Baker Group Urges Major Policy Overhaul
WASHINGTON, 6 Dec
(IPS) - Calling the situation in Iraq 'grave and deteriorating,' the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) Wednesday urged a major overhaul of U.S. policies both in Iraq and the larger Middle East.
As anticipated, the 10-member group, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, called for a phase-out of the U.S. combat role in Iraq between now and the first quarter of 2008 and an intensification of efforts to train and deploy Iraqi forces.
Among 79 recommendations included in its report, the ISG also called for urgently convening all of Iraq's neighbours, including Syria and Iran, as part of a comprehensive 'New Diplomatic Offensive' designed to both stabilise Iraq and to address 'key regional issues', including the Arab-Israeli conflict.
'There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President George W. Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine,' the 142-page asserted in an implicit rebuke to Bush's neglect of these conflicts.
Calling on Washington to 'act boldly', the report, which was adopted unanimously by the group's members, declared that 'The United States does its ally Israel no favours in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.'
'You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with,' Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre here, told a press briefing where the report was officially released. 'Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else, and this diplomatic initiative that we have put forward recognises that.'
The report, which also called for increased U.S. military and other assistance for Afghanistan's government, was delivered to the White House at a breakfast meeting between the ISG and Bush early Wednesday. Bush thanked its members for their work and pledged to take its ideas 'very seriously'.
How seriously he will take them, however, is the subject of much speculation here. Just last week, for example, Bush appeared to rule out direct talks with either Damascus or Tehran, although the White House Wednesday stressed that it was prepared to engage the two countries as part of the 'Iraq Compact Group' which last met, however, in 2004.
Most political analysts here insist that Bush's response could well depend on the degree to which Democrats rally behind the report and the reaction of key Republican lawmakers, who, shaken by their loss of Congress in last month's elections, have become increasingly impatient with the White House's insistence that its current strategy in Iraq and the region is working or needs only a few tactical adjustments.
The Congressionally-mandated ISG began work last March and included former Defence Secretary William Perry; former Attorney-General Edward Meese, and President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, among others.
In addition to offering policy recommendations, its main purpose was to de-politicise the increasingly rancorous debate over Iraq by forming a consensus designed to appeal to centrists in both parties. 'This country cannot be at war and be as divided as we are today,' Panetta said.
The report thus explicitly ruled out policy options supported by the two parties' core constituencies. It warned, for example, that a 'precipitate withdrawal of troops' from Iraq, as favoured by some Democrats, would result in 'a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy.'
It also predicted that dividing Iraq into three autonomous regions, as proposed by the incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Joseph Biden, would 'likely result in a humanitarian disaster or a broad-based civil war.'
Conversely, it ruled out a 'stay-the-course' solution as 'no longer viable'. 'The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in America,' Hamilton said.
Indeed, the tone of both the report and Wednesday's briefing was both urgent and grim, as both co-chairs stressed repeatedly that the time for reversing the situation in Iraq was fast running out and may in fact already have done so.
'We believe that the situation in Iraq is very, very serious,' noted Hamilton. 'We do not know if it can be turned around, but we think we have an obligation to try, and if the recommendations that we have made are effectively implemented, there is at least a chance that you can see established a stable government in Iraq and stability in the region.'
On Iraq itself, the report stressed that the U.S. should draw down virtually all of its combat troops over the next 15 months at the same time that it increases the number of U.S. trainers and troops 'embedded' with Iraqi army units from the current 4,000 to as many as 20,000.
It did not rule out a substantial increase in the 140,000 troops currently deployed to Iraq, as a number of Republican hawks – and some retired generals -- have recently urged to curb violence in Baghdad, but warned that any major increase will not be sustainable in the medium or long term.
Stressing that no military solution in Iraq was possible, the report called for the U.S. to 'engage all parties in Iraq, with the exception of al Qaeda' and for Bush to state that Washington does not seek either permanent military bases there or control of its oil.
It also urged Washington to set a series of specific objectives -- or 'milestones' -- for furthering national reconciliation, security, and governance. If, however, the Iraqi government fails to make 'substantial progress' toward their achievement, 'the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support,' the report said.
As for the New Diplomatic Offensive, which is likely to prove the most controversial part of the report, the ISG stressed that it should go 'beyond the primarily economic Compact for Iraq' by addressing political, diplomatic, and security issues throughout the region.
It called for the U.S. to 'immediately seek the creation of the Iraq International Support Group' to include all of the country's neighbours, as well as key countries in the region and the world. All of Iraq's neighbours, including Syria and Iran, according to the ISG, 'favor a unified Iraq that is strong enough to maintain its territorial integrity, but not so powerful as to threaten its neighbours.'
'Under the aegis of the New Diplomatic Offensive and the Support Group, the United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues,' the report stated, noting that Washington should 'consider incentives to engage them constructively, much as it did successfully with Libya.'
According to Baker, who met earlier in the fall with senior representatives from both countries, 'we didn't get the feeling that Iran is chomping at the bit to come to the table with us to talk about Iraq, and, in fact, we say (in the report) we think they very well might not.' On the other hand, he said, 'there's some strong indications that (Syria) would be in a position to help us and might want to help us.'
As to the wider regional context, including the Arab-Israelis conflict, the ISG called for 'the unconditional calling and holding of meetings, under the auspices of the United States or the Quartet between Israel and Lebanon and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel's right to exist) on the other... as soon as possible.'
The aim would be 'to negotiate peace as was done at the Madrid conference in 1991, and on two separate tracks -- one Syrian/Lebanese, and the other Palestinian.' **** +POLITICS-US: Neo-Cons Move to Preempt Baker Report (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=35731) +Iraq Study Group Report (http://www.usip.org/isg/iraq_study_group_report/report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)