It's all up to the president now. The James Baker public relations blitz will, of course, continue, and the members of Baker's Iraq Study Group will go to book signings and be regulars on morning TV — and maybe even go on a nationwide tour like the Rolling Stones. Alan Simpson will continue to underline the gravity and earnestness of the group's endeavors by insisting that anyone who disagrees with him (like, say, John McCain and Joe Lieberman) has "gas" and "B.O." — subjects about which, unlike the military situation in Iraq, he probably has real knowledge and expertise.
But as the James Baker-Alan Simpson Steel Wheels tour and vaudeville act drags on and ultimately passes into well-deserved oblivion, the problems that they failed seriously to address will remain. And responsible people in Iraq, in the Pentagon, and in the White House will have to decide, very soon, how to achieve the president's goal of creating a stable, secure and democratic Iraq. The president's military and political advisers are reviewing options now. Presumably, incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is taking a fresh look at the situation in Iraq and is open to any strategy that has a chance of succeeding.
We worry, however, that little good may come out of these reviews unless the president takes a role in the deliberations and provides specific direction. The collective wisdom of the president's advisers for the past three years has not produced a strategy to achieve his goals. Bush rightly rebuked the Baker Commission for calling for early withdrawal from Iraq before the mission was completed. But the Baker group's recommendations were little more than an endorsement of the failed strategies of the past three years. Train the Iraqis and pull out U.S. forces? That was Don Rumsfeld's and Gen. John Abizaid's approach from the beginning. No one was more eager to get out of Iraq than Rumsfeld, but his unwillingness to commit enough troops early in the occupation and in the years that followed have actually had the effect of prolonging the American presence in Iraq, as well as putting us on a downward path toward failure.
From what we can tell about deliberations within the administration, we would expect many of Bush's current advisers to recommend continuing roughly along this failed path. Abizaid remains in place, and in his Senate testimony at least, Gates did not challenge Abizaid's assertion that no more troops are needed. As recently as June, the New York Times' Michael Gordon reports, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, came up with a plan to draw down American combat forces from 14 brigades to just 5, in the expectation that Iraqi forces would "pick up the slack." But, as Gordon reports, "no sooner did General Casey present his plan in Washington than it had to be deferred. With sectarian violence soaring in Baghdad, the United States reinforced its troops there." Nor was this a novel failure. In every year since the occupation began, senior military officials have set out plans to draw down American forces in the expectation that Iraqi troops would step in and fill the gap. And in every year, these plans have had to be abandoned. But Casey, too, is of course involved in the policy review.
And people and bureaucracies being what they are, it's not easy for them to change course, even when that course is obviously failing—unless they are instructed to take a different course by their commander-in-chief. The same people who brought us the current policy will likely recommend continuing it, albeit at a stepped-up pace. They will predictably focus on accelerating the training of Iraqi forces rather than on increasing the level of American combat forces sufficiently to do the job of securing Baghdad and other parts of Iraq as quickly as possible. It will be more of the same, only with a faster but, as in the past, unrealistic timeline. This could well be the last chance the administration has to turn things around in Iraq, but there is little sign yet that most of the president's advisers will propose the necessary dramatic shift.
That means the president will have to be, much more than he has been, his own general and strategist. He will have to decide on his own that incremental measures, such as stepping up the pace of Iraqi training, will not make enough of a difference in a short enough time to prevent a collapse of American policy and of Iraq itself. He will have to decide, contrary to the advice of many of his top advisers, that many more American troops need to be sent to Iraq, and as quickly as possible.
Of the many disappointments of the Iraq Study Group's report, none is greater than the failure (or was it unwillingness?) to offer any remotely plausible suggestions for bringing security and stability to significant parts of Iraq. The Baker group instead chose to entertain the fantasy that political reconciliation in Iraq can take place in the absence of basic security for the average Iraqi. But basic security for Iraqis is the prerequisite for any successful political reconciliation, because if the United States cannot provide protection to Iraqis, they have little choice but to turn to those who can, namely their own sectarian militias. People talk about what a power broker Muqtada al-Sadr has become. But American policy made Sadr what he is today. First we failed to take him out of the game early on, when he posed less of a menace. Then our failure to protect the Shia from insurgent and terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency all but guaranteed that many would turn to Sadr's army for such protection.