Baker-Hamilton Does Its Job

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 07/12/06):

The Iraq Study Group's report achieved the goal of any blue-ribbon commission: It stated the obvious, emphatically.

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." Of various proposals for fixing Iraq, "all have flaws." A "precipitate" withdrawal would be a mistake, but so would a big increase in U.S. troops. America should set "milestones" for the Iraqi government to control all provinces by next September. The U.S. military should shift to a training and advising mission so that most American troops can leave by early 2008. But there is no "magic formula," and even if this approach fails, the United States "should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq."

A cynic might argue that this laundry list is precisely what the Bush administration was moving toward in its own internal review of policy. But I think that's the point about the bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and ex-representative Lee H. Hamilton. They have stamped an interwoven "D" and "R" on recommendations that seem so familiar you wonder why they haven't been official policy all along. (Some of them have been, though you wouldn't have known it from President Bush's bluff and bluster.)

What's new in the Baker-Hamilton approach is the part that's least likely to be successful -- the call for an International Support Group that, in theory, would include the regional bad boys, Iran and Syria, along with foot-draggers such as Russia, China and France. And while they're at it, Baker and Hamilton propose a crash effort to resolve the Palestinian conflict, make peace between Israel and Syria and resolve the mess in Lebanon.

I like this "New Diplomatic Offensive" precisely because it is so ambitious. It would put the United States back in the business of trying to solve the Arab-Israeli problem, which has been driving the Middle East crazy for nearly 40 years. As for Iran and Syria, the great advantage of asking them to join a global effort to stabilize Iraq is that if they say no, it's blood on their hands. As the report notes, "An Iranian refusal to do so would demonstrate to Iraq and the rest of the world Iran's rejectionist attitude and approach, which could lead to its isolation."

And what is America's leverage for bringing Iran and Syria to the table (other than the implicit threat to walk away and let them worry about the Iraqi civil war)? The report includes this delicious Bakeresque ploy: "Saudi Arabia's agreement not to intervene with assistance to Sunni Arab Iraqis could be an essential quid pro quo for similar forbearance on the part of other neighbors, especially Iran."

Aha! So that explains the unusual op-ed by quasi-official Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid in The Post on Nov. 29 threatening that Saudi troops would be sent into Iraq if America should leave. It was a bargaining chip.

Another laudable aspect of the Baker-Hamilton report (especially in comparison with Bush's rhetoric) is that it doesn't mince words about how bad things are in Iraq. The Iraqi army has made only "fitful progress toward becoming a reliable and disciplined fighting force." The Iraqi police are "substantially worse" than the army. The results of the latest effort to pacify Baghdad have been "disheartening." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki means well, but he "has taken little meaningful action" against militias. Sunni Arabs haven't yet "made the strategic decision to abandon violent insurgency." No reconciliation will be possible without an unpalatable amnesty for Iraqis who fought against U.S. forces. At least we are beginning to tell the truth here.

The final reason to embrace the Baker-Hamilton report is that its combination of cut-your-losses pragmatism and earnest do-gooderism will reassure the world that America has turned a page on Iraq. The level of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East these days is genuinely frightening. It has become the organizing principle of political life, even in once-friendly countries such as Lebanon. This is the real national security threat to America -- this sense in the rest of the world that Iraq symbolizes America's fatal new combination of arrogance and incompetence.

This report asks the world to help us find our way back home. Even if its proposals don't succeed, Baker-Hamilton can still accomplish its purpose, to "enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly."