79 Steps to Victory in Iraq?

President Bush says the Iraq Study Group report “did a good job of showing what is possible.” Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said, “It offers a strong way forward.” The New York Post called it the work of “surrender monkeys.” There is no shortage of opinions. Here are a dozen worth considering.

1) Endangered Advisers

The fates of 26 million Iraqis and the 141,000 American troops in Iraq have long been intertwined. Wednesday, their shared fate was inexorably altered by the report put out by the Iraq Study Group, a panel made up of nine lawyers and a mathematician.

Some of the recommendations are sensible, but a few of the military suggestions could spell disaster.

The recommendation to increase the number of soldiers training the Iraqi military is, in general, a good one. Officers serving in Iraq have told me in recent days that the efforts to train and equip the Iraqi Army have not proceeded with the sense of urgency they deserve. The military understands this and last summer established a school in Fort Riley, Kan., where the Army’s foremost counterinsurgency expert is training more advisers to be sent to Iraq.

But to increase the number of advisers while simultaneously decreasing the number of combat brigades is a recipe for disaster. The adviser teams embedded with Iraqi units will become increasingly vulnerable, and a smaller force left behind in Iraq will find itself called upon to fight the inevitable worsening of violence with far fewer troops.

Given that the panel consulted with five times as many politicians as military officers, such oversights shouldn’t come as a surprise. But the mathematician on the panel, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, should have known better.

Andrew Exum, the leader of a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq in 2003 and now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

2) Democracy Defeated

Things that start badly seldom end well. And the Baker-Hamilton findings start badly, with the commission’s wholly unproven assertion that Iran and Syria have an “interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq.”

It is astonishing that not a shred of evidence is advanced to support this seminal statement. That may be because all the evidence is to the contrary: from the beginning, Iran and Syria have been undermining American and Iraqi efforts to bring order and stability to Iraq.

The matter is important, because an approach to the dictators in Iran and Syria would be seen throughout the region, and especially in Iraq itself, as a sign of American weakness and resignation. A hat-in-hand plea for help from our adversaries will only confirm their belief that a policy of fueling the insurgency with weapons, money, intelligence and foreign fighters is working.

Missing from the report is any serious reflection on the president’s goal of encouraging the development of representative government in the despotic Arab world, an objective that would be scuttled by the report’s proposed “diplomatic offensive.”

President Bush has said to the world, “If you stand for freedom, we stand with you.” In pushing for deals with the dictators in Iran and Syria, the study group has said to Mr. Bush, as James Baker once shamefully said to those pleading for intervention in Bosnia to stop the genocide of defenseless Muslims, "We don’t have a dog in that fight".

Richard Perle, fellow at the American Entrerprise Institute.

3) Don't Get Sectarian

In the spirit of the Iraq Study Group recommendations, the administration should make clear to Muslims throughout the Middle East that America will not take sides in the millennium-old Sunni-Shiite split. American forces are not in Iraq to engage in sectarian warfare; our policy in Lebanon is not based on a preference for the adherents of one faith over any other; our concerns about Iran are unrelated to that country’s status as a leader of Shiite Islam.

The conventional wisdom is not to take sides in a civil war, but when you do, to pick the winner. In Iraq, there are some who say we should back the Shiites because they are the majority. But they are not the majority in the persian gulf. It would be an error to align ourselves with the Shiites (because Al Qaeda is Sunni) or the Sunnis (because Iraq’s worst militias and Hezbollah are Shiite). We must be mindful of the interests of all factions and willing to talk to all sides, but our message should not vary.

We should promise help to all — Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Druze, Jew, Arab, Kurd, Persian — who observe territorial borders, honor human rights, obey the rule of law, respect holy places and seek to live in peace.

Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state.

4) The Last War

And the mountain brought forth mice: We should have known that James Baker and Lee Hamilton would take us back to the past, for they are men of the past. Consider this, the oldest of Middle Eastern props: “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.”

The ground burns in Iraq, the center of gravity in Arab life has shifted away from the Mediterranean and toward the Persian Gulf. But Mr. Baker knows his old brief, where he was steward of American diplomacy when he left office in 1992. A big war had been fought against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the Shiites and Kurds had been abandoned to the tender mercy of the despot. But Mr. Baker headed straight to the Madrid peace conference to use the prestige won in Iraq and the gulf to force concessions out of Israel.

Mr. Baker returns untutored in the ways of that region. A new, deadly struggle has erupted between American power and the forces of terrorism in the Islamic world. A “wise man” who proposes to fix Iraq by returning the Golan Heights to Syria has missed the meaning of Iraq. This report describes a long-vanished Arab world: Its poverty is given away in its banal language, in that familiar assertion that all of history yields to the fixer’s touch.

Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins and the author of The Foreigner’s Gift.

5) Have Faith in Maliki

The Baker report is refreshingly honest in its description of Iraq. But its recommendations are less reliable and in some cases dangerous. It states, “If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support.”

This is back to front. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki will fail to meet those milestones, but we should support him nonetheless. He is the democratically elected head of a sovereign state, with a better understanding of his own country than the coalition. Our attempts to manipulate and control Iraqi politicians have historically undermined their authority, frustrated their political compromises and strengthened opposition. Empowering Mr. Maliki, though necessary, will be unpleasant: the militias and Iran will remain strong and the security forces weak.

But progress will come only if we provide almost unconditional economic and political support to the elected president and allow him to rebuild his state in his own way.

Rory Stewart, former British Foreign Service official in Iraq and the author of The Places in Between.

6) Find New Allies

For all its deftness and honesty, the Iraq Study Group report flees the hardest choices and leaves us without a credible strategy. It calls for getting American troops out of Iraq, but says we’ll be there for a long time. It calls for more training of Iraqi forces, but doesn’t explain how to make it happen this time. It insists on reconciliation among warring sects, but offers no realistic political power-sharing plan to achieve it. Instead, the group’s gloomy assessment of the situation should have led it to a clear strategy aimed at limiting damage:

First, try for a federal or decentralized Iraq with oil-revenue sharing, as its Constitution provides. Only federalism can prevent partition, though everything’s a long shot now.

Second, provide means, protection and funds for Iraqis wanting to relocate for safety. It’s the only way to stop ethnic cleansing.

Third, make common cause with Iraqi Sunni Baathists, Saudis and others to crush the terrorists in central Iraq. Once our troops start to leave, we can establish this clear common interest, and the Baathists will do a better job than we.

Fourth, ally diplomatically and economically with Iraqi Shiites, who are, after all, Iraqis and Arabs, not Iranians and Persians, and who don’t want to be ruled from Teheran.

This damage-limiting approach fits the facts on the ground described by the group, and may be the only way to avoid a failed Bush policy becoming a strategic defeat.

Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations.

7) Give Amnesty, but Not to All

The Iraq Study Group report points to a lack of national reconciliation as the “fundamental cause of violence in Iraq.” It concludes that the Iraqi government must find “ways and means to reconcile with former bitter enemies” and that “Iraqi amnesty proposals must not be undercut in Washington.” Amnesty is a hard sell in Iraq, where the Shiite-dominated government is loath to forgive its Sunni opposition, and also in the United States, where many view it as condoning attacks on American troops. I fought against some of those who would be pardoned. They killed my comrades. But stubborn opposition to reconciliation will only harm more Americans, Iraqis and the cause we’re fighting for. There’s no sense in fighting to the finish against anyone who might otherwise be coerced into quitting. That said, three conditions must be enforced:

  • Amnesty must be offered only after United States forces have shifted their priority from conventional operations to an advisory role. It cannot occur with 141,000 potential targets in Iraq.
  • Amnesty must forgive only past attacks, and cannot appear to sanction or legitimize future ones.
  • Amnesty applies only to Iraqis. Foreign fighters, with no legal standing in Iraq, cannot be eligible.

Nathaniel Fick, Marine infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of One Bullet Away.

8) Close the Bases

Among the 79 recommendations of the report is one addressed explicitly to President Bush: He “should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq.” Why is this so important? Since May 2003, a growing number of Iraqis and most of the Sunni minority have felt their country was under American occupation. This has been one of two factors driving the vicious Sunni insurgency. To arrest the slide to civil war, international mediators must negotiate directly with the elements of the Sunni insurgency (secular nationalists and more tactical Islamists) that have been seeking talks with the United States for three years. If we press all the components of the study group’s approach to “national reconciliation” — like amnesty, a rollback of de-Baathification and a new bargain on oil and federalism — while renouncing permanent military bases and clearly signaling our intent to withdraw militarily from Iraq over the next few years, it is possible that a deal can be had with a critical mass of the insurgency.

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Squandered Victory.

9) We Can Watch Iraq From the Sea

Getting American combat forces out of Iraq is imperative. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to New York, more than 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 1980 have been caused by the presence of foreign combat forces on territory the terrorists value. Since 9/11, American combat soldiers stationed on the Arabian Peninsula have increased from 12,000 to more than 150,000. And suicide terrorism both in Iraq and by Al Qaeda has escalated simultaneously.

But leaving is not enough. If Iraq explodes while Americans withdraw, the resulting chaos would be a strategic and humanitarian nightmare. To contain violence, the Iraq Study Group suggests expanding the role of American advisers embedded in the Iraqi security forces. The value of this idea, however, is contradicted by the group itself, which reports only “fitful progress” building the Iraqi Army with embedded advisers. More embeds only means more potential hostages.

Here’s a better idea: Move a large fraction of all American forces into staging areas outside Baghdad so that, within hours, tremendous air and ground power could suppress any major escalation in attacks against civilians. Over the next year, American ground troops should gradually pull back and their mission should evolve into a longer term, off-shore balancing strategy using naval and air forces and allies.

This would not end violence in Iraq. But it would head off the worst and buy time for international economic and political assistance to help stabilize the Iraqi government.

Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of Dying to Win.

10) Invite the Neighbors

The Iraq Study Group’s recommendations set a formidable but necessary agenda for the coalition in Iraq. Restoring internal stability will not be possible without outside help. The report points to Washington’s failure to confront the neighbors of Iraq with the consequences of a complete breakdown of the rule of law there. The risk of regional destabilization is very real. With a continuing stalemate in the Middle East peace process and the potential for miscalculation by Iran over the nuclear question, the dangers for the whole region look greater than at any stage since the 1940’s.

We cannot turn things around in Iraq without involving the entire region. Iran would be foolish to risk the emergence of a new autocracy in Iraq. Syria, only a secondary player in Iraq, has other priorities: the return of the Golan Heights within a decade.

America need not address either nation directly if the right conference format is designed. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait all need a unified Iraq as one of the foundations of their national security.

This set of compelling interests requires a table to talk around and where superpower diplomacy is properly brought to bear. What we need now is not a staged retreat, but a move into a higher gear. Under the guidance of the study group’s commendable recommendations, the driving force must be diplomatic, not military. It’s worth the inevitable cost.

Jeremy Greenstock, former British representative to Iraq and the director of the Ditcheley Foundation.

11) Police States

The Iraq report recommended the withdrawal of American troops by the spring of 2008, balanced in part by the infusion of 20,000 advisers. Without advisers, the Iraqi forces will pull out of the tough areas. With advisers, the army and police — a mix of Sunnis and Shiites — may hold the country together.

But the police are in wretched shape, intimidated and poorly led. More police advisers are essential, together with tough leaders from local tribes. The police, who can identify the killers hiding among the people, must be allowed to imprison extremists. The Abu Ghraib abuses led to such kid-glove handling of killers that our troops refer to “the catch and release program.” If that continues, stability is doomed.

Sadly, Iraqi soldiers trust American advisers more than their own government. The advisers demand steady performance, and in exchange extract pay and logistics from recalcitrant ministries in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has demanded operational control of all Iraqi forces. To prevent the appointment of sectarian loyalists, President Bush must insist upon a joint American-Iraqi military board that will approve all key Iraqi military and police assignments. Without this board, we must not commit a single adviser.

Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense and a corresponsal of The Atlantic.

12) Why Play a Weak Hand?

James Baker is a consummate diplomatist; recall how he rounded up dozens of allies in the first war against Saddam Hussein. But his panel’s suggestion to “engage” Iran and Syria to extricate the United States from the current Iraqi morass reflects a grievous misreading of those nations’ ambitions and America’s options.

Rule No. 1: Never negotiate from weakness, unless you intend to capitulate. Back in April 2003, Iran was quaking, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was a living corpse. Now, both are on a roll while the Bush administration is looking at a triple rout: in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Congress. So the mightiest nation on earth has no sticks — be it a doubling of the troops in Iraq or a strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.

What about carrots? Washington can hold out only two deals that might elicit cooperation on Iraq. One is to accept precisely what America has fought for decades: Damascus’s rule over that part of “Greater Syria” we call Lebanon. As for Tehran, the price would be higher still: a tacit “yes” to the bomb, and Iran’s hegemony over much of the Middle East. If that is the price of engagement, Washington might just as well skip the tedium of talking and disengage from the world’s most critical strategic arena here and now.

Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and author of Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America.