Even the Wise Men Can’t Save Us in Iraq

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

December 3, 2006

Washington is abuzz as reports about the findings of the Iraq Study Group grow from a trickle to a flow. Doves hope that the group’s endorsement of troop withdrawals will be the first step in a speedy exit from Iraq. Hawks hope that the study group will leave enough wiggle room to support President Bush’s commitment to remain in Iraq as long as necessary “to get the job done.” All sides, in short, are looking to James A. Baker III, Lee H. Hamilton and the other commissioners to evaluate current policies and chart a path forward — a job that normally should be carried out by, well, Congress and the White House.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan study group is almost certain to disappoint these high and contradictory expectations. This is not a statement on the abilities or intentions of the panel’s members; rather, it is the simple realization of the potential pitfalls — tepid recommendations, partisan divisions, little follow-up and eventual irrelevance — that have beset countless commissions, study groups and blue ribbon panels since the nation’s founding.

Indeed, commissions are nearly as old as the United States. In 1794, George Washington created one to help mediate the Whiskey Rebellion; it flopped, setting a sorry precedent for many of its successors.

Commissions do not come about by accident. Most are created after a disaster or tragedy, such as the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, or the 9/11 commission, on whose staff I served. Others come about in anticipation of a long-term crisis, such as the 1983 National Commission on Social Security Reform. Often special panels exist because Congress or outsiders do not trust the executive branch to investigate itself, as in the case of the Tower Commission, which examined the Iran-contra scandal. Still other commissions enable leaders to feign decisiveness while they kick the can down the road, such as the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which helped policymakers appear responsive to the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Finally, administrations create commissions because they want cover for an already planned change of course. “When it is hopeless,” one veteran of several investigations put it to me, “people turn to a commission.”

The Iraq Study Group has a touch of all these elements. It is investigating an ongoing policy disaster and proposing long-term solutions; Congress doesn’t trust the administration to shift course alone; and all parties hope the commission will show that it is seeking new solutions and will provide cover for their preferred options. A tall order, and one unlikely to be met.

Just as politics leads to the creation of commissions, so, too, does it shape their membership. Political leaders of both parties often try to stack the ranks with their own people, and commissions are thus packed with inside-the-Beltway denizens. For example, Brent Scowcroft, the independent-minded national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, is the quintessential commission member. Scowcroft has led or served on commissions on strategic forces, arms control and defense management; he was on the Tower Commission; and he has headed groups such as the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Such people bring gravitas and knowledge of Beltway realities to commissions, but overall, the overrepresentation of Washington insiders seldom promotes fresh thinking.

Once formed, commissions must find and propose something — almost anything. Imagine if the Iraq Study Group concludes that there are few good options for Iraq. Such a conclusion would be patently true, but would disappoint everyone and also lead to questions about why the panel existed at all.

In reaching their findings, commission leaders strive to unify their members; otherwise they risk seeing their recommendations swallowed up by Washington’s partisan politics. But consensus has its price. As Philip D. Zelikow and Ernest May, the executive director and a senior adviser, respectively, of the 9/11 commission, have written, “Keeping peace within a large and diverse staff and avoiding the appearance of partisan tilt sometimes requires muting interpretation.” Unsurprisingly, Bush and Bill Clinton emerged largely unscathed from the 9/11 commission report, while bureaucracies that are not tied to either party — such as the CIA — took the lion’s share of the blame.

Commissions don’t want their findings leaked piecemeal and criticized preemptively, so secrecy is at a premium. As a result, some of their suggestions are not fully vetted, making it more likely that a panel will issue a proposal that is less sound or is unnecessarily contentious. As Hamilton and Thomas H. Kean wrote in their book on the 9/11 commission, “Secrecy is a precursor to cynicism and conspiracy theories.”

By their very nature, commissions are temporary creations, often lacking the ability to follow up on their own recommendations. In congressional investigations, hearings can continue as long as a problem lingers unresolved, but commissions are like bees: They sting once and then die. They can make a splash with their recommendations, but savvy bureaucrats know that even widely publicized findings are often forgotten within weeks. How many in Washington, for instance, can remember the good ideas buried in the 2000 report of the National Commission on Terrorism, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer?

One of the innovations of the 9/11 commission was a follow-up effort — known as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project — that watchdogged the implementation of the panel’s recommendations and gave various bureaucracies lousy grades in a widely publicized report card. Yet even that effort has fallen short at times. Democrats in Congress, who have long campaigned on implementing the 9/11 commission report, quickly abandoned that pledge upon recapturing the majority. The leadership has deciding against reorganizing congressional oversight of the intelligence community — one of the panel’s key recommendations. Reform, it seems, is for the other guy.

Indeed, commissions’ greatest influence often comes years later, when another disaster leads congressional staffers or mid-level bureaucrats to blow the dust off the old tomes. For example, recommendations from the Hart-Rudman Commission on U.S. national security in the 21st century and the Gilmore Commission on U.S. preparedness for terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction eventually helped create the Department of Homeland Security. But it took the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the government began casting about for ways to protect the nation from further terrorism, for these commission reports to seem relevant again.

Of all the hurdles ahead for the Baker-Hamilton group, the most daunting may prove strictly political. Many commissions have addressed technical policy issues — say, how to better protect vulnerable U.S. embassies or other facilities worldwide. But the Iraq Study Group exists not just to solve a policy problem, but also to fill a political vacuum. To date, neither the administration nor Democrats have admitted the horrific costs of either staying in Iraq or withdrawing troops. For more than a year now, some of the top minds in the military have thought hard about how to change course in Iraq and still win, and some improvements in doctrine and training have emerged. But broadly speaking, there is no technical fix to Iraq that is lying in a musty drawer in the Pentagon. And technical answers don’t address the most difficult political questions: What are U.S. interests in Iraq? How would a pullout affect U.S. interests beyond Iraq? And how many more American lives and taxpayer dollars will we risk to protect those interests?

Commissions at times fall back on politically easy answers, or simply bypass the most important questions. Despite the centrality of Iraq to the fight against terrorism, the 9/11 commission basically dodged the war altogether, but it did have time to make a host of recommendations on intelligence restructuring and first-responder radio spectrums. Similarly, the otherwise hard-hitting Robb-Silberman investigation of the intelligence community’s performance with regard to Iraq’s WMD programs took a dive on the key political question in the public mind: whether the White House manipulated the prewar intelligence.

For the Iraq Study Group, a similarly easy answer would be an uncritical endorsement of “handing off” security to Iraqi forces — a policy that the Bush administration and Democrats support, and one too often discussed as a nearly magical way to prevent a collapse in Iraq while drawing down U.S. forces. Yet the Iraqi army and police are corrupt, poorly trained, and penetrated by insurgents and militias. Reforming Iraqi security forces is vital, but it is a decade-long effort. They will not be ready to assume responsibility for security in troubled areas or otherwise ease the U.S. burden in the near-term.

The two leaders of the Iraq Study Group are experienced Washington hands who do not need to worry about their findings hurting their popularity or future job prospects. They are respected across the political aisle, and each is willing to criticize his own party’s positions. But because they are unlikely to find a technical fix to the Iraq war’s political problems, their greatest contribution will be initiating, rather than concluding, a broader debate on how to proceed. In such a debate, the best choices will not (and should not) earn unanimity. A serious escalation is probably necessary to “win” in Iraq, and this will require hundreds of billions more dollars and hundreds of thousands more U.S. troops. If winning is too demanding and politically unfeasible, then the United States must think creatively about ways to draw down significantly while still maintaining some influence in the Iraqi snake pit.

Washington has dithered long enough rather than face these hard, unpalatable choices. At best, the Iraq Study Group will catalyze our leadership and help foster the political will to accept this painful reality. But salvation? Forget about it.