The Common Good

Jim Wallis: Iraq Study Group: Another Dose of Reality

Jim WallisThe Iraq Study Group finally released its long awaited report to Washington's political leaders and the American public, clearly stating that the "current approach" on U.S. Iraq policy is "not working." And the report calls for "major changes."

Using what The New York Times called "unusually sweeping and blunt language," and The Washington Post "harsh findings," the Iraq Study Group Report was released yesterday. Covering nearly 100 pages and 79 specific recommendations, the report calls for the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008 by shifting from a primarily military strategy to a political and diplomatic one. Combat should gradually be replaced with training, and a regional diplomatic approach should be employed, including talking to countries the Bush administration has refused to deal with. It urges negotiations with Iran and Syria, along with a renewed commitment to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace process.

The impressively bi-partisan group said that the government of Iraq should also be held accountable, and not left to decide when and how U.S forces should leave. The Iraqis should be given specific markers and milestones that they would have to achieve in meeting their own security needs and establishing greater political stability - or its American support would be cut back. There should be no open-ended commitment to Iraq but, rather, "conditional assistance." The challenge for Iraq is whether it wants to really be a nation-state or carry out a sectarian division of the country.

The report pulled no punches. It begins, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." And continues, "If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe." Its "assessment of the current situation" says, "The level of violence is high and growing. There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement." As for the source of the violence, the Study Group concludes that, "Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency." In contrast with President Bush's recent assessment that outside terrorist forces are sparking the insurgency, the report says, "Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq." The report furthers this point by adding, "Al Qaeda in Iraq is now largely Iraqi-run and composed of Sunni Arabs."

The Iraq Study Group Report agrees with many of the specific recommendations that have been lifted up in this blog, namely that there be no permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, that the U.S. seek no advantage in access to Iraqi oil, and that the U.S. should act on its major responsibility to rebuild Iraq after the damage the war has done - but that it should do so in international cooperation with other nations and agencies.

The report is notable for the unanimity of its bipartisan membership - there is consensus around all of the report's recommendations. And if there is to be a new course ahead, that bipartisanship will need to continue. In their opening letter, co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton wrote, "Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric." In interviews, the co-chairs reiterated that the country is deeply and dangerously divided over the war in Iraq, and must find a way to come back together again.

While there will be much more analysis and reaction to the report, it is clear that it is a strong rebuke to the president's policy. The report explicitly rejects many of the fundamental premises and stated purposes of the Bush war in Iraq. The report rejects the call for "victory" in Iraq that President Bush has continued to make, and rather calls for a "responsible conclusion" of the war. How George Bush will respond remains to be seen. But coming the day after Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates's Senate testimony, it is yet another dose of reality for a President still trapped in "win the war" rhetoric.

On the day the bold report was released, ten more American soldiers died in Iraq - again demonstrating the urgency of a fundamental change in U.S. policy. The Democrats promised yesterday to pursue aggressive oversight of the war beginning in January and pledged to hold the Bush administration accountable for a clear change in course. So the long-needed national debate on how to end the war in Iraq has now begun. I hope and pray that George Bush will honestly and (might we dare dream) humbly join in that debate, and be willing to admit colossal errors and accept new directions. But if Bush persists in his present course and becomes, as one foreign newspaper called him, "the last man standing" in defense of the war policy, then the nation and the Congress must have the debate without him, and ultimately make it less and less possible for him to continue his disastrous and deadly course. On the evening news shows last night, senators from both parties said that the president must face the facts and make critical changes in direction; that time is running out in a situation that is "unwinding very quickly," as one put it.

An impressive and honest bipartisan report has been offered as only a first step. Let the debate begin.

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