A new direction is needed in Iraq.
That statement is agreed to virtually across the board; however, opinions about just what the new direction needs to be - and what steps must be taken to implement it and to succeed - are extremely diverse.
One blue ribbon, bipartisan governmental panel is about to make its own recommendations. The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman (and 9/11 Commission vice chair) Lee Hamilton, and including Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor among others, was appointed by Congress in March of this year, and has been working since then to come up with policy suggestions for dealing with America's current situation in the middle east.
However, what was ostensibly endorsed by the administration in hopes that a bipartisan endorsement of existing policy could be achieved has instead returned the exact opposite. As one panel member told the Los Angeles Times, "It's not going to be 'stay the course. The bottom line is, [current U.S. policy] isn't working. ...There's got to be another way."
With violence by Islamic extremists on the rise in Iraq, many in Congress - as well in the administration - have become more receptive to alternative suggestions, such as those offered by the highly anticipated commission report, which is expected to be presented early next week.
In their investigation, the Baker-Hamilton commission consulted with the President and other administration officials, with hundreds of foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs experts, as well as with representatives of Iran and Syria. Its members also spent several days in Iraq earlier this year.
The reality on the ground in Iraq dictates that a new direction be taken. However, early reports of the Baker-Hamilton commission's recommendations are not encouraging.
The commission reportedly focused on three key courses of action going forward in Iraq, with two seriously being considered as viable.
The first proposal, entitled "Stability First," called for continuing to try to stabilize Baghdad, both through increased security and by encouraging violent extremists to enter the political arena as a means of stemming the increasing tide of bloodshed. The plan also calls for working with the neighboring countries of Iran and Syria to end the fighting.
The second, "Redeploy and Contain" - the recommendation most likely to be implemented - includes the negotiation and engagement proposals from the "Stability" plan, while also calling for a phased withdrawal of American troops to bases outside Iraq, from which they would ostensibly be able to deploy once again into the region in the event of reescalating violence or emerging terrorist threat. This recommendation has apparently been decided upon by the commission, complete with a supposedly untimed withdrawal plan for 15 US combat brigades.
The third option, called "Stay the Course, Redefine the Mission," was proposed as an alternative to a quick U.S. withdrawal, but, according to reports, the panel appeared to be uninterested in those plans (unsurprisingly).
Though undoubtedly ascertained in good faith, the commision's recommendations are dangerously unworkable.
The idea of engaging violent extremists by offering a voice in government is one which can only be taken seriously by people who do not understand in the least that there are some people - not defined by demographic, race, or religion, but by their own individual nature - who are not able to be tamed by civilized discourse, or by constructive appeal to their rational side. For those who are indiscriminately slaughtering men, women and children, who are abducting, torturing - and the latest sick fad has been to do so with power drills (links here, here, here, and here. Warning: Extremely disturbing) - and beheading innocent, peaceful civilians, for those who have it in them to douse worshipers at a mosque with kerosene and set them aflame, there is no rational side, no innate civility, to be appealed to. For these people, the only bargaining chip is strength, and the only tool in the tool chest overwhelming violence. The offer of a part in any political process will be wasted at best on those we are fighting.
The suggestion to bring Iran and Syria into the Iraq conflict via invitation - an idea supported by Secretary of Defense nominee Gates - is similarly dangerous. "Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians want a chaotic Iraq," Baker said recently, "so maybe there is some potential for getting something other than opposition from those countries."
The perception that both nations have a vested interest in the region is entirely accurate. However, the Iraq which they have an interest in seeing - and which they have been working toward through their increasing funding and arming of the violent insurgency - would be a nation diametrically opposed to anything in the interest of the West.
Iranian leaders are very willing to assist us in exiting the region – and are chomping at the bit to become more publicly involved – but are interested in doing so in a way that would enhance Iran's regional power, rather than increase the sovereignty of the newly free Iraq.
Moshen Rezai, secretary of the Iranian government's Expediency Council, said, "The kind of service that the Americans…have done us, no superpower has ever done anything similar. America destroyed all our enemies in the region. It destroyed the Taliban. It destroyed Saddam Hussein. ...But the American teeth got so stuck in the soil of Iraq and Afghanistan that if they manage to drag themselves back to Washington in one piece, they should thank Allah."
Reaching out to Iran and Syria would mean significant changes in America’s current foreign policy, as well. "To bring them in, we need to stop emphasizing things like democracy and start emphasizing things like stability and territorial integrity," said James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and a contributor to the commission. "We need to stop talking about regime change. It's unreasonable to think you can stabilize Iraq and destabilize Iran and Syria at the same time."
The requisite abandonment of our current policy of regime change and promotion of democracy in both Iran and Syria would make this an enormous reversal of direction, but would be a necessary one if we decided to request help from Syria and Iran as allies to our Iraq effort.
Following this potential suggestion would be folly. It is beyond unreasonable to think that Iran and Syria, two countries who have done all they can to work against us and our allies - particularly Israel - both in the region and in the United Nations, will want anything close to what we are seeking in the Middle East. The idea that a regime which has repeatedly called for the utter annihilation of Israel and of the United States, and which has been funding and supplying arms to insurgents and sectarians since the immediate aftermath of major combat operations, would want to work for an end which is positive to us is laughable at best, and is deadly at worst. Similarly, Syria has been providing training to bloodthirsty cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has been responsible for a great deal of the upheaval and violence in Iraq; the idea of a convergence between our interests in Iraq, and Syria's, is dismally unrealistic.
Naturally, former President Jimmy Carter thinks direct U.S. talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq are a peachy idea. "This is one of the most counterproductive policies that I've ever known, not to talk to the people who disagree with you unless they agree in advance to everything you demand," he said in a Monday appearance on Good Morning America.
With regard to the suggestion of engaging the insurgents and sectarians in the political process, it is just not realistic to expect that those who choose to brutally kill their countrymen will simply drop their weapons, purge the bloodthirstiness from their hearts, and join civilized society if offered a voice in government.
After meeting with the ISG, President Bush said that he was "not going to prejudge" the panel's recommendations, which are expected next month. However, he did warn against a sudden, major shift in strategy.
"I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East," he said, adding, "I'm looking forward to interesting ideas."
A new direction in Iraq is needed; that is not in question. However, the Iraq Study Group appears poised to offer recommendations which are no more palatable - or workable - than the status quo itself. Appointed by Congress and endorsed by the administration or not, a panel which recommends a course of action which is tantamount not only to surrender in the region, but to foreign policy suicide, clearly hasn’t done sufficient homework to have its suggestions adopted into policy.
Unfortunately, the nomination of former commission member Robert Gates as Donald Rumsfeld's successor to the SecDef position strongly suggests that the panel's recommendations, workable (or sensible) or not, will be adopted - or, at the very least, will have a proponent very high up in the administration.
Part of the problem with the commission - besides the fact that they have appeared to be falling all over themselves to reach a consensus that Iraq cannot be won, regardless of policy - is the lack of military representation among its members. In response to that, General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has put together his own panel of military leaders, and has resolved to work toward policy and action recommendations which do include a definition of - and an option for - victory.
"Winning is having security in the countries we're trying to help that allows for those governments to function and for their people to function," said Pace. He continued:
I think we have to maintain our focus on what objectives we want for the United States, and then we need to give ourselves a good, honest scrub about what is working and what is not working, what are the impediments to progress, and what should we change about the way we're doing it to ensure that we get to the objective that we've set for ourselves.Sensible - and a definition of the mission's goal which has been sorely lacking of late.
President Bush has reportedly said that he will decide within weeks, rather than months, on Iraq policy going forward. The rest of us can only hope that he will consider the practicality - and the advisability - of the Iraq Study Group's proposals, consult his military leaders, and then make a sound decision.