The Iraq Study Group report is a serious accomplishment. It is a bipartisan document addressing an issue that has divided the country. It is also fearlessly honest, noting, for example, that the number of Iraqi casualties on a given day was more than 10 times what the military reported. Furthermore, it offers an integrated approach, encouraging diplomatic engagement and resolution of the other great regional issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a comprehensive settlement coupled with a phased military withdrawal aimed at forcing the Iraqis to stand on their own. In addition, the study group recommends increased spending on reconstruction and development for the Iraqi people, an effort encouraged by the outgoing operational commander in Iraq, Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s leading advocate of counterinsurgency strategy.
By contrast, the solution the administration appears to be preparing to announce seems to rely solely on military means. It may involve a temporary surge of troops into Iraq to tamp down the insurgency or a redeployment of U.S. troops that would allow the Iraqis to shoulder more of the burden of policing the insurgency, or both. The military option by itself, however, offers neither the victory some in the administration still seek, nor tools to contain the conflict and stabilize the region. The most additional troops the United States can muster is 40,000 to 50,000. According to standard military doctrine for dealing with counterinsurgencies, however, another quarter million troops would be needed to defeat the insurgency. Thus, the probable military options are likely only to prolong the dying as the United States prepares to withdraw.
The integrated approach recommended by the study group, by contrast, offers some hope of containing the conflict. It would reduce outside interference, curtail the spread of Shiite influence from Iran to Lebanon and curb growing hostility to Israel. It could also help prevent a regional war, whether among the Muslim nations of the region or between an Arab-Iranian alliance and Israel. By refusing to engage Iran and Syria and rejecting the importance of resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, the administration increases the risk of an escalating crisis across the Middle East too big for any nation or alliance to contain.
A less noted feature of the report consists of proposals to facilitate reconciliation in Iraq. Internal reconciliation is the sine qua non of any settlement. Five of the report’s 79 recommendations deal with the topic. The report urges that all parties, with the exception of Al Qaeda, become part of the process. As in northern Ireland, a major feature must be the disarmament of militias and their integration into society. The group also proposes that the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Arab League join in fostering the process, and it asks the United States to be open to any amnesty the Iraqis arrange. Progress toward reconciliation is all the more necessary now that Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not acquiesce in the domination of its fellow Sunnis by the more numerous Iraqi Shiites. The Saudi threat increases the risk both of a protracted war in Iraq and of regional conflict.
With the influence of moderate religious leaders in eclipse, it appears that any rapprochement between Shiite and Sunni Muslims must come between militarized factions of the two groups, making reconciliation all the harder to reach. So, while U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran by itself will not yield a way out of the Iraqi quagmire, it has the potential to augment the pressure for reconciliation. For if recognition by the United States bestows some measure of dignity on the two neighboring regimes, it may permit a chorus of voices to form urging moderation on the contending parties. Likewise, it may help reduce outside support to the insurgents, curb the infiltration of foreign militants and limit outside meddling. Like hope, the last item in Pandora’s box, the Iraq Study Group’s report offers the promise of one day calming the sea of troubles we now face.