The report concludes from the outset that the failure of local and regional actors to act rationally,and not any obviously crazy American policy, lies at the heart of Iraqi instability and the threat of regional Sunni and Shi’a clashes. The question is whether any American redeployment — any American policy for that matter — can alter this given the premise? Not obviously, but it doesn’t keep the ISG from trying.
The heart of ISG’s proposed solution is to add moving parts to the problem. This takes three forms:
- creating a forum at which Iraq’s neighbors will be invited to exert their influence in the internal affairs of Iraq;
- linking the legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program to any help it can provide to stabilize Iraq (page 53); and
- linking Iraq to a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Actually the report offers more than that. It promises the Sunnis that America will hold Afghanistan together and offers “prospects for a real, complete, and secure peace to be negotiated between Israel and Syria, with U.S. involvement as part of a broader initiative on Arab-Israeli peace as outlined.” The diplomatic mechanism for this process, called the New Diplomatic Offensive, includes not only an Iraqi International Support Group, to consist of neighbors who up until now, have been doing their level best to fuel unrest in Iraq, but also the Group of Five — the Security Council — to horse trade with Iran on the question of much subversion it will spare Iraq in exchange for a reduction of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program — and also the Quartet group of countries to help broker a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
The normal approach to a difficult problem would be to bound or simplify it. But the ISG recommendations try the exact opposite: it adds complexity to the already complex situation.
There are two obvious problems with this approach. First is that Iraqi diplomatic success becomes dependent on the contingent. How can the ISG group have any reasonable expectation of promising the Iraqi International Support Group a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace? Waiting to spend a check that’s been in the mail for decades is testimony to optimism, perhaps more optimism than Iraq has been allowed. Second, and of more concern, is that a regional forum runs the risk of regionalizing the national conflicts in Iraq. Each party, Turkey, the Gulf States, Iran and Syria, will seek to maximize its interests within the new framework the ISG wants to establish. And since each won’t get it all in the nature of things, they’ll do what they always do: intimidate and scheme, but on a regional scale. What the Iraqi International Support Group will unquestionably do is legitimize regional interests in Iraqi internal affairs.
The report also suggests that a redeployment of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan is desirable. Why it makes sense to move American combat power away from the oil fields to a country even less stable than Iraq I will leave the readers to decide. Maybe this is because there is still broad perceived support for Afghanistan, though of course this is true only as long as Iraq remains the focus. But taken together with the undertaking to bring regional elements into Iraq, and linking its internal issues with regional ambitions, the undertaking to move the guards out the back while the guests come in the front may have some associated risks.
It is at any rate, unfair to describe the ISG recommendations as a reduction of American commitment overseas. They are a redeployment of American military and diplomatic resources on what is, if anything, a broader Middle Eastern front.
Recommendations 15 and 16 exemplify this tendency to widen the problem in order to solve it. In this verbatim extract from the ISG report, issues in Lebanon are coupled to security on the Syrian-Iraq border. The intractable is combined with the insoluble. Concessions are offered in the Golan Heights and American troops potentially committed into the bargain. And remember, this is the Iraq Study Group.
RECOMMENDATION 15: Concerning Syria, some elements of that negotiated peace should be:
– Syria’s full adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006, which provides the framework for Lebanon to regain sovereign control over its territory.
– Syria’s full cooperation with all investigations into political assassinations in Lebanon, especially those of Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel.
– A verifiable cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah and the use of Syrian territory for transshipment of Iranian weapons and aid to Hezbollah. (This step would do much to solve Israel’s problem with Hezbollah.)
– Syria’s use of its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of the captured Israeli Defense Force soldiers.
– A verifiable cessation of Syrian efforts to undermine the democratically elected government of Lebanon.
– A verifiable cessation of arms shipments from or transiting through Syria for Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups.
– A Syrian commitment to help obtain from Hamas an acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist.
– Greater Syrian efforts to seal its border with Iraq.
RECOMMENDATION 16: In exchange for these actions and in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops if requested by both parties.
Recommendations 20 and 21 underscore the potentially lethal interplay between the "external" and "internal" recommendations of the ISG.
RECOMMENDATION 20: If the Iraqi government demonstrates political will and makes substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should make clear its willingness to continue training, assistance, and support for Iraq’s security forces, and to continue political, military, and economic support for the Iraqi government. As Iraq becomes more capable of governing, defending, and sustaining itself, the U.S. military and civilian presence in Iraq can be reduced.
RECOMMENDATION 21: 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.
The Iraq Government might well respond to any American threat to "reduce its political, military, or economic support" by offering the role to another member of the Iraqi International Support Group. And dissatisfied factions might invite a rival member of the Iraqi International Support group to likewise, for example.
In sum, the ISG makes an attempt to reduce tensions in Iraq by engaging the parties responsible for the problem, but not in a way that obviously reduces their incentives to compete. The study reiterates the need for a stable and defensible Iraq while inviting regional "involvement" and undertaking to move American strength elsewhere. The effort might succeed, though it is not obvious why anyone should expect it to.