The pie-in-the-sky report

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

BLUE-RIBBON panels are easy to mock, but some actually do perform a valuable service. The base-closing commissions, for example, were able to close down military installations that weren’t needed but that Congress couldn’t pull the plug on. The 9/11 commission produced a definitive and enthralling account of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

And then there is the Iraq Study Group. The money spent on its deliberations should have been redirected to some worthier purpose, such as figuring out once and for all how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Its much-vaunted report was an anticlimactic combination of banalities and stay-the-course recommendations leavened with generous dollops of wishful thinking.

The group’s report begins with the obvious: “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” Everyone knows that (even, probably, in his heart of hearts, President Bush), but no one is sure what to do about it, and the group doesn’t help any.

Its flagship recommendation has been described as calling for the departure of U.S. combat troops within a year, but it says nothing of the sort. Here is the key sentence: “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” Note the weasel words I’ve italicized. Without those caveats, this would have been a Murtha-esque call for withdrawal. With all those caveats, this is the policy Bush is already following: “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”

Of course, the Iraqis haven’t been standing up as fast as we want, and so we haven’t seen the troop reductions that have been promised regularly by the Pentagon since April 2003. If you read the fine print, the report doesn’t really call for this policy to change, because it warns (rightly) of the risks of “precipitate withdrawal.”


If there is one area where the report disdains the current course, it is in the Bush administration’s failure to do more to “engage” Syria and Iran. The report demands that “Iran should stop the flow of arms and training to Iraq” and that “Syria should control its border with Iraq,” but it gives no idea of how these elusive goals could possibly be achieved. The report does not recommend letting Iran go nuclear or letting Syria subjugate Lebanon, which would most likely be the price of any deal. Instead, it dangles such unappetizing carrots as “enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States.” As if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is just dying to have afternoon tea with Condoleezza Rice.

The intellectual bankruptcy of the report is revealed in its long section calling for “a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.” What is this doing in a report on Iraq? Do the study members imagine that if Israel made nice with Hamas, that this would lead Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to stop slaughtering one another? The report doesn’t actually make this nonsensical claim. The closest it comes to finding a link between Israel and Iraq is its call for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which presumably would make Syrian strongman Bashar Assad less grouchy and more cooperative.

So one of Washington’s closest allies is expected to make dangerous concessions to one of its bitterest enemies on the off chance that this might somehow improve the situation in Iraq? This could only make sense to someone like group co-chairman James A. Baker III, whose approach to the Mideast could be described as “blame Israel first.”

Some of the group’s other recommendations are more compelling -- for example, beefing up the military advisory effort in Iraq and devoting more intelligence resources “to the task of understanding the threats and sources of violence in Iraq.” But the report takes scant account of the difficulties of implementation. Most of its 79 recommendations are lofty demands, such as No. 36: “The United States should encourage dialogue between sectarian communities” in Iraq. Note to the study group: A succession of U.S. envoys has been trying to do just that for almost four years.

If there’s one thing calculated to make the administration’s failed Iraq policy look good, it’s the inability of all these gray eminences to find a compelling alternative. Hmm. You don’t suppose that was what that crafty old Bush family courtier, Jimmy Baker, intended all along, do you?