Diplomacy must be tried, but it may be too late

December 12, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- In military parlance there is a concept known as "the golden hour." This refers to the window of time within which badly wounded troops have a good chance of surviving if they can be evacuated to medical facilities. If this window closes, the chance of saving the wounded drops sharply.

"We have missed the golden hour," I was told recently by a U.S. officer with extensive combat experience outside Baghdad. He referred, of course, to the chance of stabilizing Iraq.

That's the feeling I got when I read the much-awaited report last week of the Iraq Study Group, led by James A Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton. The recommendations make great sense, but it may be too late to save the patient.

That said, I believe the report largely reflects the direction in which U.S. policy in Iraq is headed. Even though President Bush has rejected key points, I think events are moving beyond his control.

The report revolves around two key ideas. The first idea is the need for a new diplomatic initiative in the region, in which the United States presses Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to stop meddling and help stabilize the country. The second idea is a change in the main mission of U.S. forces. They would pull back from fighting insurgents but would insert thousands of trainers into Iraqi units, pushing Iraqis to assume the major combat role. The goal would be to withdraw most U.S. combat units by early 2008, while support troops, special forces and rapid-reaction teams would remain.

In the days since the report's release, Mr. Bush has distanced himself from the 2008 date. Some critics of the report, like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, called the withdrawal a prescription for defeat. It's hard to believe that Iraqi troops, with their checkered record, will be ready in time.

But mistakes of the past limit the possibilities of the present. Mr. McCain is right that more U.S. troops could have stabilized Iraq early on, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld chose not to send them. Now there are no more U.S. troops to send for any extended period. A temporary "surge" of 20,000 cannot stabilize troubled areas.

So we have little choice but to turn more responsibility over to Iraqi forces, however unreliable. Iraqi leaders visiting Washington, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and top Shiite political leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, have requested heavier equipment for their military, and more control of its actions. A stepped-up program for inserting U.S. trainers into Iraqi units has begun.

As for the 2008 date: If Iraqis haven't produced a coherent government by 2008, and if Iraqi troops haven't improved by 2008, the game will already be up. The presence of U.S. troops will have become irrelevant, as sectarian conflict surges around them and they retreat to their bases. The Iraq Study Group recognized reality, whether or not the 2008 date becomes official policy.

As for an aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East, I think the United States will also have to pursue this idea, despite Mr. Bush's reluctance. But the lateness of the hour undercuts its chances.

Talking directly to Iran in 2003 about stabilizing Iraq could have made a difference, when the United States was in a much stronger military and political position. Now Iran and Syria want too much for any cooperation.

If the Iraq civil war worsens, however, and threatens to drag in the region, the White House has an important card to play. Iran doesn't want a complete breakup of Iraq for fear that the blowback would affect Tehran. So the study group report suggests that Washington try to negotiate a quid pro quo whereby Iran stops helping Shiite militias if Saudi Arabia refrains from aiding and arming Sunni fighters.

Such maneuvering would require a kind of skilled diplomacy in short supply in the Bush administration. I asked diplomatic virtuoso Mr. Baker, in Washington, whether he would take on the job. He said flatly, "No way. I'm finished, after this report. I'm 77 years old."

Perhaps Mr. Baker understands how hard it would be to engineer regional cooperation at this point in the Iraq story.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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