Iraq Study Group: more of the same, but now with extra-special political cover sauce [updated]

6 December 2006, 1522 EST

Earlier I wrote that:

We’re still waiting on the actual document, but if we believe preliminary reports then we shouldn’t hold our collective breath.

The report is now available (PDF) for experts, reporters, and bloggers to parse. Whatever else, I expect that the fact that we’ll be talking about it for a while demonstrates the agenda-setting power of the ISG.

I’m reading the report right now and I don’t see a great many surprises. But there are some striking passages. For one, the ISG report contends that:

The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. 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. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria. (xv)

It also attempts to put the kibosh on any rush to war with Iran.

As everyone expected, the report calls for embedding more American troops with Iraqi units as part of a renewed push for getting the ‘Iraqis to stand up while the US stands down.’

A few half-baked thoughts in lieu of more detailed analysis:

• The report is full of “shoulds” that involve the Iraqis themselves, their neighbors, and the international community. It would be nice if all of these things happened–Syria closed its borders, the Iraqis engaged in significant attempts at “national reconciliation,” and so on–but I’m skeptical that American efforts can bring most of these things to fruition. My major concern: the ISG is paving the way for blaming everyone else for American failures and providing political cover for washing our hands of the whole business.

• The ISG focuses on many internal milestones carried out by the Iraqi Government. The idea here is provide carrots, sticks, and assistance for a set of specific and more general goals, whether “approval of the Petroleum Law” or “Iraqi control of provinces.” But in the absence of a functioning Iraqi Government, I’m not sure what the point is. As I noted above, the ISG places a lot of responsibility on the Iraqi Government to somehow get its act together, and, in typical American fashion, it stresses policies and laws rather than tackles the messy problem of how to engage in actual state-building in an increasingly violent and divided society.

• Recommendation 35 calls for the US to engage every major player in Iraq, “with the exception of Al Qaeda.” With all due respect, this isn’t all that different from what the US tried to do in the period leading up to the formation of the present government. It failed. All we did was produce a government divided into sectarian patrimonies tied to warring factions. The unpleasant fact is that the US official stance always stressed “unite-and-rule” rather than the use of selective incentives and coercive force to isolate some elements while co-opting others. The US wants to play the “neutral broker,” but I can’t help think that the window for such a stance–if it ever existed–closed long ago.

More to come.

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