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Changing Course in Iraq?

This week's release of a congressionally-chartered report on the U.S. war in Iraq [12/6/06] is being welcomed by many experts as an opportunity for the Bush administration to change its Iraq policy. But some analysts question whether the report's recommendations are viable more three-and-a-half years after the war began.

After eight months of deliberations, the 10-member, bi-partisan panel gave a frank assessment Wednesday of the situation in Iraq, calling it "grave and deteriorating."

As a result, the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, recommended withdrawing most U.S. combat troops from Iraq by early 2008 and shifting America's military emphasis to supporting Iraq's security forces.

In addition, political historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University says the report would shift U.S. policy away from democracy building and challenge other key aspects of America's long stated goals in Iraq.

"The Baker-Hamilton report seems to correctly recognize that Iraqis are going to determine their own fate. The third big shift has to do with the relations between the United States and other nations," says Bacevich. "The Bush administration's notion was that, 'We're in charge. You other nations, can support us and if you don't, that's OK. But we are going to call the shots.' The Baker-Hamilton report now calls for a diplomatic initiative in which the U.S. will engage other nations in the region, including Syria and Iran."

Changing Course?

Other analysts says some of the report's recommendations were developed not only to help Iraq, but also to give the Bush administration an opportunity to change course without losing face.

International relations specialist Stephen Walt of Harvard University says, "It gives President Bush sort of an excuse to shift his ground, if he would like to, by saying that he has this bi-partisan, blue ribbon commission of distinguished individuals who have now suggested a slightly different course. But on the other hand, it doesn't, of course, require him to follow any of that. And there is some danger that the administration may sort of pick and choose from the list of recommendations, even though the Study Group itself has said that it's really a package."

"The consequences of simply continuing to 'stay the course' will be an ever-rising tide of unpopularity of a rejection of the Bush policies among the American people," says Boston University's Andrew Bacevich. "Public support has already just about collapsed. And I think it will completely collapse if he [i.e., President Bush] has nothing to offer other than just 'stay the course'. Perhaps even more worrisome, I think that U.S. forces will reach the end of their tether. We will find the decline in the effectiveness, in the cohesion of U.S. forces. And if that occurs, it will take years before we are able to rebuild them."

Ending the Violence

But some critics call the Study Group report "a triumph of hope over experience". They say its recommendations are unworkable, partly because some of them have already been tried, like the ongoing effort to train Iraqi security forces.

What is needed, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is for the United States to adapt to the situation on the ground in Iraq and promote reconciliation among the country's political factions.

"It was the United States that pushed Iraq toward a constitution, which simply exposed 50 major fault lines, including federation and division of the country, that pushed Iraq into a political system where people voted to be Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds rather than for political parties in an organized political structure, whose large-scale de-Bathification essentially removed the secular core of the country," says Cordesman. "And now, the Baker-Hamilton study group is some how saying that, 'Having sent in a bull to liberate a china shop, you blame the china shop for not fixing the china. And if it doesn't fix it, were going to remove the bull.'"

"Ending the violence is the hard part now," says Middle East scholar William Quandt of the University of Virginia. "Achieving a liberal democracy of the kind few people thought Iraq could be the model of -- that's off the table. And that's up to the Iraqis if they can achieve security and stability. So in a sense, the report is saying, 'Let's get back to basics.' Security and stability are crucial, possibly achievable. And if they could be achieved, that's about what we could hope for."

Iraq and Regional Leaders

Experts point out that the report signals to Iraqi elected leaders that ultimately it is up to them to stabilize their country. Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College in New York says resolving Iraq's complex political problems requires multiple initiatives and that the report's recommendations could play a vital role in bringing peace to the country.

"The report does set a timetable. And if the United States and the international community hold an international conference in a neutral country, and if Iraq's neighbors are brought into the equation, and if Iraq's communities really engage each other in this international conference, we might be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel," says Gerges.

While the Iraq Study Group seeks to help bring peace to Iraq, experts say it also takes into account what proposals would be politically viable here in the United States.

"But I think there's a real question to be asked of just how much can be done at this stage in any presidential administration," says Harvard University's Stephen Walt. "President Bush is not going to be in office that much longer. So one of the difficulties of the report is that it lays out a pretty ambitious agenda, but it's not clear that the administration has the will or the horsepower to get it all implemented in the next year or so."

Meanwhile, President Bush says the Iraq Study Group report offers interesting proposals and that he will study them seriously as he awaits similar reports from the State Department and the Pentagon, which could come within the next few weeks.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.