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Helena Cobban

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1. Precipitate Withdrawal, paragraph 1
December 28, 2006, 10:24 am

I agree with Howard that this is one of the very weakest paragraphs in the whole report. The report’s authors seem to buy into the completely erroneous assumption that the presence of the US occupation forces is having a stabilizing effect on Iraq. This argument is the latest in a long series used to try to “justify” the presence of the occupation troops, and it is equally as unconvincing as all its predecessors.

No national government ever undertakes war or other coercive operations (like maintaining a lengthy and very damaging military occupation) with unjust aims in mind. Leaders of governments that do these things are always convinced that their aims– and therefore also their methods– are very just indeed. However, government leaders like all the rest of us need to be very mindful of the effect our actions have on others; and the net effect on Iraqis of our government’s maintenance of the occupation of their country for 3.5 years has been very harmful indeed.

In light of this, I have been arguing since 2003 for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that is speedy, total, and generous. I therefore see no possibility of a US withdrawal from Iraq that is “premature”. However, I also judge that it’s far better for both the Iraqis and the US troops themselves if this withdrawal is orderly (and therefore, most likely, negotiated.)

I certainly think there is a lively and ever-increasing possibility that the continued presence of the widely loathed US occupation troops in Iraq will lead to some form of catastrophioc encounter with local resister forces that may well escalate very rapidly and lead to a chaotic withdrawal-under-fire. Clearly, an orderly and negotiated withdrawal would be far preferable to this.

Would a chaotic withdrawal-under-fire be classified as “precipitate”? I think not. It would come about, rather, as a result of delaying the decision to withdraw for too long.

One final note. I diasagree with Howard’s characterization of the over-all report as “cowardly.” I would say, rather, “excessively gradualist.” Gradualism as such is not a bad thing; and there is much of value in this report, as I’ve written elsewhere. But yes, the authors carried their gradualism too far in some places. This paragraph was certainly one of them.

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Executive Summary, entire page
December 19, 2006, 1:31 pm

The ISG report did not urge two of the key steps that I consider essential if the US is to be able to undertake a troop withdrawal from Iraq that is orderly, speedy, total, and generous. It did not urge that President Bush publicly specify a deadline or timetable for the completion of the US withdrawal. And it did not urge giving the key role in sponsoring the diplomacy required to allow this withdrawal to the U.N. However what it did recommend was a quantum-leap improvement over the policies still being pursued and advocated by the President. In particular, I think its call for US engagement with Iran and Syria as part of the strategy of managing and deconflicting the imbroglio in Iraq is both necessary and long overdue.

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1. The New Diplomatic Offensive, paragraph 6
December 19, 2006, 12:11 pm

A great recommendation, with an important deadline specified in it that underlines the extreme urgency the ISG members saw in the situation.

The President, however, seems not to share this sense of urgency…

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II. The Way Forward -- A New Approach, entire page
December 19, 2006, 12:07 pm

I see the design of this section as significant and generally well conceived. The ISG here prioritizes the tasks required in the broad regional (and international) scene over those required in the internal, inside-Iraq scene. I think that’s quite right for two main reasons:

(1) Let’s face it, there really is not much at all that the US can even hope to achieve inside Iraq these days. Anyway, it should not even really try. Everything iot’s done there over the past three years has made things worse, and nationwide Iraqi polls show that the large majority of Iraqis are now simply eager for the US troops to leave

(2) But what must– and perhaps can– be done is to try to “hold the ring” among all of Iraq’s six neighbors, to try to maximize the chances that (a) they don’t all escalate their interventions inside Iraq and turn the country into even more of an imbroglio than it now is, and (b) that the large inter-group conflicts there don’t spill out and en-”gulf” this whole region in a horrendous shooting war.

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Executive Summary, paragraph 9
December 19, 2006, 11:59 am

The recommendation regarding trying to engage diplomatically with Iran and Syria has been, I think, the most controversial of the ISG’s recommendations within the US political sphere. Many people in the US political elite– and also, of course, in Israel– are reportedly deeply opposed to any move that might take off the table the threat of a military attack against targets inside Iran. And that, obviously, would be one of the Iranians’ very first requirements if they are to be persuaded to enter into constructive talks re de-escalation in Iraq.

The ISG was probably right to specify that the ever-thorny dispute over Iran’s nuclear programs should continue to be dealt with on its existing (and formally quite separate) track. However, it is hard to see why the Iranians should feel incented to engage in constructive discussions over Iraq so long as the US keeps on the table any threat that it might resort to military force against targets inside Iran (let alone, of course, continuing to pursue measures explicitly aimed at “regime change” in Teheran.)

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Executive Summary, paragraph 2
December 19, 2006, 11:50 am

It strikes me that the central argument of the report is spelled out in the second sentence of this paragraph. The ISG’s members seem strongly convinced of the need to plan toward a significant (perhaps total– though they don’t specify this) drawdown of US forces from Iraq. And they quite corrently recognize that for this to be done “responsibly”– that is, in a way that minimizes chaos and casualties to both the troops themselves and all who are around them– then the broad political parameters within which this drawdown occurs need to be established first.

In my own writings, e.g. here, I have stressed that the withdrawal needs to be “orderly”, conveying the same general meaning as the ISG’s term “responsible”. I also urge that the withdrawal needs to be total.

Despite these differences, however, I think the ISG diagnosis (“grave and deteriroating”) is quite correct and the broad prescription it offers in that sentence is on-the-mark.