The emerging plan by the Iraq Study Group tries to find a middle road between President Bush's adamant refusal to leave Iraq until the job is done and Democratic demands to pull out U.S. troops. But in achieving unanimity among its Republican and Democratic members, the commission has outlined a strategy with its own political and military risks.
If they choose, leaders in both parties could embrace the plan in the interest of putting aside the polarizing differences of the past three years. This post-election moment, many say, presents the best and perhaps last chance for consensus. And some military experts say the commission's plan to pull out combat units by early 2008 and shift remaining troops into a supporting role may be a logical response to the sectarian violence.
But there are already signs of discord over the plan, as Bush on one side and the fiercest war opponents on the other stake out positions suggesting they may not come together after all. Some military and diplomatic veterans warn that the commission's plan may not be the magic solution so many hope for. It could, they say, even open the door to a broader and ever more brutal civil war between radical Shiite and Sunni forces competing for power in the resulting vacuum.
Even before its release next week, the report, which comes after the midterm elections and Bush's subsequent dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has taken on an enormous role in the debate in Washington because leaders in both parties are eager for a resolution of the war. The fact that the five Republicans and five Democrats on the congressionally chartered commission all supported the recommendations has sparked hope that the report could bridge the debate over the war.
Something for both sides
The details that have leaked out so far arguably contain something for both sides, depending on interpretation. The commission's recommendation to pull out combat units by early 2008 seems to track Democratic plans for a phased withdrawal. But the report, according to sources familiar with it, also says commanders should decide whether such a pullout is feasible, which echoes Bush's insistence that troop levels be determined by conditions on the ground rather than by an artificial timeline.
The question then becomes whether the sides will focus on elements of the plan they support and declare it acceptable, or dwell on differences and reject it. With a new defense secretary coming in, the administration conducting its own policy review and Democrats, soon to be the majority party in Congress, taking some ownership of the issue, some see hope.
"The political stars may be aligned in the right way," said a senior administration official, who discussed the politically sensitive subject on the condition of anonymity. "Prevailing in Iraq is in the national interest . . . and I think people on both sides of the aisle know that, so there is an opening there. Probably more than any time in recent times, we've got a chance for the two parties to come together and adopt a common approach to Iraq."
So far, though, Bush's language suggests he is resisting. During a trip to the Middle East to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week, he stuck by his position that remaining in Iraq is important and scoffed at the notion of a "graceful exit." Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a leader of the antiwar forces in Congress, yesterday called the Iraq Study Group's plan "unacceptable to me" because it would not withdraw troops immediately. "If it depends on circumstances on the ground, it's not a lot different than what President Bush is saying," he said on CNN.
Richard N. Haass, a former top Bush State Department official who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, said expectations that the Iraq Study Group can solve the problem have grown too high. "The idea that the ISG is going to deliver a report and the administration's going to say, 'Thank you very much' and substitute it for U.S. foreign policy is not realistic," he said in a recent interview.
Shift to advising, training, supporting role
The commission, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), plans to recommend that the U.S. military mission shift to advising, training and supporting Iraqi forces, who would take the lead in securing their country. As part of that, U.S. soldiers would increasingly embed with Iraqi troops to guide them.
"Baker-Hamilton is doable, and is probably the course we would have followed anyway," said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a military strategist and Vietnam War veteran. But he said the outcome in Iraq may largely be determined before the recommendations can be implemented. Within a year or so, he predicted, Iraqi security forces either will be able to hold their own or will have fallen apart.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the first head of the U.S. occupation effort in Iraq, said that he has long advocated a more robust training effort but that it could be dangerous to withdraw combat troops before building up that program. "The moment you start pulling troops out, Maliki will hedge his bets by crawling up closer to al-Sadr," he said, referring to radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
And those troops who remain in a diminished role may face new risks. "To scatter troops around amongst the Iraqis sounds like a low-profile way to keep some presence on the ground, but that will backfire the moment a captured trainer shows up on one of those Islamic kill videos on the Internet," said military historian James Bartlett. "Then we'll hear cries to pull them out as well."
Experts debated whether the plan resembled the "Vietnamization" program that the United States used to get out of the Vietnam War, gradually withdrawing its combat forces. "It does look like Vietnamization to me," said James H. Willbanks, who was an adviser to the Vietnamese army and has written histories of the time, including "Abandoning Vietnam." In Iraq, he said, "my fear is that there will be a precipitous pullout while leaving advisers holding the bag."
But Terry Daly, a counterinsurgency expert who also served in Vietnam, said he thinks the Iraq plan has little in common with Vietnamization because the situation in Iraq is far more dire. "Vietnam had a functioning government, even though it was corrupt and inefficient," he said.
Some say it is too late for the United States to determine the outcome of the war in Iraq either way. "For all the excitement in Washington, this will be decided on the ground in Baghdad," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who brokered the Dayton peace accords, which ended the Bosnian war in the 1990s. "The United States has lost its capacity to shape the events on the ground, regardless of what's recommended by the commission, regardless of what's done by the U.S. military and the president."