The International Crisis Group has just released "After Baker-Hamilton: What to do in Iraq". After the disappointing showing of the Iraq Study Group, the ICG makes for bracing reading - and offers a much more serious attempt to find some kind of solution. It eviscerates Washington fantasies in ways far deeper than Baker-Hamilton's simple admission that things aren't going well, by going straight to the heart of the political structures which have emerged from the American occupation. These two paragraphs seem to me to get the problem exactly right:
A new course of action must begin with an honest assessment of where things stand. Hollowed out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi state today is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and a political class that, by putting short term personal benefit ahead of long term national interests, is complicit in Iraq’s tragic destruction. Not unlike the groups they combat, the forces that dominate the current government thrive on identity politics, communal polarisation, and a cycle of intensifying violence and counter-violence. Increasingly indifferent to the country’s interests, political leaders gradually are becoming warlords. What Iraq desperately needs are national leaders.
contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion, the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered; they are simply one among many parties to the conflict. The report characterises the government as a “government of national unity” that is “broadly representative of the Iraqi people”: it is nothing of the sort. It also calls for expanding forces that are complicit in the current dirty war and for speeding up the transfer of responsibility to a government that has done nothing to stop it. The only logical conclusion from the report’s own lucid analysis is that the government is not a partner in an effort to stem the violence, nor will strengthening it contribute to Iraq’s stability. This is not a military challenge in which one side needs to be strengthened and another defeated. It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached. The solution is not to change the prime minister or cabinet composition, as some in Washington appear to be contemplating, but to address the entire power structure that was established since the 2003 invasion, and to alter the political environment that determines the cabinet’s actions.
Like Baker-Hamilton, the ICG recommends engaging with Iraq's neighbors, but presents a more serious reading of how to do so - rooted in a much more frank willingness to confront the fundamental contradiction inherent in any outreach conceivable under the Bush administration's current strategy:
The second is that it will take more than talking to Iraq’s neighbours to obtain their cooperation. It will take persuading them that their interests and those of the U.S. no longer are fundamentally at odds. All Iraqi actors who, in one way or another, are participating in the country’s internecine violence must be brought to the negotiating table and must be pressured to accept the necessary compromises. That cannot be done without a concerted effort by all Iraq’s neighbours, which in turn cannot be done if their interests are not reflected in the final outcome. For as long as the Bush administration’s paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodelling the Middle East, or waging a strategic struggle against an alleged axis composed of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas, neither Damascus nor Tehran will be willing to offer genuine assistance. Though they may indeed fear the consequences of a full-blown Iraqi civil war, both fear it less than they do U.S. regional ambitions. Under present circumstances, neither will be prepared to save Iraq if it also means rescuing the U.S.
So the ICG seems to get the Iraqi problem more right than did Baker-Hamilton. What about its recommendations? I'll have more to say about those his afternoon, when I get back from various meetings. For now, I just want to put this important report on everyone's radar.