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Iraq report: No wiser than we were

12/08/2006

The much awaited Iraq Study Group (ISG) Report is almost universally decried as a disappointment. Since the problem of Iraq is probably not solvable, it was inevitable that this report would be less than brilliant. Still, it did not have to perpetuate and magnify many of the mistakes of the past.

The gloomy picture of security and economy in Iraq are what we already know. While they might not be able to solve the colossal mess of Iraq, one might have at least expected that a group with such copious resources and expertise would have produced a much more detailed picture, and one that would give some hard facts about who is financing and supplying the insurrection, who is participating and how they are recruited. There should have been hundreds of pages of appendices with details of names and amounts and places to back up conclusions. Likewise, there should have been a detailed study of sectarian and clan alliances in Iraq that would help explicate the political situation. Instead, the security section consists of ten pages of generalities that we can mostly glean from newspaper accounts, and about 11 pages concerning the political situation. There are some maps in the appendices, but no really useful information we could not glean from anywhere else. Like the Bush administration and the US military, the ISG are more or less clueless about the nuances of the political and security situation in Iraq, and therefore, not surprisingly, could not offer any real solutions.

Some of the major recommendations of the report are:

* To hold the Iraqi government to a timeline of national reconciliation and other necessary legislation;

* To privatize the Iraqi oil industry and to introduce better controls;

* To make the Iraqi police part of the Iraqi defense ministry;

* To gradually withdraw US troops to advisory and "embedded" roles in the next 15 months;

* To convene a regional conference (without Israel) to organize support for Iraq;

* To engage Syria and Iran and get their cooperation in solving the problem(s) of Iraq;

* To actively seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including convening a Middle East peace conference like the Madrid conference.

The problems with the approach presented are obvious:

  • Specific recommendations (ultimata) about what the Iraqi government has to do contradict the notion that Iraq is an independent and democratic country. Moreover, announcing that something has to be done won't make that something happen on its own.

  • If Iraqi military performance has been miserable with active US help, it won't be better with less US help.


  • If US presence in Iraq is causing resentment, hiding US soldiers in "embedded" units is not going to fool anyone. These units would be under Iraqi command, and presumably they would be in a much more exposed and vulnerable position than US troops are currently. Expect more US casualties, not less, and worse security.


  • Since there is no real proof that Iran and Syria have a critical part in the insurgency, there is no reason to think that enlisting their support will help very much. At most, they would use the influence the US allows them in order to gain a foothold there.

  • Since Iran in particular has absolutely no incentive to help the US succeed in Iraq, there is reason for them to cooperate.

  • Negotiations with enemy countries, undertaken from a position of weakness, can never hope to succeed.


  • The report insists that "The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict." That may or may not be true of US goals in the Middle East in general, but the report makes absolutely no case for relating the problems of Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, it offers no magic solutions for the Arab-Israeli conflict. If US success in Iraq depends on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, then the cause is probably lost. It is like saying "In order to solve the problem of Iraq, you must square the circle first." US efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict would be welcome, if they had a chance of success, but until the refusal front of the Hamas is broken this won't be possible. Until the US can demonstrate that it is a competent and reliable player in the Middle East, they will not get the support of Arab countries in toppling the Hamas, they won't inspire any confidence in Israel that they can guarantee a security solution. Nobody will follow a loser. The US won't get either Syria or Iran to stand down from their implacable enmity to Israel because Iran and Syria believe they have the US on the run in Iraq. The first Madrid conference, held against the background of US success in the Gulf War, was simply a noble failure. A second Madrid-type conference, such as the ISG report proposes, held against the background of US failure in Iraq, would be an ignoble fiasco.

Some of the recommendations are welcome. The state of US knowledge of the Middle East and of US intelligence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is appalling. The report notes that of 1,000 personnel in the US embassy in Iraq, 33 speak Arabic, and only six speak it fluently. It is amazing that in three years of war it was not possible to send 1,000 embassy personnel at least to crash Berlitz-type Arabic courses, or to find a few hundred Arabic speakers in the United States. So the recommendation to "accord the highest possible priority to professional language proficiency and cultural training, in general and specifically for U.S. officers and personnel about to be assigned to Iraq" is welcome. But again, just saying it won't make it happen. If nothing was done about this problem in three and a half years, then nothing will be done unless someone understands the causes of previous inaction.

In brief, the approach of the report is to try to solve fundamental, insurmountable problems by wishful thinking. Iran and Syria aren't going to cooperate just because the US says "please be nice." On the contrary, the ISG proposal to engage is being seen in Damascus and Tehran as a victory for hard line positions. In any case, it is doubtful if Iranian and Syrian cooperation could make much difference. Telling the Iraqi government to solve the sectarian problems and effect national reconciliation is not going to make it happen of itself. Saying that there has to be Arab-Israeli peace won't make that happen, and tying a solution of the three year old Iraq problem to a prior solution of the 80-odd year old, notoriously intractable Arab-Israeli conflict is a sure formula for failure in Iraq. Telling the US government to get more Arabic speakers and better military intelligence won't help either, unless someone can pinpoint the reasons why there was no crash effort to train people in Arabic or improve military intelligence. Most of the recommendations are like yelling at a sick person that they had better get well, without understanding the cause of the illness or providing any medicine.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000541.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 4 comments

Ami, Aren't Syria and Iran directly involved in bringing in money, weapons and personnel for the various insurgents?

It is doubtful that the US could get Iran to stop doing it. But perhaps Syria can be convinced to switch sides in exchange for forcing Israel to give up the Golan (although I doubt that's possible)?

I continue to disagree with you about your approach to Hamas. Not negotiating until the Hamas is gone means never negotiating, and the Hamas will probably remain.

Posted by Micha @ 12/09/2006 04:06 PM CST

The situation in the Palestinian and the Israeli Arenas, and Ways Out - Palestinian moderate Walid Salem suggests Israelis should give in to Hamas demands in order to end the impasse.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Someone needs to ask Walid Salem what he thinks of Hamas saying, in so many words, that even if they got a Palestinian state that they would still pose a threat to Israel.

Posted by Sean N. @ 12/12/2006 08:55 AM CST

"Aren't Syria and Iran directly involved in bringing in money, weapons and personnel for the various insurgents?"

1. No-one's been able to produce any evidence that they are. We were presented with lots of 'evidence' about Saddam's WMD's (even though it turned out to be illusory). But with Syria and Iran, not even that.

2. Since Iran is very friendly with the Iraqi government why would they sponsor an essentially Sunni-supremacist insurgency? They may still be sponsoring Shi'ite militias (Badr & Sadr), but those militias are essentially part of the Iraqi government anyway.

3. As far as I am aware there is more evidence to tie disaffected Saudis to the insurgency, something we hear little about from the US government.

Posted by Chris @ 12/12/2006 02:30 PM CST

to add to my last comment - I see King Abdullah is now openly threatening to aid the Sunni insurgents if the US pulls out.

Posted by Chris @ 12/14/2006 04:00 PM CST


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