What they said ...

IT COULD NOT PUT an end to sectarian violence in Iraq, but at least for a day the Iraq Study Group put an end to sectarian bickering in Washington. The panel’s five Republicans and five Democrats unanimously agreed that the present strategy in Iraq is not working and signed off on 79 recommendations to the Bush administration.

Their report distills the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington, laced with a measure of wishful thinking. Yes, persuading Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq, contrary to the administration’s stance, is a worthy pursuit, though it isn’t clear why Syria and Iran would want to do so, at least in the immediate term. And yes, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would indeed reduce tensions throughout the Arab world, though linking that issue to the commission’s brief was a stretch that plays into the hands of anti-American extremists in the region.

The report also engages in some suspiciously tidy thinking when it says that most U.S. combat troops can exit Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. The commission seems to be offering President Bush the “graceful exit” he has said is not possible. But the formulation is unsatisfying and carefully hedged.

The report says the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating” and concedes that the U.S. cannot pull out abruptly. Yet its recipe for turning the corner -- ramp up the training of the Iraqi army while reducing U.S. combat units -- is disingenuously optimistic. No one can argue with a recommendation to train Iraqi units at an accelerated pace and to include more U.S. troops serving alongside them. But more direct U.S. involvement in the daily battle to secure Baghdad may also be necessary, especially in the short term.

More useful is the report’s discussion of Iraqi governance. To counter the impression that the United States has given the Iraqi government a blank check to do as it pleases, the commission calls for consequences if Baghdad fails to meet specific milestones on governance and national unity. For instance, future U.S. assistance should be conditioned on the government’s willingness to take on Shiite militias. This is the most timely part of the report, in light of the Bush administration’s own doubts about the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the moral imperative of preventing U.S. troops from becoming partisans in an Iraqi civil war.


One of the most refreshing of the report’s recommendations doesn’t appear until No. 72. It won’t get U.S. troops out any faster, or bring democracy to Iraq. It would, however, end a gross subversion of democratic checks and balances here at home.

The commission calls out the Bush administration for its excessive reliance on supplemental appropriations bills to pay for the war. This is a way of bypassing House and Senate committees that spend nearly a year examining the president’s annual budget request. The emergency bills make it impossible to tell what’s going to Iraq and what’s going to Afghanistan or somewhere else.

In this, as in so many other areas of the war, the administration’s strategy seems designed to avoid congressional review -- and in this case, it also runs up the federal tab and conceals the true costs of the war from the American people.