For an illustration of why the Iraq Study Group's report is an unreliable guide to victory in Iraq, one need only consider its assumption that stability in that country will require the consent of the Ba'athists of Syria and the mullahs of Iran.
That the ISG misunderstands the interests of either regime is apparent from statements like the following: "Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq…" In the very same paragraph, the authors write "Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq…Syria should control its border with Iraq."
Herein lies the strategic miscalculation of the report. It admits that Syria and Iran are responsible for violence in Iraq, yet calls for engaging them -- when our negotiating hand is not particularly strong -- because they allegedly have an interest in avoiding chaos. An obvious question arises: If they want to avoid chaos, why then do they fail to stop the flow of arms into Iraq, to shutter terrorist training camps on their soil or, most importantly, to halt the infiltration of Iraq from their borders that is primarily responsible for the chaos?
The ISG report also makes the mistake of equating stability in Iraq with revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Where some pundits have said that the road for peace in Jerusalem runs through Baghdad, the report has flipped that to say, "The road for peace in Baghdad runs through Jerusalem."
Developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, have little influence on the turmoil in Iraq. Consider that there was no substantial decrease in violence in Iraq when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, nor is there dramatic increase when Israeli forces retaliate for rocket attacks. Israel is not uppermost in the mind of Moqtada al-Sadr when his militia kills innocent Sunnis or battles with Iraqi security forces.
Likewise, the Sunni Arab insurgency isn't thinking of Israel when they gun down innocent Shiites, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq isn't bombing Shiite shrines because of its grievances against Israel. And while the report's support for a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is well-intentioned, it is also unrealistic: Nowhere noted in the report is the fact that such negotiations have been ongoing for years and are consistently torpedoed by terrorist organizations backed by Syria and Iran.
Equally mistaken is the report's conclusion that the US cannot use force to stem sectarian violence. Contrary to common punditry, sectarian violence and insurgency are not the inevitable results of trying to bring democracy into the Arab world. Sectarian violence, while always present in some measure in Iraq, did not substantially spike in the aftermath of Saddam's fall. Only when terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi made a conscious decision to provoke such violence did it finally erupt. The present sectarian violence should not be seen as a new battle, but rather a change in tactics by the insurgents and terrorists -- tactics that are, unfortunately, working.
This does not mean, however, that they should be granted legitimacy, the inevitable upshot of accommodating terrorists. The report correctly states that the violence will not abate until the warring sects find a way to compromise. But we must also understand that many of those we fight, including those who conduct sectarian cleansing, want not to change Iraq's governing institutions but to destroy them. They kill civilians in order to exaggerate the size of their constituency, and any concessions will justly be seen as a reward for terrorism.
In this connection, the ISG report is correct to note that there is a deadly cycle of attacks and reprisal attacks, with each side refusing to lay down arms out of fear of the other side. However, it has to be observed that neither side is invincible. For instance, the Iran-backed Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has led two revolts, both of which were crushed, albeit indecisively, by coalition forces.
Such confrontation is a more sensible strategy than the report's proposal of threatening to cut off support for the Iraqi government. The latter approach is flawed on several counts: It pushes Iraqis to find other protectors, like Iran or powerful militias; it encourages fear that we will "cut and run" and thereby provides a disincentive for Iraqis to exert control of their country; and it sacrifices efficiency for expedition. Applying some level of pressure on Iraqis is wise, but it must be done carefully and privately.
This is not to say that the report is wrong to propose specific benchmarks for progress. On the contrary, many of these benchmarks are prudent. It is especially important for Iraqis to develop a mechanism for sharing oil revenue, thus ensuring that everyone has a financial stake in the future of Iraq, and to compensate, on the basis of production, the tribes that hold the oil pipelines. Bureaucratic changes must also be made, including moving the Iraqi National Police and Border Police to the Defense Ministry and reforming the Interior Ministry. One of the virtues of the ISG report is that it identifies areas where more funding is needed and underscores how little funding has gone toward establishing Iraqi forces.
The ISG report competently defines our long-term objectives in Iraq. These include disarming the militias, promoting national reconciliation, overseeing reconstruction, and training and advising Iraqi forces. However, the United States is already hard at work on much of this, and the report offers no constructive suggestions about how our efforts can be improved. For example, the report urges that Iraqi security forces be trained faster, but other than proposing more embedded American troops, it provides no insight about this can be accomplished. Similarly, the report calls for greater international assistance, but gives no concrete reasons as to why a new diplomatic offensive would sway an international community that resisted help in the aftermath of Saddam's fall, when the prospects for success were highest.
But the report's biggest blind spots remain Iran and Syria. The report is right that violence won't end until Iran and Syria end their current meddling in Iraq, but it is wrong to attribute Iranian aggression to the perception that the United States seeks regime change in the country. In fact, the US has done little encourage such a fear.
It would be wise to do so. The United States must start providing harsh disincentives for Iraq's neighbors. Steps towards regime change in Iran must be taken, such as working with Iranian opposition groups demanding a legitimate, national referendum on the government. We can also help form a government-in-exile and encourage alliances between Western and Iranian labor unions to oppose the regime. Financial, political, moral and, when possible, intelligence support should be provided to opposition movements. The Iraqi and American governments can also reveal Syrian and Iranian involvement in militia and insurgent activity in a p.r. offensive, thus helping to reduce support for Al-Sadr and other militant proxies.
In 1991, under James Baker's watch, the Iraqi people were sacrificed at the altar of stability. My talks with countless Iraqis suggest that we still have not regained their trust; most question our commitment to their pursuit of freedom, human rights and a better life. The Iraq Study Group's desire to engage Syria and Iran in order to establish stability in the Middle East is unlikely to dispel their doubts.
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