Let’s start with the obvious. The report of the Iraq Study Group wasn’t much about Britain. Fair enough. But unfortunately, it wasn’t about Iraq either. It was simply, top to bottom, about America. Its principal conclusion, as far I could see from London, was that America is being badly damaged by its involvement in Iraq and it’s time to bail out. The fact that it hardly mentioned the Iraqis shouldn’t be a surprise. The report was commissioned as a response to recognition among the American population, not the White House or indeed the British government, that the Iraq war and the desire to install a liberal–read Western–democracy has failed. But the problem is that while it reasserts that painfully obvious fact, it has offered few practical solutions as to how to rectify the situation beyond cut and run. In fact, other than the much-trailed policy of engaging Syria and Iran, it mostly regurgitates a raft of tried and already failed proposals and policies. Where, as they are fond of saying in American political circles, is the beef? Even President George W. Bush is aware that his policy has to change, but there is little in ISG report that provides a realistic way out of the current debacle, even if the president were willing to embrace it, which based on his immediate response is a moot point to say the least. British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the other hand is keen to clutch at whatever straws the report offers him. Before setting off to meet Bush last week, he told the House of Commons that although the war was not being won, it was essential that “we do go on to succeed in the mission that we have set ourselves. But the reality is that the only mission Blair is keen to succeed in now is to have the start of a British troop withdrawal in place before he leaves office next year. Pragmatism–read desperation–has replaced the distorted idealism of yesterday. The report probably serves that purpose for Blair but, for all the fanfare that greeted it, that’s all it does. Its proposal to get Iraqi troops to do more by changing the role of US troops from combat to training is a cruel fiction. British and American troops have spent the last three years trying to create a new army and have gone nowhere. Indeed, Iraqi army and police recruits regularly end up either massacred or taking part in massacres. The report offers no solutions to breaking the cycle of violence. The report’s recognition that US policy in Iraq and the Middle East is doomed to failure without a “renewed and sustained commitment to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts is welcome. However, it comes far too late. The invasion of Iraq has managed to create a powder keg all of its own. I doubt that even if fresh life could be breathed into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–and Washington has shown few signs of interest in resuscitating it to date–this would improve the plight of Iraqis caught up in the crossfire of full blown civil war. Added to that, the prospect of Blair traveling to the Middle East–announced by Bush on the day after the report was published–to broker a truce and kick start fresh talks between Israelis and Palestinians is laughable. The prime minister can’t even broker a truce between himself and his chancellor and likely successor, Gordon Brown, who earlier this year effectively bounced Blair out of office by forcing him to announce he would stand down within 12 months. Blair has just eight months left in office to end his premiership with a viable success. Domestically, his key initiatives, to reform education, health service, the House of Lords, have stalled and fallen prey to Labor party infighting. His much-touted establishment of an elected assembly in Northern Ireland remains an aspiration rather than a political reality. If he’s going to sign off in style, he needs a success. But quite why he expects it to come from the region that is more or less entirely responsible for his political demise at home is extraordinary and smacks of arrogance. At any rate Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has flatly rejected the ISG report’s assessment that progress in Iraq is linked to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Olmert will not be bounced into entering peace talks with Syria in the near future, as recommended in the report. The report’s view on Iran and Syria fits in with Blair’s attempts to get a regional security framework in place to ease the start of a fast track withdrawal of troops before the removal van arrives at Number 10, Downing Street. Bush insisted again last Thursday that US policy towards Tehran and Damascus would only change once Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program and Syria stopped destabilizing the Lebanese government and tightened it border with Iraq. Fair enough, but while Blair, standing alongside the US president, agreed, you got the impression that he had his fingers crossed behind his back. Arguably, Bush can afford to keep his current line. Despite his increasing isolation following the departures of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, Bush has two more years to “tough it out on Iraq before he leaves office. Blair doesn’t have that luxury.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of this newspaper, is a writer in the United Kingdom. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.