It won't be quick or easy. But, surprisingly, there are at least some ideas
James A. Baker III delights in delivering the long-ball play. In his newly released memoir, he describes the "sweet payoff" of getting Syria and other recalcitrant Arab nations to attend the 1991 Madrid peace conference. After putting together a broad Arab and international coalition to wage the first Gulf War, Baker, secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush, wanted to "capitalize on the momentum of this first-ever experience with regional cooperation in the Middle East." In many ways, Baker is taking up old business again today in his job as cochair of the Iraq Study Group that is soon to present its formula for stopping the bleeding from the sucking chest wound that the Iraq war has become.
The difficulties are even more daunting this time as violence threatens to spiral out of control. The Iraq Study Group--10 former cabinet officials, senators, counselors, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor--is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and is "at loggerheads" in its deliberations, says a Baker aide. But Baker and his cochair, longtime Democratic legislator Lee Hamilton, remain committed to reaching a bipartisan consensus on their recommendations to find a way to end the 3 ÃÂÃÂ½-year-old war that has cost nearly 3,000 American lives and taken tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. President Bush has said he looks forward to the group's report, and he has launched his own review of Iraq policy. The Pentagon is also conducting a review of its military options.
The debate over Iraq has spawned a welter of proposals for new policies, but something like a consensus position has begun to emerge on some key issues, including the need for a political settlement and diplomatic overtures to Iraq's neighbors. On the hot-button issue of U.S. troop levels, however--whether, when, and how many should be withdrawn from Iraq--sharp disagreement remains. Yet even there, a middle-ground position might be fashioned to win support from moderates on both sides of the aisle and from the White House. With a new Iraq policy, almost inevitably, will come new faces. The Pentagon is getting a new boss, and replacements for the U.S. ambassador and top military commander in Iraq are being discussed. Even with a new policy, however, one sober-minded former U.S. official cautions, "it may be too late for any strategy to work."
If the Baker group fails, it won't be for lack of trying. For the past six months, dozens of academic experts provided proposals and analysis to the group. The experts lined up behind two main options and wrote papers titled "Stability First" and "Redeploy and Contain." According to experts interviewed by U.S. News, the former paper called for a focus on stabilizing Baghdad and an effort to reach an accommodation with the insurgents rather than defeating them. The latter favored withdrawing U.S. troops on a timetable and taking military and diplomatic steps to contain Iraq's violence within its borders.
When word of the two papers leaked, Baker and Hamilton reacted immediately. The experts were cut out of the loop and thereafter used as a resource to provide further information to commissioners in writing. Baker, who had been out promoting his memoir, stopped granting interviews. The rest of the panel also stopped talking to the press. The cochairs and their aides wrote their own draft report and guarded its contents closely. Nonetheless, in several dozen interviews, U.S. News has pieced together this account of the group's deliberations, the evolving search for an alternative policy, and the administration's response to the mounting pressure for an exit strategy.
Autonomy or partition. The case for increased autonomy for Iraq's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities has been put forward by Sen. Joe Biden and former Council on Foreign Relations President Leslie Gelb. Former Ambassador Peter Galbraith has made the case for partition of Iraq. The premise of the two proposals is that Iraq's warring groups cannot reach an accommodation, so they should be permitted to rule over the geographic areas they dominate with a minimal central government that would guarantee fair sharing of oil revenues. The main difficulty with this is that some one third of Iraqis live in intermixed areas, and many Iraqis are intermarried. As the authors acknowledge, a neat geographic division is impossible without mass population movement.
The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, criticized this proposal in an interview with U.S. News. "There are some American politicians who think that they can devise a way out, sitting here in Washington or spending a few hours in the Green Zone," he said. "The idea of subdividing Iraq is very dangerous. It will create far more problems." A senior U.S. intelligence expert on Iraq believes it is "a nonstarter" for the practical reason that "the people with the guns don't accept it. ... The Shia and Sunni both still want a unified, Arab-dominated Iraq-dominated by them."
Rapid or phased withdrawal. Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is the principal advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Others call for fixed dates for withdrawal or not replacing brigades as their rotations end. More and more Americans support withdrawal, but Hamilton, Baker's cochair, opposes both formulas. "Pulling out precipitously could cause considerable damage to U.S. interests," he wrote in the Indianapolis Star last year. "Arbitrary deadlines will not work."
The directors of both the central and defense intelligence agencies testified recently that the departure of American forces, without any other steps, would make the violence worse. A defense intelligence official described what he believes would be the Iraqi reaction to such a move. "Any attempts to draw down dramatically in the near term will be seen as a sign of weakness by Sunni Arabs and will accelerate score settling," he told U.S. News. "The Shia, in turn, will feel they have to assert themselves."
Larry Diamond, who advised U.S. officials in Iraq and subsequently wrote a book criticizing U.S. policy there, paints a stark portrait of what he believes would ensue. "Withdrawal would lead to a ghastly, all-out civil war and a sudden, cataclysmic collapse of the Iraqi government," he says. "If we just start heading for the exits, and that's all we do, all of the most extreme elements will seize power."
Troop increases. Sen. John McCain advocates sending more troops, arguing that the continued violence demonstrates that there are inadequate numbers to deal with the problem and that the Iraqi security forces aren't ready to shoulder the task. Gen. John Abizaid, overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, testified that Washington could temporarily increase troop levels by some 20,000-and said he is weighing all options. But he also said such an increase could not be sustained indefinitely. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former Army vice chief and a senior consultant to the Baker-Hamilton group, believes that "the Iraqi political process has failed because the Sunnis are not participating. As far as the Sunnis are concerned, they are succeeding in their desire to create an unstable environment, fracture the Iraqi government, and drive the United States out. The evidence suggests they are right." Therefore, he argues, "for a political strategy to work, the military strategy has to enable it. The military strategy must force the Sunnis to seek a political solution, and right now there is insufficient pressure on them to seek one," he told U.S. News. "The current level of Iraqi and U.S. forces is not adequate to the task." Iraqi police and military forces now number 322,000 and U.S. troops about 140,000. General Keane advocates raising the Iraqi forces to some 650,000-which will take time-and increasing U.S. troop levels, at least in the near term.
National compact. There is growing support for the idea of making a full-bore push to reach a political agreement among Iraq's warring factions. Some see it as the only real hope for ending the violence. One of the experts advising the Baker-Hamilton group, Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: "The most important element of a new approach is a fundamentally reinvigorated political effort that would put pressure on the ... government [of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] to do more in extending a hand to Sunnis."
Analysts differ over whether the Shiite or Sunni antagonists need to be pressured more. One intelligence official says that coercion is also required on the Sunni side, where insurgents still harbor dreams of returning to power, provoking fear among the Shiites, who turn for protection to their militias. "The Sunni have guns, recruits, motivation," the official says, "and the wherewithal to continue this for a very long time."
The administration has been trying to bring about political reconciliation for the past year, and the Iraqi government laid out a timeline for doing so in October, although it failed this month to reach agreement on allowing more Baathists to resume jobs in the government and failed to pass a new oil law, as hoped. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Afghan-American who speaks fluent Arabic, was regarded by many as the best hope for brokering a deal. He is reportedly leaving his post in the next few months.
Some criticize the administration for having failed to reach out to Sunni antagonists before they grew so strong. One official asserts that the National Security Council's director for Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, blocked attempts to negotiate with key members of the insurgency and former regime officials, a charge she denies. Even now, says Diamond, "we need to talk very intensively and urgently, without any preconditions, to those elements who have been excluded-the former Baathists, Army officers, the Iraqi Islamist groups." In the past month, there have been a few small gains on this front, as secret talks with some insurgents won their promise not to attack coalition forces, and some Sunni tribes have been enlisted to go after al Qaeda insurgents.
Arm twisting. In response to the criticism that the United States has failed to put enough pressure on the Maliki government, a senior administration official said: "Some assume that all we say to the Iraqis is what we say in public." Indeed, on a recent visit to Iraq, General Abizaid told Maliki he needed to take action against the Shiite militias "very soon," and he told Congress that he believes the government has only four to six months before the violence spirals beyond its ability to rein it in. But the senior administration official acknowledged that the piecemeal approach to negotiation hasn't succeeded. "The Iraqi leadership has said it is easier to do it incrementally. The reality is that it is very hard to get without trade-offs." That recognition reflects the administration's growing willingness to embrace a new approach, to convene the parties and tell them that the time to resolve their differences is now.
Abizaid delivered a barely veiled warning in recent congressional testimony, following his visit with Maliki. "We are in danger of having civil war," he said, "if the government does not open a reasonable dialogue for national reconciliation and back its Army in its attempt to gain stability 100 percent." U.S. military officials have been frustrated by numerous incidents in which Maliki undercut Iraqi troops who were going after death squad leaders and kidnappers, apparently to shield Shiite militia figures or avoid the wrath of Shiite politicians.
If all avenues for reaching an accord have not already been exhausted, the question is whether any new inducements ought to be offered. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who will become the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, has called for President Bush to announce an initial troop cut within four to six months as a way of putting pressure on Maliki. Levin envisions it as a clear signal and not necessarily a prelude to further cuts, and he opposes any scheduled withdrawal as too rigid, an aide says. Levin would also leave it up to the Pentagon to decide how many troops to withdraw.
Regional diplomacy. There is wide agreement on the desirability of enlisting Iraq's neighbors to support a political accord there or reduce their assistance to insurgent and militia groups. The new Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill advocates convening an international conference to gain greater cooperation. U.S. officials say that Syria is allowing Sunni insurgents across its border, and they say Iran is helping Shiite militia groups in a bid for wider regional influence. Proponents of dialogue argue that while these countries are U.S. adversaries, neither wants Iraq to become a failed state. "I believe both countries would try to bargain," says a Mideast diplomat. "The question is, should bad behavior be rewarded?"
Baker has not taken a public stand on the merits of negotiating with Syria and Iran, but as a matter of principle he said: "Personally, I believe in talking to your enemies." He recalled in an October interview that it took him 16 trips to Syria to get the government to change its 25-year-old policy and sit down with Israel in 1991. "That never would have happened," he said, "had we not made those trips and had we not talked to them."
In the past few days, the administration has appeared to open the door a crack. The State Department's David Satterfield, its top official on Iraq, said that the administration is prepared to talk to Iran but not to Syria. "We believe the Syrian government is well aware of our concerns and the steps required to address those concerns," he said curtly. But, he added, "we are prepared, in principle, to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq." This was the clearest indication to date that the administration may move soon to embrace this diplomatic gambit.
The U.S. diplomatic overtures to its friends in the region have so far borne little fruit. Satterfield acknowledged that the Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have not forgiven Iraq's debt to them as Washington has asked and are unwilling to provide peacekeeping forces. This is partly because of these Sunni-led states' concern over the rise of Iran's influence in Iraq but also because of their pique over the lack of U.S. consultation with them. Many experts advocate bringing in Europe and the United Nations to expand the tool kit of influence; next month the United Nations is supposed to announce an international compact that will bring economic benefits if Iraq implements economic reforms. Officials say politics and a dysfunctional bureaucracy have left some $13 billion in petrodollars bottled up in Iraq's finance ministry.
The Democratic leadership's embrace of political negotiations and more active diplomacy makes it even more likely that these elements will be part of the Iraq Study Group recommendations. Another element likely to appear in the report is a call for the U.S. military mission to transition from one focused on combat to one focused on advising Iraqi forces and counterterrorism. In another sign of growing consensus on this point, a similar recommendation may be forthcoming from the reviews of military strategy now underway at the Pentagon, at the Central Command, and in Iraq.
The security compromise. Abizaid testified that the military is currently looking at ways to make the U.S. military advisers embedded with Iraqi forces the focus of the strategy. There are about 4,000 U.S. advisers in 10-to-15-man teams. Currently, there are 139 such American teams working with the Iraqi Army and 14 others staffed by coalition forces, as well as teams embedded with Iraqi police and border guards. In addition, there are special operations forces serving as combat advisers to scout platoons in about one third of the Iraqi Army.
A senior U.S. military official told U.S. News that two ways are being considered to expand the advisory effort. More advisers and supporting teams can be drawn from the existing combat brigades now in Iraq, and additional advisers can be trained and brought in from the United States. No decision has yet been reached on how large the increase will be, the official said, but it could be double the present number. He also pointed out that in some parts of Iraq, advisers already get help from the U.S. combat brigade assigned to the area, such as in Mosul, where a Training Combat Advisory Team backed up the embedded Military Transition Team. That formula may be expanded nationwide. Making the teams more "robust" also means giving them more vehicles and weapons so they can move around and protect themselves once U.S. combat brigades are withdrawn. Additional interpreters and training are also needed to make advisers more effective; the latter will include revamping the counterinsurgency courses at Taji and stateside.
Finally, plans are already being drawn up to shift more responsibility and control to the Iraqi forces. A high-level U.S.-Iraqi committee is currently negotiating the terms for a faster turnover of authority, bases, and provinces to Iraqi control. The committee is also discussing ways of making the Iraqi forces more mobile by leaving behind U.S. up-armored humvees as units withdraw and improving their heavy weaponry via foreign military sales purchases. General Abizaid suggested that this turnover package could be tied to an accord on militia demobilization and amnesty as an additional incentive.
If the expanded advisers do boost the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqis prove able to manage a faster turnover, that can open the way for an earlier drawdown of some U.S. troops than previously envisioned-possibly in less than 12 months, according to Abizaid. Flournoy, who served in the Clinton administration's Pentagon, believes that this plan might win the support of the Democratic leaders, who she says are not rigidly insisting on a fixed redeployment or withdrawal calendar. "What they really want is not a date certain so much as a sign that this is not a perpetually open-ended commitment."
Some in the Baker group are concerned that drawdown signals could make it harder to reach an agreement by raising fears that the United States will not act as the guarantor of any accord that is reached. And actual drawdowns or pullback could make the remaining U.S. advisers more vulnerable and spur more violence. But regardless of U.S. moves, if chances of an accord recede, the environment will become increasingly dangerous for any remaining forces. Within six months, one expert said, it should be clear whether Iraqis can reach agreement. The conflict's own dynamic may in effect become the timeline that everyone is looking for.
Trying to fashion a stable and unified Iraq will be a huge job, one that may in the end prove impossible, but there's at least one obvious candidate for the job. Flournoy speculates that the Iraq Study Group chief could be tapped to carry out the report's diplomatic recommendations. "It is possible that the president will say, 'Jim Baker, you just got yourself a job. Go get on a plane,'" she says. If so, the Texas lawyer might well find himself reliving his earlier days of shuttle diplomacy, described in his memoir: "Almost everywhere," he wrote, "I was met with delays, refusals, evasions, unreasonable demands, broken commitments, and endless lectures about the untrustworthiness of the other side." Hard to imagine better training than that for fixing the mess in Iraq.
This story appears in the December 4, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.