"There is no magic formula"

A grave assessment from the Iraq Study Group.

By Tim Grieve
Published December 6, 2006 1:57PM (EST)

The Iraq Study Group will release its report to the public this afternoon, but don't expect any silver bullet for solving the problem George W. Bush has created in Iraq. There isn't one, and that's the point on which just about everyone agrees.

The group's report will say that "there is no magic formula." Robert Gates, whose nomination to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee 24-0 Tuesday, said Tuesday that "there are no new ideas on Iraq," just maybe "a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a way forward." Sen. Barack Obama says: "We have no good options at this point. We have bad options and worse options." Al Gore: "There are no good outcomes."

At the White House, the president met with members of the Iraq Study Group this morning and thanked them for their work. "It is a report," he said, "that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion."

What does that mean now? The group's report reportedly says conditions in Iraq are "grave and deteriorating" and could cause "the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe." Group members have worried that their work may already be too late, that the war is already lost. Eighteen more U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq already this month; the U.S. death toll could pass 3,000 by the end of the year. But a White House that has used the report as cover for delaying any hard decisions on Iraq is now saying that it will be looking at "other ongoing studies within the administration," and it's urging Congress to do the same once the new year starts.

These studies, or "advice documents," as the president calls them, apparently include Donald Rumsfeld's laundry list of ideas for Iraq as well as a Pentagon plan to increase troop levels in whatever passes for the "short term" these days. That approach got a small bipartisan boost Tuesday when Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an early war opponent and the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he likes the idea of sending 20,000 or 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq in order to "take out the militias and stabilize Iraq."

We might all like the idea if it would actually work. But an incremental increase in troop levels isn't likely to be popular with an electorate that just sent a pretty clear signal that it would like to see less U.S. involvement in Iraq, nor is it part of the Iraq Study Group's agenda, at least as far as we know now. That said, we've heard so many different things about the group's proposals -- a phased withdrawal, a phased pullback, a switch from combat to training, diplomacy with Iran and Syria, benchmarks for progress by the Iraqi government and threats if it doesn't meet them -- that we're beginning to suspect that the final report is such a vague mishmash that it will offer something for everyone and yet nothing that could help attain any truly desirable result.

That's probably not the fault of the group's members; they're not the ones who decided to launch a war of choice with no real plan for winning it. We are where we are now, and there is no good way for this story to end.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East Robert Gates War Room