Baker report’s whiff of realism on Iraq


Financial Times

Published: December 7 2006

There can be few more surreal moments in international politics than a president of the US welcoming the findings of a group of American elder statesmen which concludes that his defining policy – the invasion and occupation of Iraq – has caused local meltdown and could cause mayhem across the Middle East.

Naturally, it adds to the air of unreality when President George W. Bush keeps insisting he is not seeking a “graceful exit” from Iraq. As if.

The report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker, secretary of state to George Bush Sr, and Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman, pulls few punches, except perhaps in its almost histrionic overuse of the conditional could to describe events already under way (“neighbouring countries could intervene” in Iraq; “the global standing of the US could be diminished” and so on).

The ISG’s recommendations are that US troops withdraw from combat to a supporting role with Iraqi forces and start pulling out “responsibly” over the next year or so. To that end, the Iraqi government should be held to measur-able goals on security and “national reconciliation” between Sunni and Shia, locked in a sectarian war that is claiming around 5,000 lives a month.

The group also calls for a “diplomatic offensive” to get Iraq’s neighbours – including Iran and Syria – to help rebuild its security, and a new push to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of the region’s instability.

These are all sane suggestions. The question is: will a Bush administration trapped in denial act on them and, even if it does, will it be too late?

Mr Bush may move because, despite his protestations, the Baker exercise is intended to help him as he flounders towards the Iraqi exit. But there is no indication he is willing to engage with Iran or capable of pressing Israel to give up enough occupied land to enable the Palestinians to build a viable state.

If, as the ISG says, the US wishes at least to improve the chances of success in Iraq and the region, these are not optional choices but, as this newspaper has long argued, absolute necessities.

The US will never command Arab support unless it makes an honest attempt to secure justice for the Palestinians. Nor will it ever again be able to hold the ring in the Middle East without reaching some modus vivendi with Iran. The Iranians are the clear winners from the fiasco in Iraq. The Bush administration casually overturned a millennium-old Sunni Arab order, oversaw the installation of Tehran’s friends in Baghdad and then, as the consequences of its actions unfolded, scurried back to its old Sunni autocrat allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in search of solutions.

Wednesday’s advice to Mr Bush is clear: for there to be any chance of an orderly withdrawal that leaves behind some sort of stability in Iraq he should accept the Baker package as a whole.