Baker's Study Group is Good News for Iraq, But Could Be Bad News for Iran

Baker's Study Group is Good News for Iraq, But Could Be Bad News for Iran
Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy,, October 18, 2006

First, the good news. The expected recommendations of James Baker's "Iraq Study Group" are partial victories for the people of Iraq and for the anti-war movement in the United States.

The New York Sun reported on October 12 that the bipartisan commission formed by Congress with the backing of the Bush Administration is considering two option papers, "Stability First" and "Redeploy and Contain," both of which challenge red lines that have been put down by the Bush Administration.

"Stability First" argues that the military should focus on stabilizing Baghdad while the American Embassy should work toward political accommodation with insurgents. A follow-up report in the Los Angeles Times on October 16 highlights the fact that part of this recommendation is that the U.S. should reach out to Iran and Syria.

The other option, "Redeploy and Contain," goes further. It calls for a gradual, phased withdrawal of American troops to bases outside Iraq where they would be available for strikes against terrorist organizations anywhere in the region.

Until now the Bush Administration has refused the idea of direct negotiations with Syria and Iran, and also refused the idea of withdrawing troops from Iraq. It's good news that the Baker commission will put these on the table. It will give these commonsense ideas mainstream legitimacy, make it hard for the Bush Administration to dismiss them, and also give the administration political cover should it decide to adopt them.

And as it would be a very good thing for the world if the US withdrew its troops from Iraq, and opened serious negotiations with Iran and Syria, that's good news.

But some cautions are in order. One is general. The fact that these ideas are being floated four weeks before an election is no guarantee that they will be acted on afterwards. And even if they are acted on, there is a danger that the US will precede them with a last-minute spasm of violence: this is a pattern for imperial powers when they are forced to withdraw, "to prove that they are not being forced to withdraw." Perhaps to mute the celebrations with mourning.

But there is a longer-term caution: what happens next. Withdrawal of US troops "to bases outside Iraq where they would be available for strikes against terrorist organizations anywhere in the region" could just be a way of saying: we're not running away.

Or it could be aimed at Iran.

Some folks whose knowledge and experience command attention think a U.S. attack on Iran could be imminent. Indeed, Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner says a military operation has already begun inside Iran. "The issue is not whether the military option would be used but who approved the start of operations already," he says. U.S. warships are moving towards the region, and plans for air strikes and naval blockades have been updated, he has noted.

Of course, these moves would be useful if the U.S. were to attack Iran, and they would also be useful if the U.S. wants Iran to think that it may attack, without committing itself to doing so.

Others argue that there's no way the U.S. is going to openly attack Iran with 140,000 troops bogged down in Iraq. It's not just that these troops are otherwise occupied -- they present an attractive target for retaliation.

But what if there weren't 140,000 US troops in Iraq - what then?

It seems likely that the U.S. threats to attack Iran would increase - just as the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza turned out to be a prelude to a new wave of attacks. "See," the US could say, "we withdrew. So what's going on now in Iraq is not our fault. It's Iran's fault and Syria's fault. If they continue to meddle," (where 'meddling' could mean, 'fail to stop anything we can blame on them') then "we have no choice but to respond."

Thus, while it's interesting to speculate, from the point of view of action, it doesn't matter if the Bush Administration is planning to attack Iran before the election, or after the election, or in 2007 or 2008, or if it hasn't reached consensus and is simply planning for the "contingency" of doing so. There is a significant danger that the U.S. will attack Iran in the foreseeable future - during Bush's term in office - and while it faces external constraints, a key question will be to what extent public opinion in the U.S. can be mobilized against such a policy before the Washington establishment becomes irrevocably committed to it.

That's why it's important to act now. If it becomes obvious that the U.S. is definitely going to attack Iran, we will have missed our best opportunity for action, before the Bush Administration has everything lined up. We need to engage in our own pre-emption.