The Iraq Study Group: None Dare Call It Treason

On Wednesday, December 6, 2006, the Iraq Study Group finally presented its much-anticipated report on Iraq to the President and the country. It seems the President needs advice, and so he welcomed the formation of the Iraq Study Group when it was formed last March.

The Group has been described as a team of elder statesmen whom some have characterized as "grownups," called in to supervise a policy increasingly veering astray. Others have said the report and its fanfare represent the ascendancy of "realists" over "neoconservatives" in the Bush administration.

But what really is the Iraq Study Group and whose interests does it really serve?

The Iraq Study Group was formed by and is part of an organization called the United States Institute of Peace. The United States Institute of Peace is a non-profit charitable organization funded by the US Treasury and indirectly controlled by the president, who appoints each of its 15-member Board of Directors.

The United States Institute of Peace is often described as non-partisan or bi-partisan. Indeed, the law that created the Institute (the United States Institute of Peace Act) explicitly enshrines the bi-partisan principle stipulating that,

"Not more than eight voting members of the Board … may be members of the same political party."

As the bi-partisan Board members are all appointed by the president, the Board can act indirectly as an instrument of presidential policy.

If need be, the United States Institute of Peace can draw upon the ample resources of the US government:

"The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of Central Intelligence each may assign officers and employees of his respective department or agency, on a rotating basis to be determined by the Board…"

In 2005 Congress allocated $100 million to the United States Institute of Peace for construction of a new permanent headquarters facility on the National Mall facing the Lincoln Memorial, demonstrating the centrality of the United States Institute of Peace in the US foreign policy establishment.

Over the last 20 years the United States Institute of Peace has functioned much like other foundations that produce quasi-academic studies for publication. These public policy foundations, or "think tanks," essentially manufacture and package ideas and policies that are then actively promoted to the public.

What distinguishes the United States Institute of Peace from non-governmental think tanks is its unique function – to produce an official consensus foreign policy that is broadly acceptable to both political parties.

The consensus ideas produced by the United States Institute of Peace are intended for an audience of government officials, both appointed and elected. These ideas describe the limits of acceptable dissent in regard to foreign policy within the political establishment.

For the Iraq Study Group, its raison d’etre was the deteriorating position of US forces in Iraq and the inability of the US foreign policy establishment to come to grips with this reality. The opening words of the report, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” are its consistent theme.

It would be anachronistic to view the establishment of the Iraq Study Group as a repudiation of Bush’s policy resulting from the poor showing of Republicans in the recent November mid-term elections since the Iraq Study Group was founded eight months prior to those elections, in March of 2006.

The objective of the report of the Iraq Study Group was simply to establish the acceptable limits for debate within the US foreign policy establishment in light of a steadily deteriorating situation in Iraq.

The political problem that the Iraq Study Group sought to resolve was the disunity within the US political establishment, not the political disunity within Iraq – for which the report does not even pretend to present a likely solution.

Such as it is, the report can be viewed as a consensus-building document whose target is the American foreign policy establishment and electorate. In this role, it has already met with success – as the overwhelming majority of Americans already support its conclusions.

The power of think tanks to shape public discussion and ultimately public policy was demonstrated before the Iraq war when public perceptions concerning Iraq were informed by a well-funded network of think tanks connected in many intimate ways to a pro-Israel political lobby that actively supported Bush’s Iraq policy.

The same actors are already marshaling against the report and the report’s subdued yet explicit linking of wider Middle East problems with Iraq:

"There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine."

The report directly connects Israel to Iraq in a way that unsettles Israel’s supporters, stating,

"The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict…"

Because of this, we already see, among others, Israel and its foreign policy advocates in America piling on criticism. Some are starting to deconstruct the report as a defeatist document produced by a spineless liberal establishment.

The critics have something in common, a high regard for Israel and the notion that Israeli foreign policy objectives are always the same as US foreign policy objectives.

In the case of Iraq, this equation is patently false. The United States is suffering from Bush’s adventure in Iraq and Israel is benefiting from the chaos resulting from it.

This report deserves to be read and discussed rather than blithely dismissed. The critics may howl, yet none dare call it treason.