Baker and Hamilton and Hope

While I cannot muster a full analysis of the Iraq Study Group Report, below are some off the cuff reactions. I will generally leave out the many points I agree with, other than to comment that I was pleasantly surprised by the Report's realistic and hard-headed take, having expected more sugar-coating to placate Bush. There's also something almost touchingly idealistic and optimistic about the Report, which lays out a lot of really difficult-to-accomplish and probably far-fetched goals in plain terms that makes them sound achievable.

The New Diplomatic Offensive

In arguing for a "diplomatic offensive" (personally I would leave out the offensive part), the Report's claim is that Iran and Syria have an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq. But is this motivation more powerful than their incentive in seeing the US continue to stew alone in its juices in Iraq when our Iraqi preoccupation, as the Report acknowledges, stands in the way of our aggressively confronting, for example, Iran's nuclear program? The Report suggests that Iran will look bad if it stands aloof from a regional process, but they'll undoubtedly couch the refusal to play so that it sounds like we refused to engage them on their own terms.

As for other regional neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, who are more favorably disposed toward the US, I am skeptical that they'll be willing to assume the risks associated with aggressive border patrols, providing military assistance, and the other kinds of support suggested in recommendation #2. It would be great if it happened, but I don't think we have the leverage to force it, and I don't see these countries coming to our aid voluntarily right now.

I have the same fear re the UNSC P5 and countries like Germany and Japan. The threat posed to them by a failed state in Iraq is pretty remote, and the Bush Administration has yet to eat the kind of humble pie that would be required to induce them to lend a serious hand. They won't refuse to participate, but once at the table getting concrete commitments will be slow and difficult. Knowing that this will be a very tough sell in capitals, will Bush be willing to attempt it at the risk of failure? Unclear.

The Report also argues, on p 44, that the morass of Middle East issues - Iran, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon etc. are inextricably linked and must all be addressed in the context of a regional diplomatic initiative to enlist help on Iraq. But while I agree completely that the US should play - and has in recent years wrongly abdicated - a leadership role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians and Arabs, the case for the near-term linkage between such efforts and a resolution in Iraq is not made clear.

Prospects that a lame duck, widely discredited Bush Administration can successfully broker an Israel-Palestine settlement in this environment (Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, etc.) are at best remote. The Report suggests that nonetheless the credit the US will get for trying will have a material positive impact on Iraq's neighbor's willingness to cooperate with us. I doubt it, and frankly wonder whether the Administration has the leverage, bandwidth or energy to mount a MEPP effort right now (particularly given the parallel need for renewed efforts in Afghanistan). They made several half-hearted such attempts in the early days of their first term only to retreat once progress proved difficult, and my fear is a renewed push would similarly sputter out.

Moving on to recommendations 20 onward which deal with, in layman's terms, the Iraqi government's (in)ability to get its act together, the Report resorts to the suggestion that its simply a matter of the Iraqi government's willingness to pull itself up by its bootstraps. But the introductory section of the Report details al-Maliki's dependence on Sadr and other factors that make it clear that he can't push through things like a reverse de-Baathification law without risking his life, his government or both.

Likewise on oil revenue, the Report calls for a population-based formula for sharing the wealth, despite an earlier conclusion that some essential predicates for such a system - such as a reliable census - don't exist in Iraq and won't for some time.

In the section on military operations (recommendation 40 onward) its unclear what exactly the incentive is for the Iraqi government to get its act together, since we're pledging to leave if they do or if they don't. Personally I don't believe that the obstacle to greater Iraqi control over conditions on the ground is lack of incentive, but the Study Group seems to think that is a factor, so their proposal to leave in either scenario is confusing. The idea may be that the prospect of continuing economic aid helps drive the Iraqi government to forge reconciliation to an extent not yet seen.

One under-addressed point in this section is the raging popular mistrust of Iraqi security forces and perceptions of sectarianism. This won't be resolved with larger numbers or more training. The introduction to the Report addresses this, referencing the infiltration of the Iraqi police by the Badr Brigade. Yet the recommendations section leaves out how to address it.

Overall, there seems to be a disconnect between the time it will take to continue to get the Iraqi military up to speed given the shortcomings the Report sites, and the Q1 2008 departure date set out for all US combat troops. The reality seems to be the our departure will leave a gaping, essentially unfillable in the medium-term security gap. This may not be a reason to stay, but it needs to be faced.

Suzanne Nossel blogs regularly at www.democracyarsenal.org