The “Sink or Swim” strategy

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It took me awhile, but I’ve read the entire ISG report.

My detailed thoughts are over at Midtopia. Here at Donklephant I’ll do the executive summary.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in their analysis of the current situation, and nothing paradigm-shifting in their proposed solutions. But both are very solid, very reasonable. I came away with two impressions:

1. The report’s biggest contribution may be a shifting of the debate, because it rather authoritatively makes assertions about various things that have been bones of contention for years. War opponents will be unhappy with its conclusion that Iraq is of critical interest to the U.S.; war supporters will be unhappy with a whole slew of things, mostly relating to the reality on the ground and the prospects for certain pet strategies. The analysis will be familiar to anyone who frequents centrist sites. So in a way, the ISG report is another triumph for moderates.

2. The fact that the conclusions are obvious, reasonable and workable says volumes about the alternate reality the Bush administration has been living in. Because it didn’t take a genius or an expert to write this report; many, many bloggers and other observers have come up with many of the same recommendations. This is common sense stuff — and the administration somehow missed it.

I have quibbles with some of their points, and questions about the workability of others, but the overall strategy looks solid — and it’s in large part the Democratic “fixed timetable” strategy, though I prefer to think of it as the “Sink or Swim” approach.

In a nutshell, here it is: Provide massive assistance to Iraq, both in troops and in aid. But also give the Iraqi government certain milestones to hit — dismantle militias by May, provincial elections in June, take over all provinces in September.

Meanwhile, we start withdrawing combat forces while increasing the ranks of advisors and trainers. Our timetable is based on the assumption that Iraq will hit its milestones, but they will occur regardless of whether that actually occurs. End result: U.S. combat forces are gone by the end of 2007. If Iraq hit the milestones, it is standing on its own (with continuing U.S. support). If Iraq didn’t — well, we tried.

One question is whether it was a good idea for the ISG to suggest that solving the Iraq problem necessarily means addressing the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. On the one hand, that clearly is an aggravating factor. On the other hand, that particular issue is even more intractable than Iraq. So does that actually help, or does it just make the job harder?

Lots to chew on. My prediction: The Democrats will embrace the ISG plan and use it as a blueprint. Politically it’s a godsend for them: a credible, bipartisan group coming up with a proposal that looks a lot like what many Democrats have been suggesting. War supporters will use the “cut and run” rhetoric at their peril now that the idea of a fixed timetable has received the imprimatur of the Baker Group. Bush will be hard-pressed to resist them, since “stay the course” clearly isn’t working and his credibility on Iraq is about zero.