December 8, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

Like Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, the Iraq Study Group has handed down its findings and policy solutions for Iraq. Depending on what you read or where you watch, the media tell us it is a repudiation of the Bush Doctrine, a cover story for a graceful exit, a helping hand from father (George H.W. Bush) to son (George W. Bush), a surrender, a template for bridging America’s divisions, a “realist manifesto.” But more than anything else, it is a statement of the obvious. 

Perhaps that is to be expected, given James Baker and Lee Hamilton’s desire to produce a consensus document. When the goal is consensus, the result is usually the lowest common denominator. Hence, the commission enlightens us with such insights as the following:  

-The United States should launch a comprehensive diplomatic offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq and of the region. (There’s nothing wrong with launching another, but it’s hard to keep track of the number of diplomatic offensives Washington has launched to deal with Iraq—and the number of times America’s allies have failed to answer the call: There was the diplomatic offensive of 1997-98, when the French and Russians took a pass, leaving President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair to deal with Saddam Hussein’s misbehavior. There was the diplomatic offensive of 2002, when the French promised to link arms as long as Washington worked through the UN. That preceded the diplomatic offensive of 2003, when the French and Germans organized an international opposition against the U.S.-U.K. diplomatic drive. There was Colin Powell’s “postwar” diplomatic offensive, which reached out to Europe, the UN and the Middle East. What support it had was lost when Kofi Annan waved the white flag after a bombing in Baghdad and essentially shut down the UN presence in Iraq. There were the diplomatic offensives of 2004, which sought to build on the return of sovereignty to Iraqi leaders, and 2005, which sought to build on the momentum of Iraqi elections. How many is that?) 

-A “Support Group” should be formed to help the nascent Iraqi government. It should consist of “all the states bordering Iraq, including Iran and Syria; the key regional states, including Egypt and the Gulf States; the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council; the European Union...Other countries—for instance, Germany, Japan and South Korea—that might be willing to contribute to resolving political, diplomatic, and security problems affecting Iraq could also become members.” (Of course, all of these countries and organizations—save Iran and Syria, which we will get to in a moment—are already helping to varying degrees in Iraq.) 

-Citing a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq, the commission warns that “neighboring countries could intervene.” A day before the formal release of the report, former commission member Robert Gates, who now serves as secretary of defense warned of the prospect of a “regional conflagration.” (Could intervene? Iran and Syria already have. And as to this notion that we are on the brink of a regional conflagration, we are far beyond the brink. The Middle East has been at war for decades. Aside for a brief interregnum in the 1990s, Israel has been besieged by war since 1948. Saddam Hussein invaded three of his neighbors and launched missiles against a fourth in the 1980s and 1990s. In Iraq, Sunnis—in the form of the ruling Baathist regime—were at war with Kurds and Shiites long before American forces toppled the statues. The only difference today is that the Shiites are doing their share of killing too. Lebanon has been at war off-and-on since the early 1980s. The U.S. and Iran fought pitched battles in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s. Afghanistan was at war with its own people prior to U.S. intervention there. Add to this list the hit-and-run terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Turkey—all part of bin Laden’s global guerilla war—and the picture of a “regional conflagration” is in perfect focus.) 

-The United States should provide additional political, economic, and military support for Afghanistan. (In this, the commission implicitly and perhaps unwittingly concedes what many of us have said since 9/11—that Iraq and Afghanistan are both fronts in a much wider war.) 

-The U.S. should “remain in close and frequent contact with the Iraqi leadership.” (Between the U.S. president, U.S. Congressional delegations, U.S. secretaries of state and defense, U.S. generals and U.S. ambassadors, and, of course, U.S. commissions, I would guess that Prime Minister Malaki and his predecessors have plenty of contact with the United States government.) 

-The rights of women and the rights of all minority communities in Iraq must be protected. (This was enshrined in Iraq’s post-Baathist governing documents; indeed, it’s arguably the very reason some Iraqis are so committed to waging their brutal war against other Iraqis.) 

-The U.S. should “expand and upgrade communications equipment and motor vehicles for the Iraqi Police Service…[and] urge the Iraqi government to post all oil contracts, volumes, and prices on the Web.” (This is not exactly the sort of grand, sweeping, Marshall-esque vision of the way forward we were promised.) 

When the commission strays from the obvious or the minutia, it drifts into difficult, if not dangerous, terrain. For example, the commission calls on the United States to “engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues.”  

Iran and Syria are pumping men, material and money into Iraq to destabilize it and to blunt Washington’s stated goal of spreading democracy across the Middle East. They have fomented wars in Lebanon and Iraq. Indeed, the Iranians and Syrians are waging a regional war by proxy—and they are not paying any price for it. They are terrorist regimes that are in open violation of international norms and U.S. goals. One of them is racing to build a nuclear arsenal and openly calls for the destruction of a UN member state, who happens to be a democratic ally of the U.S. In short, even if they could be persuaded to change course, they have forfeited that opportunity because of their behavior.  

The panel also urges Washington to talk with Moqtada al-Sadr and other militia and insurgent leaders. Sadr is responsible for American deaths. Even though he is technically a part of the ruling coalition, he oversees something of a parallel government, complete with sharia courts of the sort that made the Taliban famous. His militia was once small and illegal. It now numbers thousands and is uncontrollable. He should have been killed or captured in 2004, when Iraqi officials charged him with murder. U.S. forces were in the process of taking him down, when someone inside the Iraqi government offered to broker a deal. Ever since, he has stoked the fires of sectarian war, using the minaret to coordinate terror and slaughter. 

In short, with due respect to the well-meaning wise men on the commission, there are glaring flaws with the Iraq Study Group, not the least of which is something beyond its control—something for which Congress is to blamed:  Commissions like this short-circuit or bypass altogether what the Founders envisioned for our system of government. The American people did not elect a commission-in-chief to define and conduct foreign policy, command the armed forces or point the way forward in Iraq. That is the president’s job.  

This commission was not empowered to make law, declare war or victory or defeat, make peace, or check the Executive branch. That is the job of Congress—and it is a job Congress is increasingly unwilling or unable to perform. Just consider the proliferation of commissions in recent decades: Congress and the Executive have empanelled commissions on Iraq, 9/11, WMDs and intelligence, missile defense, space defense, Social Security, tax reform, government secrecy, veterans issues, the PRC, e-commerce, terrorism, government waste, assassinations, and the list goes on and on.  

This commissionizing of American government—this trend toward passing the buck from Congress and the Executive to unelected, unaccountable individuals—is not healthy. Congress should do its job, and one of its primary jobs is to provide oversight of the Executive. If Members of Congress believe the Executive branch is wayward in war or peace, then it is their responsibility to do something about it.  

Creating a commission is no substitute for action, just as stating the obvious is no substitute for policy.