Judging from the advance leaks and previews, the Baker-Hamilton commission's upcoming report on Iraq will do exactly what these blue-ribbon salvage jobs are meant to do: a) Stake out a position halfway between the president and his critics without fully satisfying either; b) provide "bipartisan" cover for both sides to shuffle toward middle ground; and yet c) sidestep the central question, which is too unsettling for anyone to face and which can still be kicked down the road for a bit, to everyone's relief.
The panel's recommendations seem to be as follows: Shift the U.S. military mission away from combat and more toward support of the Iraqi military (supplying logistics, intelligence, training, and advising); in tandem, cut the U.S. troop presence by roughly half, from 140,000 to 70,000 over the next year or two; redeploy most of them to the gigantic bases that we've been constructing inside Iraq over the past three years; and reach out diplomatically to Iraq's neighbors—including Iran and Syria—to help stabilize the country and keep its conflicts from spreading across the region.
This is all very sensible. (I've proposed a similar policy, so it must be.) But here's the scenario that the panel, perhaps willfully, neglects to address: What happens if the Iraqi government falls apart—in which case there would be no "Iraqi military" for the Americans to advise or supply?
Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Baghdad reporter of the London Independent, made the point in a BBC interview this morning: The key issue isn't so much the Iraqi army's training, but rather its loyalty. Nearly everyone except President Bush has conceded that the fighting has degenerated into a civil war. It has long been clear, in many towns and districts, that Iraqi soldiers—and, to a still greater extent, Iraqi police—are more loyal to a sect or tribe than to the national government. In other words, to an alarming degree, the so-called Iraqi army is in fact an array of competing militias; this will become increasingly the case if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regime gets any weaker, and absolutely so if it crumbles.
What do we do if that happens? There are three options:
Get the hell out. This might be difficult amid sheer chaos. Personnel could be airlifted (most of those large bases are, in part, air bases), but heavy equipment—tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and so forth—would, for the most part, have to storm out on their treads and wheels or be left behind.
Take sides and fight. Earlier this year, when I interviewed some colonels and generals about U.S. military options in the event of civil war, they all said they couldn't imagine any president going this route. And yet the Washington Postand the Los Angeles Times have recently quoted U.S. officials floating the notion of abandoning the quest for national reconciliation and, instead, joining the civil war on the side of the Shiites. It's unclear how high these officials are (in both senses of the word). What is clear is that it's a terrible idea. There's no better way to alienate the region's Sunni governments, most of which happen to be allies of sorts (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and so forth), or to widen the conflict, perhaps beyond Iraq's borders. It's also hard to believe that many U.S. officials or politicians would tolerate such a move (though who knows, given what they've tolerated so far).
Hunker down and wait for the smoke to clear. This isn't a bad option, all told. The U.S. military has been steadily moving in this direction for a year or so already. Its larger bases in Iraq are quite secure, though protecting the supply lines to the bases might be tougher under the circumstances.
And here's where Baker, Hamilton, & Co.'s diplomatic proposal—to start talking with Syria, Iran, and the other regional powers—might have some impact. It's hard to justify keeping even 50,000 American troops in Iraq—even if they're just sitting there—unless they have a mission. One mission might be to serve as adjunct to a broader political initiative.
If Iraq falls apart, the bordering states will be tempted to rush into the vacuum, partly for their own security, partly for aggrandizement. If they do, their forces may brush up against one another (Iraq's internal sectarian borders are far from distinct). The United States could serve as a mediator to keep this from happening. To play this role, it helps to have troops on the ground and planes in the air.
This may be the only real purpose of a U.S. military presence in Iraq at this point—to keep the country and the region from erupting into flames. And it won't be possible to accomplish even this purpose without open cooperation with the neighboring countries, including—perhaps especially—Iran.
The days of America's unilateral influence in Iraq are long over, if they weren't mythical from the outset. Look at this week's fiasco. Prime Minister Maliki canceled a dinner with President Bush—just brushed off the president of the United States, the country that's sacrificed thousands of young men and women and spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep Maliki's government standing—because keeping the date would have upset Muqtada Sadr, the most powerful Shiite militia leader, who apparently now has more leverage than the United States and its 150,000 troops.
It's pathetic, but it's also a wake-up call. Our leverage is minuscule, and it's declining by the day. To talk of grand schemes—partitioning Iraq or pressuring Maliki to form a "reconciliation government" and amend his constitution—is, quite apart from their merits, plainly absurd, because we have no control over what the Iraqis do. We still have some control, though, over what we do and, maybe, over what we can persuade others to do with us. The only choices are to give persuasion a whirl or to sit and watch a piece of the world fall apart.