Between the Iraq Study Group Recommendation and a hard place

By Adel Darwish Nov.10th 2006 




It was just like chucking a bucket of cold water at President George W Bush, commented one observer on the effect of the long awaited report of the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan committee headed jointly by the seasoned former Secretary of State James Baker and the Democrat former Senator Lee Hamilton, to find a way out of the quagmire of Iraq. Avoiding speaking of a possible ' victory' in Iraq, the congressionally mandated ISG unveiled some 79 recommendations on December 6, ranging from emphasis on training Iraqi security forces to a broader regional diplomatic effort to more, the most disdainful of which, from the White House point of view was "try to engage constructively" Iran and Syria in diplomatic efforts to stabilize Iraq, given their influence in the country.'' The White House has repeatedly accused the two rogue states of supporting terrorism, and undermining America's effort for peace and stability in the Middle East as Iran was named, along with North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein as ' axis of evil' by President Bush. The publication of the report was the fourth brick thrown at Mr Bush's glass house in one week last month [Dec 06]. The President, and his main, if not the only, ally Prime Minister Tony Blair had to put a brave face, and try all the black magic of political and media spin to hide an avalanche of bad news threatening to reverse most, if not all, of their plans and hopes to hammer the post 9/11 world into a more friendly shape. On December 5, the president “reluctantly accepted" the resignation of John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations. He bowed to pressure from the newly-empowered Democrats (the November mid-term election left them in control of both houses on Capitol Hill) who were uncomfortable with the appointment.

In a terse note, the 58-year old Republican lawyer told Mr Bush that he would leave the administration after six years as one of its most articulate advocates of a robust American foreign policy. Ambassador Bolton was the second casualty after another neo-con, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the disastrous post-war policy in Iraq, had resigned within hours of closing the polling centres in November.

President Bush replaced him with former CIA director Robert Gates from A&M University in Texas, to which he had retired from spy works. It was a chilling echo of President Lyndon Johnson's choice of Clark Clifford, another unflappable Washington hand, to replace the lightning rod Robert McNamara as defence secretary in 1968 in a desperate attempt to avoid sinking in the Vietnam quagmire. Although from both a rational military, and historically factual view point Iraq is not another Vietnam, its psychological pinch is still felt by the collective American memory whenever images of body-bags coming home or tragic events top evening news-bulletins, which is too often. Barely a month in office, Mr Gates told the congress that the US was not winning in Iraq. Testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on December 5, Mr Gate said America's course of action in Iraq would determine whether the US, its president and the Iraqi people face a slow and steady improvement in the situation in Iraq and the region, or will face the real risk of a regional conflagration. Answering a question from the committee whether the US was winning in Iraq, he bluntly said ' No sir'; the US was not winning.

Running out of any threads of optimism to put forward some positive spin, on December 4, both the White House and Downing street gave a short dismissive answer to nagging hacks questioning whether it was already civil war in Iraq as suggested by the world’s top diplomat?

‘’ Assessing the situation in Iraq is a matter for the elected Iraqi government,’’ said the spin doctors on either side of the pond. A few hours earlier the outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the BBC that the situation in Iraq now was ‘` worse than a civil war,’' since it was not just Iraqis killing each other on sectarian divisions, but also outside forces and neighbours playing their hands there. The UN chief said s that the whole adventure by Messer Blair and Bush was `not conforming to International law' - i.e. illegal saying he told them so back in 2003. He said he still lives with guilt and the agonising thought that it was his decision to send brave and able UN officials to Iraq ‘` to help pick the pieces and help Iraqi people clear up the mess and rebuild the nation, only to be blown up to pieces by a terrorist bomb.'’ He had to live with that guilt, he told the BBC in an interview picked by the whole world.

A few days earlier, President Bush was in the region, but a much shrunk figure than he was during earlier visits. It seemed ages have passed and many chapters were scribed in history books since he thought a successful project in foreign policy would boost his credentials at home. The Wilsonian promises of shifting the traditional balance between supporting democracy and liberty with stability that cynically served American interests for long, towards something more compatible with American ideals seemed a good idea in 2002; and Iraq was the start of the project. The result of the congressional midterm election was a slap on President Bush's face, as it was seen as a referendum on his Iraq policy. Mr Bush's Wilsonian dreams of Ira as an example-setting democracy as a best way for a long term stability have been washed away in blood. For all the brave words he exchanged with Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, in Amman at the end of November, it has become universally acceptable now, as the ISG report showed, that his real aim is how to find the exit door out of Iraq and leaving it as decently as he can. This is partly to enable republicans to return to the White House next year ( 2008), and partly to restore America's battered image and tattered influence in the Middle East.

Majority of Americans ( 63%) believe that the way the United States has been using the threat of military force has diminished U.S. security, according to WorldPublicOpinion.org. poll published December 7, while 80% believe that fear of the United States has increased “the likelihood that countries will try to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” Sixty-one percent said the invasion of Iraq has increased the likelihood of Iran building WMDs compared to 24% in 2003.


Steven Kull, editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org, comments, “Most Americans now believe that the recent thrust of U.S. foreign policy has backfired: as the U.S. has provoked greater fear of U.S. military force, countries have reacted in ways that have reduced U.S. security.” Now 75% call for better relations with Iran instead of using force.

A Couple of weeks earlier, Prime Minister Blair used his speech at the lord mayor's banquette at the Guild-Hall in the city of London, traditionally where Prime Ministers set their foreign policy objectives and strategy for the coming year, to urge solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict as a step towards a safer world, and to engage Iran and Syria to find a solution to violence in Iraq. Pretty much what he had already been saying to the Americans in private and to what he said to the ISG via a video conference from Downing Street. Mr Blair realised that the midterm election tremor must had shaken the wax off ears in the White House.

Within hours of the ISG unveiling their report, Mr Blair was over the Atlantic on his way to Washington for one day ( December 7) business meeting with the President and to meet the new congressmen.

By the end of last summer, and months before the ISG report, Blair, Bush & Co seemed to be facing a quadruple faceted situation in the Middle East: Actual civil war in Iraq, potential civil war in Lebanon, the stalemate in Palestine and the hostility of an Iran that seems intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. And yet despite all that has gone wrong in Iraq, America remains by far the strongest external power in the Middle East—and for the next two years Mr Bush will remain its president. No way out of any of the four problems, and for stability for the peoples of the region as whole without direct American action. A fact seemed to be overlooked by parties, in the region and in Europe, who could, and supposed to, help the victimised civilians in the Middle East.

What makes matters worse for President Bush and Prime Minister Blair is the position of the Anti-American left in Europe - out of snobbery or due to anger with the two leaders- seems to be slipping into an unworthy desire to see coalition policy fail merely because this would humiliate the US president and British prime minister. Those parties seem to have forgotten the only question that matter now: what is the best course, not for political satisfaction but for the Iraqi people as well as the Palestinians and the Lebanese?

It is believed that more Iraqis have died since the US invasion than were killed by Saddam Hussein. The vast majority have fallen victim to fellow countrymen rather than to American fire. Yet this seems irrelevant, since Washington chose to assume responsibility for the country. The dead have perished on Bush's watch.

And back to the recommendations of the ISG, and although most of them seems to be a common sense approach, there is a big question mark on whether the boldest of them are workable or even implementable even if the White House held its nose and accepted dealing with Iran and Syria as recommended by creating a "international Iraq support group" to help stabilise the country, made of all Iraq’s neighbours including Syria and Iran ( within hours of the publication of the reporter the White House put preconditions on talking to Iran like giving up nuclear ambitions.)

To start a phase withdrawal within 18 months and switch the role from combat to support and training Iraqi army, can the current Iraqi government – a jigsaw of ethnic and religious pieces – practically control all of the country in the given period?

The situation is far from perfect, disastrous in many areas - Women and non Muslims in Basra area told me in October they felt ‘safer and freer under Saddam.’ Secular educated Women – teachers, doctors and nurses- are now intimidated, even beaten up, in the streets into taking up the veil. Once prospering grocery shops have been firebombed for doing what they did for generation: selling alcohol to visitors from neighbouring countries where it is banned. Video hire and book shops are also intimidated into conforming to Sharia as arbitrary enforced by thuggish shia militia men, while British soldiers are either confined to their barracks or under orders to turn a blind eye. Government offices, and schools hang portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iranian leaders on the walls instead of that of Mr Talabani, the head of the Iraqi state. Same goes for police stations heavily infiltrated if not totally controlled by pro-Iranian Shia militia from The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Great is the Iranian influence, almost control, in Southern Iraq that British officers in Basra have become fully aware that they could pay a heavy price - possibly with their lives - for Iran's deteriorating relationship with the west, especially if Teheran was subjected to a UN regime of sanctions. Worst fate awaits British troops, in the likely event of America or Israel attacking Iranian nuclear installations, which experts anticipate towards the end of President Bush's term.

American military spending on Iraq is now approaching $8 billion a month- half as much as the average monthly cost of the Vietnam War ( with inflation figures adjusted), or one third of Iraq's estimated annual oil revenues. Enough to hand out $ 300 a month to every Iraqi man, woman and child.

There is a talk of corruption as transparency of accounting for budget spending is an alien concept to most Iraqi ministers – so is putting out contracts to tender. Iraq has run out of reconstruction money.

The Development Fund for Iraq - $20 billion of Iraqi money - were spent by Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)in the first year of the occupation. All of the $18.4 billion that Congress appropriated for -rebuilding- the country were spent yet the very little that was built, was soon blown up by the insurgence.

Paul Bremer handed over $8.8 billion in cash to the interim government in the first year of occupation; it has never been accounted for. Public opinion polls show that Iraqis list corruption as one of their three biggest worries, along with power cuts and violence.

As for widening diplomatic efforts and including Syria and Iran – as 75% of Americans now prefer - it is also easier said than done in the current climate.

Unlike America, Britain has an embassy in Teheran and its ambassador is still there with reasonable good access to its diplomat. However the Iranians might not be too eager to compromise on their nuclear ambitions knowing that time is on their side and might just sit it out. They are also pressing hard in Lebanon and their Hezbollah allies might actually topple the elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

A deal with Syria, a host to many Iraqi Baathist activists and supports Sunni insurgency, is more difficult than that with Iran. The Syrians would demand a too higher price for the world and Anglo-America’s allies in the region to accept in exchange for help in Iraq. Damascus wants the world to white-wash the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as evidence point to Syria’s leaders. It also want a returning to control Lebanon which is rejected by the Lebanese and the rest of the world. Resuming peace talks with Israel, as Damascus wants, is rejected by Israeli prime Minister Ehud Olmert as he sees it as rewarding Syria for its support and string pulling of Hamas in Gaza and for aiding Hezbollah to launch rockets at Israel and start the war in the summer. Furthermore Olmert, not a leader of the same calibre of Areil Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin, would lose to the right wing Likud lead by Bibi Netanyahu at the first sign of concessions to Syria. President Bush also supports Olmert view.

The ISG report, which has been welcomed by the majority inside and outside America, leaves President Bush’s policy in Iraq stuck between the rock of its recommendations and the hard reality on the ground of the Middle East.



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