It’s safe to say that the ISG report did not make a favorable impression on David Isenberg. First, the specific assertions that were “laughable” - The “5,000 civilian contractors” reflect the number directly under the U.S. embassy. That is unclear as stated, though I don’t think it undermines the entire report. The ISG did meet extensively with Kurdish leaders. There are two recommendations that likely bother the Kurds - first, the call to delay the referendum on Kirkuk and have international mediation, and second the call to distribute future oil revenues on the basis of population. On the question of Kirkuk, the ISG heard from many sources and agreed that a referendum in the coming year would likely trigger substantial violence in and around Kirkuk between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, thus deepening and widening the sectarian strife in Iraq. On the question of oil revenues, plans to divide future revenues by region undermine the basis for a central government (since over 90% of government revenue comes from oil), and the economic place of Sunni Arabs within Iraq. In other words, the Kirkuk referendum and regionalized oil revenue distribution could plunge Iraq farther and faster into chaos, and destroy the viability of a unified Iraq. Sadly, that may happen. But the ISG did not think the U.S. should support that outcome.
On Iran and Syria, Isenberg seems to suggest that the difficulty of effectively engaging them means it is a useless recommendation. Well, is our current policy of isolating them proving to be particularly useful? What the ISG said is that all problems in the region are interconnected – you cannot solve them by talking to your friends but not your enemies; and you cannot solve them by talking about what you want to talk about but not what others want to talk about (eg. the Arab-Israeli dispute). And no, the ISG did not think that our friends had “already tried” to bring stability in Iraq. Too many have sat on the sidelines in important ways, particularly on national reconciliation.
On the “false hope” question, the word “victory” does not appear in the report. The ISG recommends a “responsible transition” out of Iraq. Isenberg wants the U.S. to “leave.” But it is not a simple thing to immediately move over 140,000 U.S. troops and an enormous civilian and military infrastructure out of a warzone in the middle of perhaps the most important region of the world to U.S. national security interests (never mind that President Bush would never do that, and he is in charge for two more years). So the ISG recommends a whole range of steps to take to give Iraqis the best possible chance of salvaging order from chaos, chiefly – stepped up training for Iraqi forces as U.S. combat brigades withdraw; pressure on the Iraqi leadership to make political decisions that can salvage their country; a strong and sustained U.S. push for more constructive regional engagement. This won’t guarantee an end to violence in Iraq. But it offers the U.S. a responsible course to protect its interests and give Iraqis a chance at a better future as we reduce our commitment to Iraq.
Finally, the 10 ISG members were not chosen to be the 10 greatest minds on Iraq in the country – they were 10 Americans from across the political spectrum who listened to scores of experts and drew on that expetise to build a consensus. Isenberg chastises James Baker for having experience in the Middle East, and then chastices Jordan, O’Connor, Meese and Panetta for not having experience. That’s beside the point. Ultimately, it is our political leaders who must forge consensus – not our experts (and I think you’d be hard pressed to find 10 experts who could agree on what to do in Iraq – just look at any op-ed page). What the ISG did is listen to every expert they could talk to, convey in clear terms what is going on Iraq, and give American political leaders a choice: come out of your trenches and forge a consensus, or dig in and have two years of more and more polarization and a deteriorating situation in Iraq. The choice is in their hands.