Today there is an abundant supply of news stories analyzing the significance of the President’s meeting with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and explaining the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, even though the recommendations aren’t supposed to be public yet.
All of the abundance can be boiled down to three words: Bush ain’t budgin’.
Let’s start with the Iraq Study Group. A number of news stories strongly imply that the ISG from its inception limited itself to recommendations they thought they might be able to sell to Bush. David Sanger writes for the New York Times:
… The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has shied away from recommending explicit timelines in favor of a vaguely timed pullback. The report that the panel will deliver to President Bush next week would, at a minimum, leave a force of 70,000 or more troops in the country for a long time to come, to train the Iraqis and to insure against collapse of a desperately weak central government. …
… In private, some members of the Iraq Study Group have expressed concern that they could find themselves in not-quite-open confrontation with Mr. Bush. â€œHeâ€™s a true believer,â€ one participant in the groupâ€™s debates said. â€œFinessing the differences is not going to be easy.â€
The group never seriously considered the position that Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who is a leading voice on national security issues, took more than a year ago, that withdrawal should begin immediately. The group did debate timetables, especially after a proposal, backed by influential Democratic members of the commission, that a robust diplomatic strategy and better training of Iraqis be matched up with a clear schedule for withdrawal. But explicit mention of such a schedule was dropped.
Don’t expect any dramatic recommendations from the Iraq Study Group led by Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. The nine men and one woman on the panel are cautious Washington insiders who got picked for the job because of their don’t-rock-the-boat reputations. After all, they might want to get asked again, sometime in the future, to serve on another White House commission.
This is unfortunate because the dire mess in Iraq demands bold action by the U.S. The real solution is a cakewalk out of Iraq tomorrow. The world would stand in shock and awe.
The Washington Post’s article by Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks is headlined “Iraq Panel to Urge Pullout Of Combat Troops by ’08.” Then the weaseling begins: “The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable,” Baker and Ricks write. The famous “conditions on the ground” and all that.
And note that qualifier “combat.” Troops would be left in Iraq in an “advise and support” capacity. So how many troops will be “pulled out” by 2008?
Although it was not clear how many U.S. troops would be left in Iraq by 2008, some people knowledgeable about the commission’s deliberations have said that it might be possible to reduce the force of 140,000 to half by then. “There’ll still be a presence there that will be significant just because of the nature of embedded forces,”said one of the sources familiar with the commission’s report. “It won’t be what we have now, I’ll tell you that.”
In other words, the ISG will recommend reducing the number of troops in Iraq only by half over the next couple of years, but that wouldn’t be a firm commitment.
Judging from the advance leaks and previews, the Baker-Hamilton commission’s upcoming report on Iraq will do exactly what these blue-ribbon salvage jobs are meant to do: a) Stake out a position halfway between the president and his critics without fully satisfying either; b) provide “bipartisan” cover for both sides to shuffle toward middle ground; and yet c) sidestep the central question, which is too unsettling for anyone to face and which can still be kicked down the road for a bit, to everyone’s relief.
The panel’s recommendations seem to be as follows: Shift the U.S. military mission away from combat and more toward support of the Iraqi military (supplying logistics, intelligence, training, and advising); in tandem, cut the U.S. troop presence by roughly half, from 140,000 to 70,000 over the next year or two; redeploy most of them to the gigantic bases that we’ve been constructing inside Iraq over the past three years; and reach out diplomatically to Iraq’s neighborsâ€”including Iran and Syriaâ€”to help stabilize the country and keep its conflicts from spreading across the region.
Walter Shapiro writes that “It is easy to guess why the commission has apparently confused blandness with boldness: an irresistible temptation to tiptoe through the tulips in trying to sway the dead-enders in the White House.” The problem with this “middle ground” approach is that, so far, all indications are that President Bush won’t budge from his “on to victory” position (formerly known as the “stay the course” position). Richard Wolffe writes in Newsweek:
The [Bush – al-Maliki] summit was in many ways a pre-emptive strike against next weekâ€™s much-anticipated report by the study group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker. Some pundits have suggested that Baker is running a kind of shadow national security council, as if he (and the presidentâ€™s father) could run the place better than the current team.
Bushâ€™s response has been clear all week: heâ€™s running the real White House, and he doesnâ€™t think much of the shadow teamâ€™s ideas. Talks with Syria? Not a chanceâ€”theyâ€™ll think weâ€™re letting them â€œoff the hookâ€ for their bad behavior in Lebanon. Talks with Iran? Even less likelyâ€”theyâ€™ll think we donâ€™t care about their nuclear ambitions. Troop withdrawals? Not realistic any time soon. â€œI know thereâ€™s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean thereâ€™s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,â€ Bush said. â€œWeâ€™re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.â€
Joe Conason writes at Salon that Bush isn’t fond of the ISG’s other recommendations.
According to every leak and rumor, the Iraq Study Group is expected to urge President Bush to directly “engage” with Syria and Iran as part of a broader strategy to curtail the chaotic communal violence that is slaughtering so many Iraqis every day. Although the president has not denounced that idea publicly, he and Vice President Cheney are widely expected to ignore any such advice. Sitting down with hostile regimes to settle differences is not consistent with their philosophy of power, in which America speaks and others listen.
Michael Hirsch says, in effect, that the ISG is a waste of time:
Here’s why the Baker-Hamilton report is destined to land with a thud, after weeks of messianic hype. According to sources who have seen the draft report introduced this week, the group will recommend deeper engagement with Iran and Syria in hopes these countries can help us quell the violence in Iraq. But George W. Bush, who remains a true neocon believerâ€””It’s the regime, stupid”â€”is very unlikely to cut deals with such evil states, except in the most foot-dragging way. In any case, with each passing week Iraq’s sectarian fratricide makes these neighboring countries less and less relevant. One doesn’t have to be trained by Hizbullah or the Iranian secret service to grab a few Sunnis off the street every night and shoot them in the head. But until those killings stop, the yes-it-is-a-civil war-no-it’s-not-a-civil-war in Iraq will continue to rage out of control.
The James Baker-Lee Hamilton group will also recommend tackling the problem of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But this central issue of Islamist discontent no longer has much to do with the violence in Iraq, just as the violence has less and less to do with Al Qaeda. The neocon fantasists, in their headiest days, used to say that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad.” This meant that somehow, in ways they could never spell out, the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be resolved after democracy was achieved in Iraq. Now Baker’s thought seems to be that the road to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem. This is just as silly as the earlier idea. Take this down: the road to Baghdad goes through Iraq.
Above all, sources indicate the Baker-Hamilton group will fudge the issue of what the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq should be, and what a specific timetable for withdrawal should look like. This means that, almost as soon as the report comes out in early December, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be able to ignore it, and he likely will. Prominent Democrats like Sens. Carl Levin, Jack Reed and Joseph Biden will begin to dismiss it and reintroduce their own plans. Biden, for example, plans to hold six weeks of hearings in January, after he takes over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that will quickly turn Baker-Hamilton into a relic of that long-ago autumn of 2006.
Bottom line, the ISG was less a study group than a collection of appeasers. Instead of trying to craft the policy that is best for the U.S., our troops, and Iraq, they tried to put together something that might appease voters by making Iraq less of a hot button in 2008 while also appeasing Bush, who is determined not to change his position. It’s already clear that they failed to appease Bush. I doubt voters are going to be enthusiastic about the ISG recommendations, either.
That said, I am not confident that Joe Biden will come up with a bolder plan than the ISG; we’ll see. But televised hearings have a capacity to surprise and lead to results — good and bad — that weren’t necessarily on the agenda. Stay tuned.