Impressions of the Iraq Study Group Report: the Projo vs. Eliot Cohen

Today’s Projo includes an unsigned op-ed on the Iraq Study Group report. The op-ed praises consensus, largely for its own sake…

The commission, with no particular political axes to grind, declared that U.S. policy is not working and the situation is grave and deteriorating….
In any event, we hope that the commission’s rigorous report will act as a catalyst for rapid improvements on the ground in Iraq, and a rough consensus on Iraq policy in Washington.
However, writing at OpinionJournal, Eliot Cohen, Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, argues that consensus arrived at for its own sake means largely nothing…
[The Iraq Study Group] is a group composed, for the most part, of retired eminent public officials, most with limited or no expertise in the waging or study of war. It consists of individuals carefully selected with an eye to diverse partisan and other irrelevant personal characteristics. These worthies, with not one chairman but two (for balance, of course), turned to several score experts known to disagree vehemently with one another about the best course of action to be pursued in Iraq.
Some of the commission members and their advisers cordially detest the president and his administration and opposed him and his war from the outset; others were equally passionate in their defense of both the man and the conflict. And yet this diverse group [the Iraq Study Group] had an overwhelming mandate, from the beginning, to produce a consensus document…There is something of farce in all this, an invocation of wisdom from a cohesive Washington elite that does not exist, a desperate wish to believe in the gravitas and the statecraft of grave men (and women) who can sort out the mess in which the country finds itself.
The are also some interesting substantive contrasts between the two articles…

The Projo rejects the idea of sending more troops to Iraq and says the emphasis should be on building up Iraqi forces…

It is probably too late politically — here or in Iraq — to try to stabilize the situation through an increase in the total number of U.S. troops. Americans are quite sick enough of the war already, and the damage done after we invaded Iraq with bad planning and far too few people to secure the country has been too great to be readily fixed now with many more U.S. troops.
Thus we have the commission’s suggestion that the focus should be on training and equipping Iraqi forces to take over more of the duties now performed by U.S. troops. This would be done by embedding 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops with the Iraqis for training, up from 3,000 now.
Professor Cohen says, if I may paraphrase, “no duh” to building up Iraqi forces; building Iraqi forces is already the core of our offical mission, so what’s new there? He then goes on to say that we cannot choose between buiding up indigenous forces and maintaining a strong combat presence, we must do both…
The ISG argues that American forces should shift to developing Iraqi security forces and backing them up, which is more or less the course we are on now. It talks of milestones for Iraqi performance, as if Iraqi benchmarking were more a problem than Iraqi will, and Iraqi will more the problem than Iraqi capability. It suggests announcing our own planned redeployments without considering the most obvious consequence, which is that Iraqis of many political hues will decide that the Americans are leaving…We cannot build the Iraqi security forces without a substantial combat presence. Nor is the problem merely one of training, as Iraqi corporals driving around in pickup trucks without functional radios might have sourly pointed out, had they had the chance to talk to a Study Group member.
The Projo editorial completely skips over the ISG recommendations on entering negotiations with Iran and Syria. Given the high-profile of this section of the report, it’ is safe to take the editorial board’s silence as meaning they do not believe that more intense negotiations with Iraq’s hostile-to-the-US neighbors will be useful for fixing Iraq.
Professor Cohen, of course, is much more direct on the subject…
In a public document of this kind, euphemism and imprecision abound. The U.S. needs to give “disincentives” to Syria and Iran: But the real question has always been whether we are willing to use a variety of overt and covert means–from bombing insurgent safe houses to sabotaging refineries, from mining harbors to supporting their own insurgents–to do so. And, in fact, the report mentions no means for squeezing either country.
True, as James Baker irritably noted at the press conference releasing the report, the U.S. talked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But as the U.S. did so it also bankrupted the U.S.S.R. in an arms race, undermined its client governments in Eastern Europe by supporting Polish labor unions, and killed its soldiers by providing surface-to-air missiles to Afghan guerrillas. Real pain, and not merely tough talk sweetened by a bucket of goodies, paves the way for successful negotiations with brutal opponents.
Finally, since Professor Cohen does not like the direction of the ISG report, he provides some constructive suggestions of where he thinks its emphasis should have gone…
What we need in Iraq is not a New Diplomatic Offensive (capitals in the original) so much as energy and competence in fighting the fight. From the outset of the Iraq war much of our difficulty has stemmed not so much from failures to find the right strategy, as from an astounding and depressing inability to implement the strategic and operational choices we have nominally made.
This inability has come from things as personal as picking the wrong people for key positions, in the apparent belief that generals are interchangeable cogs in a counterinsurgency machine. It has come from an unwillingness or inability to grab the bureaucracy by the throat and make it act–which is why, three years after the insurgency began, we still send soldiers out to risk roadside bomb attacks in overweight Humvees when there are half a dozen commercially available armored vehicles designed to minimize the effects of such blasts. It is why–although the government has declared long before the ISG issued its report that training the Iraqis is Job One–we still embed fewer than a dozen American advisers in an Iraqi battalion when the right number is three to five times that many.

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