What Would the Iraq Study Group Do?

The boldest suggestion by last fall’s Iraq Study Group was its recommendation that all U.S. combat forces be redeployed home by early 2008, save for those needed to battle Al Qaeda terrorists, help train Iraqi forces and protect whatever Americans remain in that country thereafter. Though they have spoken with a unified voice until now, the Study Group’s co-chairmen, former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), and former secretary of state James Baker, are in direct, public disagreement over how to interpret and apply that recommendation to the current political impasse in Washington.

In Washington Post op-eds on March 25 and April 5, first Hamilton and then Baker weighed in on Congress’ proposal to mandate a redeployment of most American forces from Iraq by next year. Hamilton claims that the Democratic-controlled Congress is basically on the correct track in calling for a near-complete troop withdrawal by mid-2008 at the latest, and he uses the Study Group’s document to back up his point. Baker effectively claims that President Bush is right in opposing any set troop withdrawal deadline and that Congress is wrong in doing so. He also uses the Study Group report to make his case.

Their rift over how long U.S. combat forces should stay in Iraq is so inherently contentious for two reasons.

First, the Baker-Hamilton commission’s recommendation on this point seems internally inconsistent with the overall logic of the rest of the Study Group’s thinking. The authors of the report called for using American leverage to induce the Iraqis to make better decisions on building political consensus across sectarian lines and on governing their country honestly and effectively. According to this line of thinking, good decisions would result in continued American economic and diplomatic support, while bad choices would lead to a cutoff of aid and a general reduction in the U.S. commitment.

Except, that is, on the matter of American combat forces—our greatest source of leverage. According to the Study Group’s recommendations, our troops would return home nearly entirely regardless of what the Iraqis did.

Second, and more importantly, a binding deadline to get most forces home would seem inconsistent with any hope of stabilizing Iraq. Even if the Iraqis make good decisions on governance and reconciliation, they will not be in a position to hold their own country together within a year. Their institutions, starting with the army and police, simply will not be strong enough to handle the challenge. If American main combat forces departed, sectarian paranoias would probably lead Iraqi security forces to fracture once violent events occur next year (as they surely will).

The split between Hamilton and Baker may surprise readers. After all, Baker’s column began, “I wholeheartedly agree with a point Lee Hamilton made in his … op-ed.” But careful readings of both essays point to a clear difference on the central issue under discussion. Hamilton wrote approvingly of the supplemental spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, with its firm requirement that most U.S. combat forces be out of Iraq by mid-2008 or sooner. He described the legislation as “a step forward,” and devoted four paragraphs to an explanation of why the House bill is consistent with the Iraq Study Group and why its system of benchmarks and firm deadlines makes sense.

Baker directly rebutted this argument. (Why else would the Post have published his op-ed just a week later, after all, if the only point was to agree with his co-chairman?) He first says that the Study Group report “does not set timetables or deadlines for the removal of troops, as contemplated by the supplemental spending bills the House and Senate passed. In fact, the report specifically opposes that approach.” And Baker later continues that “setting a deadline for withdrawal regardless of conditions in Iraq makes even less sense today because there is evidence that the temporary surge is reducing the level of violence in Baghdad.”

Hamilton’s thinking would seem to be more closely aligned with the actual language of the Iraq Study Group report. For example, on Page xvi and again on Page 72, the report states, “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” Admittedly, the use of the word “could” rather than “should” introduces some wiggle room into the recommendation, as does the qualifying phrase about the possibility of “unexpected developments.” But ongoing high levels of violence in Iraq could hardly be described as unexpected at this point.

And the report’s other language supports the interpretation that the Study Group wants our forces home early next year. It clearly favors a transition to an American military mission in Iraq focused on training and counterterrorism, with 10,000 to 20,000 Americans (up from previous levels of 3,000 to 4,000) helping Iraqi forces, but with combat forces for the most part coming home.

Baker is correct to note that the Study Group report (on Page 73) does allow for the possibility of a short-term surge. And he is literally right as well that the Study Group did not recommend that Congress firmly bind the president to a specific withdrawal date legislatively. But he goes too far in claiming that there is no real mention of hard deadlines for ending our military mission in the report he co-authored.

In a broader sense, however, Baker is right—and it is useful that he is correcting the record (even if it amounts to a partial revision in his own published thinking). The Democratic Congress has been using the Iraq Study Group report to legitimize its call for a firm end to the Iraq mission by next year. Some Democratic pressure on Iraqi leaders is useful, but a firm deadline goes too far.

The Democrats’ clear-eyed recognition of the messy situation in Iraq is much more accurate than recent commentary by the likes of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Vice President Cheney. But the fact remains that if we leave Iraq next year, we will almost surely fail, and the war there will almost surely worsen. For those convinced we have already lost Iraq, this is perhaps an acceptable consequence of American withdrawal. However, those advocating it should do so with an open-eyed recognition of what they are proposing, rather than any pretense that near-term redeployment of the overwhelming bulk of our forces is consistent with a realistic hope of salvaging stability in Iraq.