A bombshell with a long fuse

The Iraq Study Group report may be DOA. But it shows the Washington establishment is finally confronting reality in the Middle East.

By Gary Kamiya
Published December 12, 2006 1:15PM (EST)

The Iraq Study Group's report is two things at once. On the one hand, it is a political intervention, a last-minute attempt to salvage a situation that may already have slipped out of control. On the other, it is a call for the United States to radically change its policies in the Middle East -- not just now, but in the future as well. As an intervention, it is DOA. But as a guide to America's dealings with the Middle East after Bush exits the stage, it could be a crystal ball.

The report's caution in some respects -- notably, its failure to call for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal -- has prevented some observers from grasping its larger import. The report is not just a decisive rejection of Bush's Iraq adventure but an explicit call for the United States to break with its entire approach to the Middle East, in particular its pro-Israel tilt and its refusal to deal with Iran and Syria. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that the authors are a gang of plodding, blue-chip, ultra-mainstream centrists. It is too early to say that a paradigm shift in the Washington establishment's thinking about the Middle East is really taking place, but the ISG report strongly suggests that it is.

This moment is rich with historical irony. Under normal circumstances, the chances would be nil that a bipartisan panel made up of such wild radicals as Sandra Day O'Connor, Vernon Jordan and Alan Simpson would bluntly assert 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," or insist that we begin talking with states we deem supporters of terrorism. Holding Israel's feet to the fire, which is what "dealing directly" with the conflict means, is politically radioactive in Washington -- or it was. But Bush's Iraq debacle has exacerbated the contradictions and weaknesses of our Mideast policy and raised the stakes for the United States so high that it has become impossible for neutral observers to simply mouth the party line. Just as the thought of the gallows concentrates the mind, so a war that has cost almost 3,000 American lives and $2 billion a week, weakened America's standing in the world, and strengthened our terrorist enemies, has forced the Washington power elite to acknowledge reality. And the reality is that our old approach to the Middle East -- ignoring the festering conflict in Palestine, trying to strong-arm rival states into submission, and counting on democracy to magically transform the region -- has utterly failed. To increase the chances that we can salvage something from Iraq, and to achieve our other regional goals, we must broker a peace deal in Palestine, approach Iran and Syria realistically, stop seeing every problem as requiring a military solution, and accept that democracy is not a panacea.

Unfortunately, all of these suggestions are anathema to Bush. Any faint hopes that he might be desperate or reasonable enough to take the group's recommendations seriously were immediately dashed. The Decider made it clear last week that he has no intention of Undeciding anything. He explicitly rejected the group's two key recommendations: to begin withdrawing combat brigades over the next 18 months, and to begin negotiations with Iran and Syria. And there is even less chance that he will make any bold moves on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Bush may accept some of the report's 79 recommendations just to save face, but picking and choosing won't work. As the group's co-chair, James Baker, has correctly pointed out, the report is not a "fruit salad"; its strategy must be wholly adopted for it to have any chance at success.

In fact, the greatest single failing of the ISG report was that it did not make its cautious military proposals -- to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq by 2008, to push harder to train Iraqi troops -- contingent on the acceptance of its diplomatic ones. As many analysts have pointed out, the problem with training Iraqi troops is that Iraqi troops are more loyal to their sects than to the in-name-only government, and so training them might simply result in their being able to shoot at us more accurately in the future. For this reason and others, the ISG's plan would still be a Hail Mary pass even if its diplomatic recommendations were followed; if they are not, it has virtually no chance of success. By saying, "If you don't engage in diplomacy, you should withdraw U.S. troops immediately," the Baker group would have greatly increased the pressure on Bush to abandon his failed stay-the-course approach. And such a link would have given Democrats in Congress invaluable bipartisan support to demand a timetable for troop withdrawal -- something they don't feel they have enough political cover to propose now.

Of course, Bush would almost certainly have rejected this proposal anyway. As his entire disastrous presidency has shown, Bush is incapable of admitting he is wrong. With all the certainty of a simpleton whose brain has been taken over by One Big Idea, Bush has been convinced ever since 9/11 that history and God have chosen him to defeat an enemy of near-satanic menace. (Oddly, this Manichaean attitude is echoed by his also highly devout enemies.) In his mind, the current crisis is the Battle of Britain, and he is Winston Churchill, rallying the British people to their finest hour. Unfortunately, Bush has chosen the wrong World War II analogy. Iraq is not the Battle of Britain, it is Stalingrad. And Bush is not heroically standing fast like Churchill; he is stubbornly clinging to a doomed position, like Hitler. (If he insists on playing Churchill, there's a more applicable battle: Dunkirk.)

So for the next two endless years, the American people, the 140,000 American troops in Iraq and the Iraqi people will have to hang on for dear life as Bush, like Ahab chasing the Great White Whale of "Islamofascism," steers his course straight for Davy Jones' Locker -- with the only consolation being that he will take the Republican Party with him. But the Bush era will eventually pass, and America will be forced to deal with Mideast reality.

There are growing indications that America's political and foreign-policy mandarins may finally be prepared to do just that. Shortly before the ISG report came out, in a widely discussed essay in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, a respected moderate and the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated flatly that "the American era in the Middle East ... has ended." The most significant cause of this historic change: Bush's Iraq war. In the new Middle East, Haass argued, America's influence will be greatly diminished; Europe, China and Russia will challenge our policies; Iran will be greatly strengthened; Israel will be in a weaker strategic position; Iraq will remain "messy"; "militiazation" will continue, with Hezbollah inspiring other groups; terrorism will continue to be employed; radical Islam will gain in power; and key regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will grow more authoritarian and anti-American.

To deal with this new reality, Haass argued that the United States must fundamentally change its approach to the region. What is noteworthy is that his proposals, though longer-term and not centered on Iraq, are virtually identical to those put forward by Baker's group.

Haass says that in the new Middle East, "U.S. policymakers need to avoid two mistakes, while seizing two opportunities. The first mistake would be an overreliance on military force. As the United States has learned to its great cost in Iraq -- and Israel has in Lebanon -- military force is no panacea. It is not terribly useful against loosely organized militias and terrorists who are well armed, accepted by the local population, and prepared to die for their cause." The second mistake, Haass says, "would be to count on the emergence of democracy to pacify the region." As Haass points out, it takes decades for democracies to mature. And in societies that lack political or economic opportunities -- or which are under foreign military occupation -- democracy alone does not ensure that people will turn away from terrorism. "The fact that both Hamas and Hezbollah fared well in elections and then carried out violent attacks reinforces the point that democratic reform does not guarantee quiet," Haass writes.

Having unceremoniously disposed of neoconservatism, both its democratic carrot and its military stick, Haass then turns to the opportunities. "The first is to intervene more in the Middle East's affairs with nonmilitary tools," he writes. "Regarding Iraq, in addition to any redeployment of U.S. troops and training of local military and police, the United States should establish a regional forum for Iraq's neighbors (Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular) and other interested parties akin to that used to help manage events in Afghanistan following the intervention there in 2001. Doing so would necessarily require bringing in both Iran and Syria."

The second nonmilitary intervention concerns Palestine. "Diplomacy also needs to be revived in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is still the issue that most shapes (and radicalizes) public opinion in the region," Haass writes.

The Iraq Study Group was charged not with charting a grand strategic path forward, like Haass, but was merely asked to come up with tactical recommendations that would pull America's chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq. Its members are mostly not foreign-policy experts like Haass, but Washington insiders. They visited the region, talked to everyone, and had only the goal of trying to improve the dire situation in Iraq. Since they were bipartisan and had no axe to grind, their findings are like the result of a controlled scientific experiment: The report cannot be easily dismissed. And the fact that its findings are identical to Haass' conclusions gives it still more political weight.

The strategic reality recognized by the ISG is that to try to stop the Iraq civil war, America needs to get its Sunni allies to rein in the Sunni insurgents, and Iran to rein in the Shiite militias. Of course, there will be a price: In return, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will want the United States to broker a fair Israeli-Palestinian peace, Syria will want back the Golan Heights, and Iran will demand assurances that the United States recognizes it as a major regional player and will not pursue regime change.

Bush, committed to attacking or intimidating countries he perceives as evil, will not adopt any of the ISG's suggested diplomatic policies. And as the report itself acknowledges, even if those policies were adopted, there is no guarantee they would stop the bloodletting in Iraq. But the degenerating situation described by the ISG and Haass will only get worse, and sooner or later the United States will either have to adjust its policies or face a continuing erosion of its strategic position. Like it or not, this is the reality of the new Middle East, one that neither the United States nor Israel can bomb out of existence. (The Israeli-executed, American-approved bombing campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon may have been, as Condoleezza Rice infamously said, "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" -- but what was born was a stronger Hezbollah.) Even if America somehow manages to exit Iraq without an all-out bloodbath erupting, the same issues will be on the table, and the same trends will continue -- all running against us.

No one should ever underestimate America's stubborn myopia about the Middle East. We have denied Middle East reality for decades, to our own considerable detriment as well as the region's. But Iraq has changed the rules of the game. The ISG report, coming on top of Haass' article, is an unmistakable sign that a consensus may slowly be building that America needs to change course. Bush will reject the Baker Commission's report, the neocons are already screaming in rage and panic, and it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will seriously press for any Mideast policy change that will lead to a showdown with Israel. But the facts on the ground are not going away. The ISG report seems to be a dud. But it may turn out to be a bombshell with a very long fuse.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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