A Grim Verdict, Some Tough Calls to Make
Can the White House really find a way to fix Iraq?
The violence has been mounting at an alarming rate for months, but it was only last week that the debate over Iraq in Washington truly shifted. First, there was incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whose forthright admission that America is not "winning" in Iraq contrasted sharply with the dismissive doublespeak of Donald Rumsfeld. Then came the verdict of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group: "Current U.S. policy is not working."
While its specific recommendations might have been anticlimactic, the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, has already succeeded in one of its main objectives-changing the tenor of the debate in Washington. As recently as early November, President Bush was still telling cheering crowds, "We got a strategy for victory that will work." Last week, following the panel's report, a more chastened Bush struck a different chord. "It's bad in Iraq," he said, standing next to his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I believe we need a new approach." (Not everything changed, however: The front page of the New York Post derided the Iraq Study Group as "Surrender Monkeys.")
"Not enough time." It is unclear how many of the group's 79 recommendations President Bush will embrace-or even whether any changes in U.S. policy can have much effect on the ground in Iraq. Broadly, the Iraq Study Group calls for U.S. troops to transition to support roles and for combat units to be withdrawn by the first quarter of 2008. This would be accompanied by ambitious milestones for the Iraqi government and a broad new U.S. diplomatic offensive that would include reaching out to Iran and Syria. Bush's initial reaction to the specific proposals was chilly, but panel members are pressing him to use the report as an opportunity to change course. "He doesn't want to have these last two years be the failure of some stubborn president who didn't listen-some cowboy president," panel member and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson tells U.S. News.
The shortcomings of the U.S. effort in Iraq-which costs American taxpayers $2 billion a week-are clear enough in the report. For example, only 33 of the 1,000 staffers in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad speak Arabic (and only six of them are fluent). The group also says that U.S. intelligence is lacking, adding that fewer than 10 of the analysts "on the job" at the Defense Intelligence Agency have been tracking the insurgency for more than two years (a point DIA disputes). And the option of sending more U.S. troops to quell the violence cannot even be considered because "we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase," the report says.
Perhaps most damning, the Iraq Study Group blasts the Bush administration for routinely undercounting the violence by, for instance, excluding sectarian attacks when the perpetrator cannot be determined. So while 93 attacks or violent incidents were recorded on one day last July, an Iraq Study Group review turned up 1,100 violent incidents that day. "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals," the report concludes.