After nine long months and endless speculation, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) published its report with recommendations for a change of course in Iraq on 6 December 2006. The report contains many solid, often objective, conclusions. However, it also consists of numerous ill-conceived assertions and recommendations in direct conflict with President George W Bush's mission for "liberating" Iraq, and with America's fundamental values for constitutional democracy. If adopted, the report will constitute an alarming reversal in Iraq policy, whereby the United State risks losing the goodwill of its local allies and, ultimately, the war on terror.
In a retrograde step, the ISG unapologetically makes five potentially damaging recommendations:
- suspension and/or gross manipulation of the democratically adopted constitution
- inhibition of the constitutionally agreed referendum on the fate of the arabised city of Kirkuk, representing yet another major betrayal of the Kurds
- centralisation of power in Baghdad, in a return to dictatorial central government
- rewarding extremists by their integration into the Iraqi state machinery
- reaching out to appease terrorists and their sponsoring countries.
The lesson of history
After extensive research, the ISG was expected to provide visionary solutions to help establish peace and democracy in Iraq, and justify a programmed and timely withdrawal of American troops. Instead, the group - chaired by former secretary of state James A Baker and former congressman Lee H Hamilton - provides a 20th-century-style Realpolitik that is typical of the era of Henry A Kissinger (and indeed of James Baker himself).
A solution to historic and political quagmires requires long-term commitment and shared ownership and responsibility. Colin Powell, when he was secretary of state, allegedly advised the president to follow the "Pottery Barn rule" in Iraq policy and "own it" if he breaks it. In stark contrast, Baker urges a quick-fix-and-run outcome.
Much against Bush's mission of "liberation", the ISG report is written with an occupying colonialist language and mentality. As a result, it reflects weakness in the superpower's confidence in handling its enemies, opting for deals-on-wheels with eyes fixed on America's short-term interests. This same chronic failure created the strong sense of betrayal among Iraqis in the past (e.g., in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, conducted during the presidency of Bush's father, George HW Bush, to drive Iraq forces from Kuwait). The culmination of that sense of betrayal was the Shi‘a refusal to cooperate during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Bush and the US forces are currently harvesting the Baker-Kissinger seeds of the 1970s-1990s period. Saddam Hussein, despite his record, remained the two elder statesmen's favourite, and Saddam's opposition was considered not worthy of negotiations, even during the 1991 war, when the US was in need of the Iraqi people's support.
The people of the Kurdistan region willingly offered their unreserved support to the US efforts for a regime change in Baghdad and gave the liberating army a floral welcome. In the context of the anti-American climate in the middle east, this proved costly for the Kurds. Instead of a big reward, the Kurds are being alienated by the ISG and offered as scapegoats to the extremists, terrorists and their sponsoring countries. This grave miscalculation, if followed through, will inflict a double wound on the Americans: they will fail to win the support of their arch-enemies while losing that of the Kurds, their only genuine allies in Iraq.The ISG report makes minimal reference to the Kurdish political parties, and where it does, it is in defining the two rival leaders, Jalal Talabani and Masood Barzani. The two are only mentioned with reference to their mutual distrust, past infighting and ongoing rivalry. They are not in any way acknowledged for their highly influential roles in brokering peace between the belligerent Sunni and Shi‘a factions, and for their vital role in keeping the government intact. The two leaders also control the richest and most strategic fifth of Iraq's territory, and govern over five million people who have vivid memories of past betrayals by the United States and Britain.
A defeat for America
The Kurdish political leaders' support and unreserved commitment to a unified Iraq is unquestioned. The Kurds willingly supported the new constitution and current government in Baghdad, in the hope that their aspirations and prosperity will be realised within a democratic Iraq. The Kurds' enthusiasm to remain within Iraq goes as far as Iraq being constitutionally democratic. Thereafter, they will find no justification for supporting the US efforts to keep Iraq stable and united.
The ISG's recommendation on Kirkuk is alarming to the Kurds. It asks for postponement of the planned 2007 referendum (as per the constitution) and finding "another" solution acceptable to all Iraqis (and neighbouring countries). But there will be no solution acceptable to the Kurds that does not implement Article 140 of the constitution; no other option will keep Iraq intact.
To state the obvious, it is most unlikely that the US will be able to contain violence in Iraq without the help of Iraqis. This can only be accomplished by implementing the constitution, allowing local authorities within each province (federal unit) to fortify their boundaries and take control of their security and administration. Therefore, in reality, Bush has little option but to support the federalisation of Iraq to secure a lasting peace and conduct a programmed withdrawal of the US troops.
Whether or not the ISG report influences Bush's strategic decisions in the region, it is clear that opponents of the president received the report with satisfaction, while America's closest allies in Iraq were gravely concerned by it. The neo-conservative agenda in the middle east is now facing defeat, thanks both to the extremists, terrorists and their sponsors and to US hesitation and lack of confidence.
The ISG report seems destined to reward violence and appease US enemies at the expense of the Kurds. In the era of war on terror, the US will continue to need the Kurds as much as the Kurds need the US. Abandoning the Kurds again will add them to the list of the angry and will guarantee America's total defeat in Iraq, with dire consequences for the superpower's long-term future.