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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report

Reading the Iraq Study Group report cover to cover is like having to read a book on root canal procedures while waiting in the dentist's office for a root canal. The writing is horrible, the material is horrific but you know what's coming next is even worse.

First some "play by play" comments on specific portions of the document as they appear, then a few overall comments.

THE ORGANIZATION -- The commission was sponsored by The United States Institute of Peace. Just savor the Orwellian irony of such a pompous and arrogant name for an institute studying the disaster resulting from such a pompous and arrogant policy that launched the war. We trumped up evidence to invade a sovereign country ruled by a brutal dictator and replaced it with a religious and ethnic civil war that's killed conservatively 50,000 civilians. How about The United States Institute of Damage Control and Blame-Shifting for the name of an organization dedicated to solving the Iraq fiasco?

THE LETTER FROM THE CO-CHAIRS -- The "cover letter" from James Baker and Lee Hamilton has a tone almost identical to that of a teenager who was supposed to drive to the end of the block and back but in fact drove across town and wrecked the family car and is now explaining it to the parents. The letter could have just as well read like the following:

The United States was convinced a house in the neighborhood was selling methamphetamine so we armed a team of 140,000 DEA agents with nothing but a battering ram and matches to storm the house. After the door closed behind us, we lit a few matches and UH OH! We have now found ourselves trapped in a house filled with nothing but open cans of gasoline and dynamite and have discovered the doors of the house only open inward from the outside, making retreat impossible. Explosions have occurred, destroying about one third of the surrounding city and the neighbors are inexplicably annoyed by our efforts to combat methamphetamine. We don't know HOW this happened but with enough bi-partisan cooperation, we believe we can trick surrounding towns into sending firefighters to battle the flames while we redeploy in search of marshmallows and graham crackers. And those innocent locals whose jobs were destroyed, homes destroyed, loved ones killed and who now are pre-occupied with dodging mortar rounds, bullets and suicide bombings are gonna have to stop whining and suck it up -- we Americans only have so much patience.

How about THIS for a "cover letter"?

Your President, your Congress and your career government and military leadership have failed our country by initiating an unnecessary war, poorly planning its execution, and failing to recognize the scope of the resulting disaster to take corrective measures early enough to mitigate the damage. Because of this failure of leadership, our military forces have been placed in a position where their training and capabilities cannot achieve any of the goals originally formulated for the war.

It is been the task of this commission to document critical facts about

* the present state of this failed war,
* the military limitations we face in pursuing any course including the status quo
* the political / social limitations in the region that must be considered in all solutions
* the political and economic realities within the United States that affect the continued prosecution of this war
* the pros and cons of all viable solutions which factor in the above considerations

There is no solution that results in "victory" proposed by this report. It is the responsibility of the President, the Congress, the military, and ultimately YOU, the American people to consider all practical strategies, including but not limited to those in this report, for correcting the course of this war and correcting the larger political course of the United States that has critically weakened our military, economic and moral leadership of the world.

The disappointment of the cover letter does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the report.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY -- The summary states "There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved." They don't explicitly identify what the stated goals of the war in Iraq were in this summary but attempt to summarize new goals as 1) a better future for Iraqis, 2) a "death blow" to terrorism, 3) enhanced stability in the region and 4) protection of America's credibility, interests and values.

If these are the new goals, they will only be achieved in a relative sense -- by comparison to what they are now, not in comparison to what they were before we started the war. Iraqis are likely facing five to ten years of hot/cold civil war followed likely by the emergence of another undemocratic dictator (benevolent or otherwise) who can succeed in repressing the population so it cannot kill itself over sectarian grudges. Our invasion of Iraq has produced a terrorist haven in Iraq where there was none before and has strengthened the position of Iran and Syria who support terrorism throughout the middle east. Some death blow. Our invasion of Iraq not only destabilized the entire country of Iraq but by strengthening the hand of Iran and Syria, our invasion has INCREASED the likelihood of Arab / Christian conflict in Lebanon, Arab / Israeli conflict in Palestine, and Shi'ite / Sunni conflict with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. When more of the truth about the roots of this war emerge, it will become painfully clear that America destroyed any claim to the moral high ground on any aspect of this war.

ASSESSMENT - US / COALITION FORCES -- Every American should read this portion of the document to get a feeling for how this war has literally exhausted our troops and our material. When the Pentagon finally divulges how much of our equipment will need to be replaced after being ground to dust by the desert sands of Iraq, American taxpayers could EASILY be looking at another $300 billion dollars in "reset costs" as they term them later in the report. Long term costs for sustained health care of returning veterans is yet another giant unknown.

OPERATION TOGETHER FORWARD II -- This is the name of the big push initiated in August 2006 when numerous military commanders delayed recognition of the obvious by starting "If things don't improve in six months, we might very well be headed for civil war." We're now four months into that magic 6-month interval and the report unequivocally states this effort has failed, violence has skyrocketed 43% since the effort began, and the "squeeze the balloon" approach of chasing out bad guys block by block then failing to leave enough trained military and police behind to hold the progress is doomed. We knew this two years ago.

KEY ISSUES -- NATIONAL RECONCILIATION -- The report spends several pages of flowery language addressing the ethnic / sectarian rifts within the country and the assets of each group. A more concise summary would break the population down via three basic bullet items:

  • a majority of religious Shi'ites, previously oppressed by a Sunni / Baathist minority, who dominate a portion of the country with viable oil resources

  • a minority of ethnic Kurds in the northern part of the country, who are confident they can take care of themselves and also control a part of the country with viable oil reserves

  • a minority of religious Sunni, many of whom previously provided the "police" in Saddam's police state dictatorship as members of the Baath party, who dominate portions of the country with no valuable natural resources and thus have little to lose by resisting democracy and attempting to reinstate a government they can control by force.

According to the report, about the only real asset the Sunni minority now has is the fact that many of them, as Baath party members, ran most of the physical infrastructure of the country and may be the only ones with the know-how to run power plants, water plants, sewer treatment plants, etc. In a country that routinely hits 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, you'd think this would be worth at least SOMETHING as a bargaining chip.

ECONOMICS -- One great single-line comment about the state of the Iraqi economy: Iraq had a police state economy in the 1970s, a war economy in the 1980s, and a sanctions economy in the 1990s. Of course, now they have no economy and no police forces and criminal / civil law structures that can properly sustain an environment capable of supporting human rights and personal property rights needed for any recognizable market economy to develop to provide stability.

RECONSTRUCTION AND DEBT -- The report mentions a total of $34 billion allocated by America for reconstruction, a total of $16 billion of that which has already been spent (and probably blown up already), and another $1.485 billion allocated in 2006 and $750 million allocated in 2007. The international community has really stepped into the void however. A total of $13.5 billion has been pledged but somehow only $4 billion has arrived. More importantly, many gulf states including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia hold billions in debt notes and have no plan yet to forgive or write down.

Uh oh.. A large, war-ravaged country. Millions of poor, unhappy citizens who suffered the consequences of bad policies pursued by their government. An economy held underwater in part by foreign debts incurred by the prior failed government which aren't being forgiven. Combine that with three convenient external scapegoats (external Sunnis holding debt, external Western infidels from America, and of course external Jews who are "always involved") and the movie plot seems frighteningly familiar.

ALTERNATIVE COURSES IN IRAQ -- The report concisely defines what the members believe are the four corners of the map of the "solution space" that must be rejected for various reasons. They are 1) precipitous withdrawal (which they reject out of hand), 2) staying the course (without defining what that course even is, which of course cannot be done), 3) more troops for Iraq (which they correctly state does nothing to produce internal reconciliation that is preventing all progress), 4) devolution to three nation-states (which they reject because of remaining mixes of ethnic / religious sects in whatever boundaries are drawn but also, very tellingly, because of concerns over a lack of central control over oil revenues).

By highlighting what are seen as the fatal flaws in each of these alternatives, the report attempts to set the stage for the commission's own well-reasoned, insightful, reasonably viable solutions and the organizing principles behind them. This is where the disappointment really sets in.

OUR GOALS -- The reports states the commission members agree with the current goal of United States policy in Iraq as stated by President Bush, which is an Iraq which can "govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself." Nothing else in this section is really worthy of discussion or comment. Read that goal again:

An Iraq which can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.

Was that really our goal when we started this war? Is that really our goal now?

REALLY? That simple?

Iran is a country that can govern itself. Iran is a country that can sustain itself. Iran is a country that seems to be able to defend itself. So is Syria. Is a government like Iran or Syria an acceptable benchmark of success for 2900+ lives and $350 billion dollars? Would you have supported the war in 2003 if George Bush had said our aim was to topple Saddam and allow an Islamic theocracy aligned with Iran in his place?

The report immediately "reads into" those goals additional motherhood and apple pie goals of a country that maintains its territorial integrity, is at peace with its neighbors, denies terrorists a sanctuary, and doesn't brutalize its own people. Categorizing these platitudes as "goals" of the United States is an abuse of the term "goal." If you are a punt returner fielding the ball on your 1-yard line, you can call "running 99 yards and scoring a touchdown" a goal because YOU'RE THE PLAYER. You're in a position to take actions which can achieve that goal. A fan watching the game from the stands can hope you score the touchdown, but scoring the touchdown isn't the fan's "goal" -- the fan isn't in a position to achieve the goal. They can only watch a player achieve his/her goal.

In the football game of Iraq, America has started the game by spotting the ball on the Iraqi 1-inch line, eliminated all the referees, filled the stands with rioting hooligans, recruited players who have never seen a football before, then given the Iraqi coaching staff a playbook they've never seen before and never had a chance to review with their players. For the fundamental problem of unification that is preventing all other progress, Americans are fans watching the game on TV via satellite. We "hope" they reach the other end zone, but it cannot be our "goal" -- we cannot act for them.


Overall Comments on the Report

The first thing that strikes any reader of this report is the odd "voice" or style of the writing. Combined with the fact that the report just starts describing the current state without describing who started the war, why the war was started, or what the original goals were for the war, the overall presentation seems somewhat adrift. The writing style also seems rather dumbed down, with highlighted asides providing brief biographies of major players, etc. One could assume the team was writing for consumption by the average American. I tend to think they were writing for their target audience -- George Bush.

The specific recommendations at the end of the report taken together produce the collective response of "Thank you, Captain Obvious." One theme that emerges from many of the recommendations is that countries in the region have a vested interest in producing stability within Iraq and the region and need to begin working with each other to solve long-standing problems. Another theme is that departments such as the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA need to take active roles in coaching struggling counterparts within Iraq. Maybe we can send some Pentagon auditors to Iraq to help them fight fraud. God knows they aren't busy finding any at the Pentagon. Of course, other recommendations call for reducing ongoing tension in the region by solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and call for America to "deal directly" with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

That recommendation alone seems to epitomize the denial and incoherence of the entire report. We have an Arab-Israeli conflict in part because of a one-two punch of political partitioning imposed on the region by Western forces after WWI and WWII. We now have an active war in Iraq because the United States unilaterally decided we wanted to eliminate a dictator then misled our allies into joining a Coalition of the Clueless in providing cover for our unilateral decision. We are in no better position to "direct" Arabs and Israelis to deal with one another honestly, fairly and justly than we are to "direct" the trash to be picked up in Sadr City once a week. What little moral leadership we might have once possessed has been utterly destroyed by the transparently flawed motivation behind this war and our horrendous execution of the war.

We knew there was no easy solution to the mess we've created. We now have 96 pages of additional proof.