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Why speculating on what "we" can do to Fix Iraq is meaningless

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Iraq is the most important political and strategic issue of our time. It took a while for some people to realize this fact, but the elections erased any last doubts, and now the most important issue in the public consciousness is the most important issue in government. In addition to the elections, the impending final report from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), also referred to as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, is keeping Iraq policy in the forefront of news and political machinations. The ISG is a 10-person bipartisan panel, appointed by Congress in March to present an "independent assessment" of Iraq and provide analysis and recommendations. What unique insight into Iraq Sandra Day O'Connor and Vernon Jordan have, for example, I'm not sure, but in general it's a cast of political and foreign policy all-stars. Everybody seems to be waiting with bated breath for the report.

However, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, it doesn't really matter what they say. They're not going to come up with anything that hasn't already been proposed, and I doubt they'll even recommend a specific policy course. Even if they did, the idea that there's some magical pony plan to Save Iraq is pretty silly, and the idea that a panel of 10 Sensible Centrist Thinkers is going to come up with it is even sillier. With apologies to Chasing Amy, let me illustrate this with a question: In the middle of an intersection of roads lies a $100 bill. On the corners stand Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Continuing Sectarian Violence, and Something The U.S. Can Do That Will Save Iraq. Who wins the race to the money? Continuing Sectarian Violence. Why? Because the other three are figments of your *@%#ing imagination!

I'm not saying Iraq is destined for long-term failure, but many Americans, especially, for some reason, our elected officials, seem to hold onto the idea that we can control Iraq's near-term future. Nothing within our range of options will have a significant immediate -- within, say, a year (i.e., two Friedman Units) -- impact, as Iraq's daily events are far more controlled by domestic influences than by the Coalition forces. I think people overestimate the (beneficial) effects of having the number of troops there that we do, and I think they correspondingly overestimate the impact of increasing OR decreasing those numbers by anything under 50% in either direction.

So whether the ISG says we should increase troops one more time (by, say, 20 or 30 thousand) or start to draw down forces over the course of a year or two, or even if they recommend actual changes in policy, like moving to superbases to reduce U.S. casualties or moving into cities for classical counterinsurgency, the fact is that our presence (and impact) has largely been overtaken by domestic influences. And none of these strategies will 1) definitely work or 2) even be implemented just because a blue-ribbon panel suggested them. Aside from the danger that the ISG will be used to deflect blame away from those who deserve it, which is highly possible, there is no magic solution, though I hope the ISG endorses modest but helpful things that the administration has thus far dismissed, like talking to Iran and Syria.

The phrase, "you break it, you own it" gets thrown around a lot, but you know what? We don't own Iraq. The Iraqis do. We should absolutely do as much as we can to help them move forward, but let's not kid ourselves: the reason why most political debate about Iraq involves when we should leave is because we don't have the ability to affect (or effect, for that matter) much of anything else.

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