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The unbearable shallowness of the Iraq Study Group.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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For the second time since 9/11, Americans have been treated to the undemocratic phenomenon of private citizens assuming the responsibilities and prerogatives of elected officials. First we had the 9/11 Commission. Not content to present its findings and recommendations to the president and Congress, the commission went on a nationwide lobbying campaign to persuade America, and pressure its representatives, into accepting its "advice." Now we have the Baker-Hamilton Commission, officially known as the Iraq Study Group, self-consciously following in its predecessor's footsteps.

From its paltry discussion of America's counterinsurgency in Iraq, to its recommendations about troop levels, to its scathing condemnation of American diplomacy under Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi politics under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to its embrace of "engagement" with Syria and Iran, and to its unstated but clear call for American pressure on Israel to concede more "land-for-peace" to the Palestinians, the ISG report is strong on assertions but weak on arguments. Let us look quickly at the commission's core commentary and recommendations, starting with Iraq, and then, like the report, radiating outward toward Iraq's neighbors.

The ISG opens by telling us that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating" and that the country "is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to U.S. interests," but then fails to tell us what the U.S. military has done right or wrong since 2003. Nowhere in the report can we find a thoughtful discussion of those counterinsurgency campaigns where the American military has done well (Tal Afar) and those where it has done poorly (most of our operations in Baghdad since the fall of 2003). I suspect that the ISG has not done so because any serious review of the past would give the reader a profound sensation of déja vu: Baker and Hamilton assert boldly that their commission's conclusions do not amount to "staying the course." Yet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his generals John Abizaid and George Casey could have written the report's Iraq portions. Take a look at Secretary Rumsfeld's final "options" memorandum, and read the ISG report. The similarities are overwhelming.

For three years, Rumsfeld and Abizaid have tried to train Iraqi military and police forces to replace U.S. soldiers. They stand up, we stand down. For three years, American and allied troops have increasingly withdrawn from directly policing Iraqi cities and roads. The result: a Sunni Arab insurgency and holy war against Shiite Arabs and Kurds that has slaughtered tens of thousands and engendered enormous anger in the Arab Shiite community, which had been defined in 2003 and 2004 by its astonishing forbearance. A once moderate Shiite community has radicalized. The Shia now seek protection from their own pitiless men. Where once Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a bulwark of moderation and pro-democratic spirit, could check the young firebrand Moktada al-Sadr in the Shiite slums of Baghdad, now Sadr, if he chooses to, can overwhelm Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Sistani's power. As America's feeble counterinsurgency strategy--aptly named by General Abizaid a "light footprint"--helped wreck Iraqi society, Rumsfeld scolded the Iraqis for not doing enough.

And what does the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommend? More of the same, except faster. We are going to embed more troops and contractors in Iraqi military and police units as America simultaneously withdraws from Iraq? This is a strategy, already proven wrong, that can end only in the collapse of the Iraqi army, numerous American hostages, and a pointless increase in U.S. casualty rates. Embedding more U.S. soldiers in Iraqi military units is a good idea--an American presence among Iraqis clearly fortifies the confidence and combat potential of these units. But this is at best--as we have learned over and over again since 2003--a long-term approach to building an Iraqi army capable of waging perhaps the most tactically and spiritually challenging of all military exercises--counterinsurgency and urban warfare.