I haven't yet read the Iraq Study Group report (text here but others have- and others have responded. The thing is that some of the responses have laid bare exactly why the strategy so far in Iraq has failed and have illustrated some of the problems that we face so neatly that responding to them seems fair enough, despite not having read the report itself.
Of whom could I be speaking in such stentorian tones of disapproval? Well the National Review, a leading magazine of the American right, has today in its editorial condemned the group's report in these terms.
Bush has to work on his own to try to save our position there, and he must do it by acting in the real world that it is always the great luxury of bipartisan commissions to ignore.
The National Review may be right- the report may be hopeless- just gathering together the great and the good does not generate out of certainty a good conclusion, it can generate muddled thinking. The grounds for why this report, which I repeat I haven't yet read, might be wrong though are important. By identifying the grounds for which the report is wrong you are effectively analysing the situation and coming to a different assessment and forming a different reccomendation of how we deal with Iraq. So what are the National Review's criticisms of the report and why are they wrong?
The National Review's critique boils down to these points:
1. Iran and Syria have no interest in the stability of Iraq under a US dominated regime, therefore there is no prospect in holding negotiations with them, particularly as the price in terms of nuclear laisser faire and Lebanon would be too high.
2. Neither of them have an interest in leaving the status of International Pariah- when Libya did it they did it under the threat of force to Saddam and no change of policy, in Israel or on WTO accession could convince them to come into the fold.
3. Reducing the number of US troops in the country takes out the only stabilising force- from the Iraqi security forces and leaves them vulnerable.
4. The Iraqi government is not succeeding because of a lack of domestic security forces not because its dependant upon US troops to succeed.
What should we make of each of the four criticisms and the suggested conclusion which is to increase US forces inside Iraq by up to 50,000 troops and sack the generals, Abuzaid and Casey, in command of US forces. Firstly I should clarify one thought- I have no idea how the generals are performing and what constraints upon them have been put by the Pentagon and whether sacking them is a good idea. But beyond that how does the National Review's strategy look.
The problem is that it doesn't look good- unravelling it from the top is a good thing to do. The 50,000 troops don't seem to exist, especially given the fact that US forces are already under pressure, and the UK its major ally is running out of spare troops to rotate into Iraq fairly quickly- a hope built on increase in troops rests on an increase in the size of the US army, something that with training and recruitment could take years- we don't have years in Iraq.
As to Syria and Iran. The National Review seems very pessimistic about the chances of engagement. But it might be possible especially in Syria to detach one ally of Tehran from it- to negotiate separately instead of together. Syria's reason for coming to Iran is fear of regime change- what about a guarentee issued by the West of Syria's existing borders and a guarentee that Israel won't attack them as was threatened in the Summer. The National Review is simply wrong about Libya- my understanding is that the process of normalisation in Libya dates back to negotiations conducted at a low level under Clinton and so far before the Iraq war, Libya was not not a consequence of Saddam and thus offers us some hope for movement on the Syrian side in particular.
As to the interests of Iran inside Iraq. Its worth stating that there is a worse problem for Iran than the National Review seems to think and that is that if US forces leave- Iran could be dragged by the force of its own rhetoric, by its need to be seen protecting the Shia in the region and also by its underlings in Iraq into an Iraqi civil war. A bloody conflict which would cause massive problems for Iran, especially in its claim to popularity in the other Sunni regimes of the region- not neccessarily a good thing for Tehran. The National Review might therefore be being unduly pessimistic about the chances of an Iranian raprochement.
Lastly the National Review is unduly sanguine about the presence of US forces within a country. If the rhetoric of quisling can be heard in the UK, how much worse would it be in Iraq. Similarly so long as the Iraqi security forces are associated with the United States, how far do they become a force of occupation and not one of liberation. We must be mindful of the force of nationalism- something that we underrated on the invasion and have underrated before (see Vietnam). Again the presence of a visible US Foot maybe contributing to instability.
All of this is not to say that the ISG will bring success, nor is it to say that diplomatic efforts or troop withdrawels will definitely help, but the National Review seems locked in a mindset in which diplomacy can't work and only increases in troop numbers can. That's not neccessarily a sensible approach, as I've argued above. The basic fact about it is that it ignores how much of the vulnerability and strength of the US position depends upon the hatred felt for the US across the Arab world. That hatred makes it very difficult for a government sustained by the US to survive but equally makes an artificial unity behind Iran against America. The National Review's analysis ignores the first fact and thinks the unity isn't artificial. They are wrong. It remains to be seen whether the ISG have come up with the golden bullet, as the new US Defence secretary suggested in the recent hearings there may not be such a thing, but whether the ISG have come up with it or not- the one thing that President Bush shouldn't do is get to his policy by the same logic as the NR, he may following a different logic end up in their position, but their analysis is faulty and I'm not sure that their conclusions aren't impossible as well.
LATER Both the ISG and the National Review reccomend more training for Iraqi forces- this suggests that the training efforts undertaken so far have been fundamentally flawed by a lack of training for the trainers- particularly in languages.
LATER STILL Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in the Weekly Standard are also arguing for raising troop levels by 50,000, where do these troops come from? I understand that armies can be increased- but in weeks can you train fifty thousand men to be ready to go to Iraq, I doubt it.