The Iraq Study Group report contains seventy-nine proposals on correcting U.S. policy in Iraq. Chief among them is a call for recasting the U.S. military’s mission as one supporting Iraqi forces. To this end, the report recommends a five-fold increase in the number of U.S. troops embedded with Iraqi security forces as well as a phaseout of U.S. combat forces by the first quarter of 2008. The United States, said the bipartisan panel, should avoid making “open-ended commitments to keep large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq."
The panel also recommends a regional initiative that brings in all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and calls for revived efforts to achieve an Arab-Israeli settlement. “Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else,” says James A. Baker, III, one of the report’s cochairs. Finally, the report seeks to shift responsibilities onto the government in Baghdad to end the violence in Iraq, which some experts are calling a civil war. If the Iraqi government does not meet certain milestones on governance, national reconciliation, and security, the panel advises the U.S. government to withdraw its support. A critic of this proposal is CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon. "It's really absurd to hold the Iraqi government to benchmarks that it simply can’t hope to meet," he tells Bernard Gwertzman. "Right now there’s no conceivable constellation of Iraqi factions that could come together in a coalition that could work." Yet CFR President Richard N. Haass says the ISG report may give the Bush administration “the best chance that exists for making progress” in Iraq.
The report’s suggestion to engage Iran and Syria on Iraq, a throwback to Cold War-era realism, is likely to be met with some stiff resistance. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Tehran “ has shown little interest in talks with the United States on Iraq, and, in any case, could do little to advance stability in Iraq.” Others worry that Iran will make demands on preserving its controversial nuclear program in exchange for direct talks on Iraq. Yet Lee Hamilton, one of the panel’s cochairs, dismisses these concerns, noting that Iran “has the single greatest influence inside Iraq today.” Baker noted Iran worked with Washington on securing Afghanistan after 9/11 and made no mention of its nuclear program. In the case of Syria, Baker dismissed as “just ridiculous” any suggestions that negotiating with Damascus requires the United States “to sacrifice the investigations” into the killings of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The report also avoids politically charged terms like “victory,” but says “the ability of the United States to influence events [in Iraq] is diminishing.” At the same time, the report warns that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to wider regional war and that a division of Iraq into three states could create a humanitarian disaster. The ten-member panel reiterates that it takes a pragmatic approach to Iraq, representing a bipartisan viewpoint. President Bush recently said he had no plans of making a “graceful exit” (Economist.com) until the “mission is complete.” But Bush said his administration will take the report “very seriously” and that it gives political leaders the opportunities to find common ground on Iraq; the president indicated he would weigh its content with other upcoming reports on Iraq from the Pentagon and National Security Council.
Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and adviser to the Iraq Study Group, tells CFR.org in this podcast that it will be difficult for the White House not to adopt the commission’s proposals because the panel carries such significant weight. “There was some very serious debate associated with reaching the final tenets of the report,” says Sepp. A new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org shows that most Americans supported the expected recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including its calls to engage Iran and Syria and to convene an international conference on Iraq. Bush’s nominee as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, has also expressed openness to new options to how to solve the problems in Iraq.