Iraq Study Group:
How Big a Change?

Today’s release of the Iraq Study Group report [.pdf] raises as many questions as it answers. A few highlights of the report and its 79 recommendations follow.

Troop Withdrawals?

Despite some early headlines suggesting that the Iraq Study Group would be calling for a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the beginning of 2008, a look at the fine print suggests otherwise. The group’s recommendations look more like an exercise in “bait and switch” than an actual commitment to U.S. withdrawal.

Trainers embedded with Iraqi forces should be considered combat forces, as should the armed U.S. personnel that would be present to protect them in their efforts. These troops could remain in the tens of thousands after an alleged “withdrawal.”

In keeping with its recommendation to shift the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training of Iraq troops, the study group suggests a presence of U.S. forces to provide logistical support, continued training, and “force protection” (troops to protect U.S. training and logistics personnel) for a “sustained period,” in the words of panel member Edwin Meese. Panel co-chair James Baker has further noted that “for quite some time” there will be “a robust American presence both in Iraq and in the region.” Panel members would not project how many U.S. troops would be needed to carry out these long-term activities.

Greater Honesty, Less Spin

The study group deserves credit for speaking more plainly about some of the realities of the war than the Bush administration has done so far. For example, at the outset the panel’s report states bluntly that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” In defending the group’s recommendation to attempt to bring Iran and Syria into regional talks on how to end the fighting in Iraq, James Baker noted that “for 40 years we talked to the Soviet Union at a time that they were committed to wiping us off the face of the earth – you talk to your enemies.” By contrast, President Bush has indicated that he is not willing to talk to Tehran until they suspend their nuclear enrichment activities, a non-starter diplomatically.

The report also acknowledges the heavy costs of the war, putting the price tag to date at $400 billion and noting that some analyses put the ultimate cost of the conflict at up to $2 trillion.

Does Size Matter?

By padding the length of its report and releasing it as a Vintage Press book, the Iraq Study Group seems to be trying to make its analysis and recommendations look as if they are as “hefty” and substantive as the 9/11 Commission report [.pdf]. Less than 100 of the 160 pages of the report are devoted to analysis and recommendations. The rest consist of lengthy appendices with maps of the region, names of commissioners and sub-panels involved in the effort, and other incidental bits of information, all spaced out as far as possible in an effort to up the page count. To paraphrase former vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, we have seen the 9/11 report, and this is no 9/11 report.

Throwing Bones to Critics

While the study group studiously avoids making a timeline for U.S. withdrawal – leaving the way clear for the very “open-ended” U.S. troop commitment that it claims to oppose – it does suggest a few small reforms along the lines suggested by some critics of the war.

Among these proposed changes are the suggestion that future funding for the war be included in the regular budget, where it can receive closer scrutiny, rather than in “emergency” supplementals that often give only broad stroke descriptions of what Iraq spending is for; a recommendation to extend the term of the highly effective special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction “for the duration of assistance programs in Iraq,” with a mandate that includes training activities as well as reconstruction efforts; and a call to President Bush to publicly state that the United States has no interest in permanent bases in Iraq.

The proposed pledge on bases is hedged by a suggestion that U.S. bases could be present as long as an Iraqi government “asks for” them. If a non-representative, pro-U.S. government is doing the asking, it would render the “no bases” pledge next to meaningless.

The Politics of Withdrawal

By offering the prospect of some change – even if it leaves tens of thousands of combat troops and trainers in Iraq in 2008 and beyond – the Baker-Hamilton report could take pressure off Republicans and Democrats alike. Major figures in both parties could be relieved of the demand to push for a genuine withdrawal prior to the 2008 presidential elections.

Citizens who want a quicker timeline for U.S. withdrawal and a genuine military disengagement from Iraq will need to make their voices heard if U.S. policy is to go beyond the half-measures set out by the Baker-Hamilton panel.

Read more by William D. Hartung