The 10 members of the Iraq Study Group may have reached consensus on their 79 recommendations to try to improve the situation in Iraq and ease the way for U.S. withdrawal.

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The 10 members of the Iraq Study Group may have reached consensus on their 79 recommendations to try to improve the situation in Iraq and ease the way for U.S. withdrawal.

But there’s a lot of skepticism today from analysts of all stripes as to how useful the report actually is.

“The report of the Iraq Study Group—which Baker co-chaired with Lee Hamilton, that other Wise Man-wannabe—was doomed to fall short of expectations,” Fred Kaplan writes at the online magazine Slate. “But who knew it would amount to such an amorphous, equivocal grab bag.”

Scorn for the report is particularly prevalent among supporters of President Bush and the war effort. At the conservative political site Real Clear Politics, Robert Trascinski writes:

Few have recognized the empty banality of the ISG report because they have focused on a few seemingly radical recommendations. But all of these recommendations are conditional on events that are unlikely to happen, as became clear in Thursday’s press conference with the members of the commission. …

What the ISG offers us are mere aspirations, with no serious consideration of the concrete means required to fulfill those aspirations.

On the other hand, at the Atlantic, another war supporter, Robert Kaplan, cautions that:

The urge to dismiss the Study Group’s report as a surrender document (as some neoconservatives have already done) is off the mark. Read carefully, it is a tough, intricate policy statement, albeit with serious flaws. There are pages herein that amount to a blueprint for a virtual, second invasion of the country, were Iraqis to cooperate. Some sound bites may declare that ” cut and run ” is the theme of this slim book, but that’s not what the fine print says…. The Administration should co-opt this report — with adjustments, of course. Once again, ignoring some of the sound bites, read completely it is not an especially hostile document from the viewpoint of the Administration. It cries out to be partially plagiarized by the President. If he does not do this, then he will be truly on his own, utterly isolated. The report says that the main benefit of gradually reducing our military footprint in Iraq will be to free up forces to secure Afghanistan. For it isn’t just Iraq that is in the balance, but Afghanistan, too.
In London, Jonathan Steele of the liberal newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that the real purposes of the report from the beginning were to promote Republican goals:

The first purpose was to provide an alibi for the president ahead of last month’s congressional elections. Critics of his disastrous strategy in Iraq could be told that Bush was listening to the American people and understood their concerns. That was why he had set up a blue-ribbon panel to evaluate all options. Nothing was taboo. The tactic did not work, and Bush and his Republican party took a heavy beating. …

The second purpose of the study group was to co-opt the Democrats, to get them behind Bush’s war. Having a bipartisan panel with an equal number of members from both parties was intended to make it hard for Democrats to reject its report. …

What Baker proposes is essentially a continuation of what Bush is already doing — trying to reduce US deaths by moving troops out of the frontline while avoiding any commitment to a full US withdrawal. Baker fails to consider an early withdrawal objectively, describing that option as “precipitate” and “premature”. He admits a timetable is necessary as part of national reconciliation among Iraqis, but says the conciliation has to be agreed before a timetable can be discussed rather than vice versa. Benchmarks will be outlined for when to let the Iraqi army take the lead role in Baghdad and other provinces, but this is all fiction. The Iraqis will still be able to call on US artillery, air strikes and, as a last resort, ground troops. It smells exactly like the Vietnamisation strategy of the 1970s, which was similarly designed to lessen US opposition to an unpopular war.

But how President Bush will use the report remains, in fact, unclear. He already has indicated he intends to ignore parts of it.

The president has already sought to play down the role the report would have in shaping his thinking,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times. “The administration has several reviews of its own under way, and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, began saying as early as October that the White House was ‘not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq.’

“So while Mr. Bush called the report ‘an opportunity to come together and work together’ after receiving it Wednesday, it was no surprise on Capitol Hill that many Democrats were quicker to embrace it than Republicans were.”

But the key test for the ISG report is likley to lie in the realities of the Middle East rather than the political kabuki theater of Washington.

Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post that “while many of its recommendations stem from the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy, it is unclear at this point whether a radically different approach would make much difference nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq.”

Take, for example, the ISG’s suggestion that the U.S. should focus on upgrading Iraqi security forces so key tasks can be handed off to them.

“Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has struggled in vain to tamp down the violence in Iraq and to build up the capacity of Iraq’s security forces,” Michael R. Gordon says in The New York Times. “ “Now the study group is positing that the United States can accomplish in little more than one year what it has failed to carry out in three.a three.”

As study group co-chairman Lee Hamilton has readily acknowledged, Iraq is swirling so perilously close to the drain that it may be too late to effect any meaningful change.