December 7, 2006
So itís "troops out by 2008". That, clearly, is going to be the headline that comes out of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq which has just been unveiled in Washington. If only. Unfortunately, the report also contains the crucial qualifying phrase - "absent unforeseen developments". The entire Iraqi misadventure has been one long unforeseen development.
If the Americans are really going to make achieving "success" in Iraq (Baker does not talk of "victory") a condition for withdrawal, I suspect they are going to be there for a long time yet. So the real question ultimately may be at what point does the United States wash its hand of the whole situation - and walk away regardless of the consequences? And that - for understandable reasons - is not a question that Baker-Hamilton can explicitly address.
Apart from the headline goal of withdrawal by early 2008, what else is striking about the report. Three things, I think.
First, its entirely justified pessimism. We are told the "situation is grave and deteriorating". Asked what would be the consequence of American failure, Lee Hamilton replied - "anarchy, total chaos and rampant violence." Arguably, that is a reasonable description of the current situation.
Second, the thinness of the recommendations for improving matters. These seem to come down to two main ideas. Number one is improve the training of Iraqi troops. In the short term, as William Perry (a former defence secretary on the committee) acknowledged, this might actually mean sending more troops to Iraq. But "Iraqisation" - essentially training the Iraqis to take over - is a longstanding Bush administration policy. Do we really believe that fiddling around with training regimes is going to make a big difference, at this stage?
As for talking to Iran and Syria - again, this is not as new an idea as people think. The Americans have had a couple of high-level missions to Damascus since 2003. And the Bush administration proposed direct talks with Iran earlier this year. They could, of course, now drop their pre-condition that Iran first suspend its nuclear enrichment activities, in the hope of luring them into the talks. But - as Baker more or less acknowledged - there is no guarantee the Iranians would bite, even then.
Baker-Hamilton also proposes making a big new effort on Israel-Palestine. Now why hasnít anyone thought of that before? Of course, they are right that it would be wonderful if the US could crack that particular problem. But the fact that it has not been solved to date is not - as some seem to believe - simply because of a lack of will on the part of the Bush administration. I seem to recall that the likes of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have also fallen at that particular hurdle.
Finally, it seems to me that the ground is being prepared for the United States to walk away, and to blame the Iraqi government for failing to get its act together. Take a look at this recommendation from the report:
"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support."
If I were an Iraqi sitting in the green zone, I wouldnít feel too re-assured by that passage.