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Iraq: Why No One Can Back Down

Three-way standoff from Reservoir Dogs

Within a day or two of the Iraq Study Group's much-ballyhooed report, it's become apparent that its 160 pages and 79 recommendations don't provide much of a "new way forward" at all.  Lindsay Beyerstein aptly summed up the ISG's plan as "demanding that our failed strategy start working better, and fast."  In fact, the report's lead authors didn't bother making much more of a case to Congress for their own handiwork, as the Washington Post reported this morning:

Baker and Hamilton proved to be unusual witnesses. They conceded that their 79 recommendations carry a good deal of risk, but they essentially said no one else had a better idea. "We think it is worth a try," said Baker, conveying the sense that the United States is down to its last chance in Iraq, and that the group had prescribed the least bad of several options.

At TPM Cafe, Ivo Daalder complains:

The biggest problem with the ISG report is that it, like much of Washington, buys into the notion that because the consequences of defeat are so dire we should not accept the reality that we have lost.

But to Jim Baker and his crew, this is almost a feature rather than a bug.  Their three-pronged insistence on pursuing a political reconciliation that Iraq's squabbling factions don't want, a diplomatic initiative with countries who don't want to help us, and plans to leave if the first two parts don't pan out, seems to be based on the notion that if everyone is forced to look into the abyss at the same time, they'll all back away rather than destroy each other.  In short, they think everybody else is just a terrified of an all-out conflagration as we are.

Unfortunately, they may not be — or at least not afraid enough to create compromises where none can exist.  As I wrote a few days ago, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni nations surrounding Iraq can't stomach the idea of the U.S. leaving the current Shiite-dominated government in place.  But Iran sees little reason to accept anything else.

Within Iraq, it's likely that Sunni factions could be persuaded to buy into some "compromise" that gave them enough of a foot in the door to stage a coup somewhere in the foreseeable future.  The politicians in the Shiite coalition, having a not-entirely irrational preference for waking up alive each morning, have insisted from the beginning of our occupation on harsh conditions (such as extensive "de-Baathification" rules) to ensure that this can't happen.  On either side, they see a better chance to get what they want through civil war — if necessary — rather than a negotiated deal.

They're not alone.  Even the supposed withdrawal endorsed by the ISG leaves 70,000 "non-combat" U.S. troops in Iraq for years to come, giving the diehard Cheneyite hawks and neocons reason to dream that eventually the political winds will shift enough that permanent bases can be kept after all.  And even though this thought is anathema to the Iraqis themselves, you'll note that after nearly four years, we haven't been kicked out yet.  One reason is that we've so crippled the country's infrastructure that no responsible government could even try to run the show without our logistical support. 

Another is that the factions which could cut our supply lines (such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia) would rather save their strength for the escalated civil war that will follow our departure.  Indeed, most of the factions in Iraq would probably be happy to have us stay forever, as long as we devoted ourselves to killing their enemies.

The ISG's gambit is that if America declares that it won't play that game anymore — that everybody will have to do their own killing — they'll decide to get along nicely, and no one will aim their fire at us as we back out the door.  Like every other option, though, it's a doubtful and risky bet.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (