesday Syria seemingly hit the trifecta when the Iraq Study Group Report advocated U.S. diplomatic reengagement with Damascus.

The Assad regime, the ISG tells us, has “indicated that they want a dialogue” with the US. And so even though the report says the insurgency is indigenous in nature — that the estimated 1,300 foreign fighters in Iraq play only a “supporting role” in the violence — the ISG nevertheless recommends engaging Syria as a critical component of our diplomatic offensive on Iraq.

We are likewise told that we can find “common ground” to move forward with the Syrians on Iraq. Like us, according to the ISG, Damascus doesn’t want Iraq to disintegrate. The prescription: the US should incentivize a change in unproductive Syrian behavior, and “encourage and persuade” Damascus to stop undermining Iraq. Then, the US should broker an international peace conference that would end Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and stop the meddling in Lebanon. In exchange, Syria would get the Golan.

Sound familiar? It should — much of these recommendations serve as the foundation of the longstanding U.S.-Syria policy. Indeed, the advice more or less amounts to a rehash of what has essentially proven to be a decades-old failed U.S.-Syria policy.

It’s understandable, of course. For some 30 years, U.S policymakers have tried unsuccessfully to find formulas to leverage pressure against the Asad regime and/or incentivize behavior change. So it’s not surprising that the ISG Report did not offer any new or creative approaches. But the vehemence with which these recommendations are offered seemingly ignores the historical ineffectiveness of the policy. Simply put, what has changed that would entice Damascus to change its stripes now?

Given ongoing developments in Lebanon, the timing of these particular recommendations could not be worse. Conversely, for Syria the trend line could not be better. The International Court is on the ropes, Assad looks like he’ll slip the noose for the Hariri killing, and Syria’s ally Hezbollah is about to dislodge one of the few unabashedly pro-Western governments in the region. And now from Syria’s vantage, the ISG is advocating that Washington sue for peace. In this context, it’s hard to see how following ISG recommendations to engage Syria will help.

– David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Polic y. From 2002 to 2006, he was the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian-affairs adviser in the office of the secretary of Defense.

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