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The road not taken: the Iraq Study Group

About the author
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) report proposed a way out of the Iraq quagmire in December 2006. Sadly, President Bush chose not to accept the vast majority of the recommendations of a distinguished bipartisan committee led by James A Baker and Lee Hamilton. Instead, his administration adopted just one of its elements, and incorporated it into a new military strategy based on a regular increase (or "surge") in the number of United States troops over a six-month period.

This "surge" began to be implemented in February 2007, and there is already a wealth of experience on which to base a provisional judgment of its effectiveness - from the degree of political progress in Iraq to the number and impact of attacks on US forces (six American soldiers were killed in a single incident on 20 May). But an equally valid exercise at this stage is to look back to that pivotal period of the publication and rejection of the ISG report almost six months ago - to consider what was proposed, why Bush dismissed it, and what that suggests about the twenty months ahead.

Bob Burnett is a writer based in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at

Also by Bob Burnett in openDemocracy:

"A liberal foreign policy for the US: ten maxims" (27 February 2007)

"America's choice: imperial vs constitutional rule" (10 May 2007)

A three-point plan

Although it ultimately made no difference in the outcome, the Iraq Study Group agreed to delay the release of its report until after the congressional elections in November 2006. That was due to the tone of the document. The ISG report was to open with a grim assessment, at odds with the calculated optimism of the Bush administration: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating".

It went on to deliver a sober summary: "Current U.S. policy is not working, as the level of violence in Iraq is rising... Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation." For the ISG, "reconciliation" meant the willingness of Iraqi leaders to bring together Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds into an effective government.

The ISG, acknowledging that there was no flawless Iraq strategy, advocated a threefold approach involving diplomacy as well as military and political action. Its report advised that the United States "should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region." It recommended talking to all of Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, and noted: "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and president Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine."

Also in openDemocracy on the Iraq Study Group and the military "surge" strategy in Iraq:

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation"
(7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment"
(8 December 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The US in Iraq: stay the course, pay the price" (12 January 2007)

Reidar Visser, "Washington's Iraqi 'surge': where are the Iraqis? "
(12 January 2007)

Paul Rogers, "The Iraq insurgents' surge"
(12 April 2007)

The ISG stated forcefully what had already become painfully obvious to most Americans: "The most important questions about Iraq's future are now the responsibility of Iraqis." The bipartisan group informed the American public that a military solution was not possible in Iraq; there had to be a political solution: "If the Iraqi government demonstrates political will and makes substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliations, security, and governance the United States should make clear its willingness to continue training, assistance, and support for Iraq's security forces and to continue political, military, and economic support. If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress... the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government."

The primary thrust of the ISG report is evident from a small number of its seventy-nine recommendations, including the very first, which proposed a "comprehensive New Diplomatic Initiative" including an "Iraq International Support Group." The most controversial aspect of this was the inclusion of Iran and Syria in meetings "to assist the Iraqi government in promoting national reconciliation."

The Bush administration, after initial resistance, has made tepid overtures to Syria (with a bilateral meeting at the summit in Sharm al-Sheikh on 3-4 May 2007 between Condoleezza Rice and Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem) and Iran (a meeting to discuss Iraq is scheduled for 28 May). But in general, this half-hearted new diplomatic initiative has been ineffectual and there has been little progress on peace accords in regard to Iraq or the other two major fracture-zones (Israel / Lebanon / Syria, and Israel /Palestinians). Moreover, the key member of the Iraq International Support Group was to have been Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah on 28 March called the occupation of Iraq "illegal", warned of civil war, and said: "In beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism".

Sixty-one of the ISG recommendations concerned the internal situation in Iraq, including a definition of political milestones required to be passed by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government. The bulk of these milestones should have been met by May 2007, but none has been accomplished. President Bush has admitted the al-Maliki government must be held accountable for progress in achieving some practical political steps, but remains vague both as to what these are and the pressures that the US might apply in the event of failure.

Another key ISG internal recommendation concerned "national reconciliation" - for example, Recommendation 32: "the rights of women and the rights of all minority communities in Iraq... must be protected." Since the ISG issued its report, there has been little progress in this area.

A response in monochrome

The ISG report observed: "There is no action that the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq." Twenty-two recommendations concern "security and military forces." Here, the emphasis was on "imbedding of substantially more U.S. military personnel in all Iraqi Army battalions and brigades, as well as within Iraqi companies." In this context, the ISG supported "a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilise Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission"; it also cautioned that "the United States should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq." The ISG stated: "By the first quarter of 2008... all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

The surge suggestion excepted (and in the ISG report this was part of a wider and more nuanced package of proposals), the Bush administration has been reluctant to embrace the ISG recommendations. President Bush appears to believe that a military solution is possible. On 10 January, when he launched the surge plan, his stated purpose was not to imbed US military personnel or "speed up the training and equipping mission," but rather to fight insurgents in a fashion that the Iraqi troops were incapable of. Bush denounces any suggestion that most combat troops might be out of Iraq by spring 2008 or that there be a timetable for withdrawal.

While the Bush administration has been notorious for saying one thing and then doing another, it has been consistent on Iraq: it regards the mission there as a military problem and, therefore, it excludes anything other than a military solution. That's why George W Bush rejected the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report and why the Iraq war is likely to continue until after he leaves office.

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