Congressional Oversight of ISG Option Study
This note discusses the potential problems related to the unfinished Iraqi Study Group [ISG] policy options. SecDef nominee Gates and former Secretary of State Baker, among others have crafted fro the President a way forward in Iraq.
This note outlines the challenges confronting Congressional oversight of the Iraqi policies; and proposes a course of action for Congress to test and enhance the ISG recommendations.
Iraq Study Group Option Study
Gates, as SecDef nominee, cannot credibly claim he’s positioned to implement the Iraq Study Group options: The option study has not been finalized. Although Gates may have been part of the analysis team, the final work product remains undone. Gate’s transition to SecDef means the final options analysis and conclusions will have been finalized well after he’s been removed from his closer involvement. It remains to be understood how the final options square with his earlier observations and involvement.
Putting aside the uncertain nexus after ISG recommendations are implemented, the ISG participants have not well demonstrated a clear sense of Iraq’s near term future.
There are three non-aligned thrusts:
 Iraq’s near term situation is deteriorating; while commanders are pushing for additional resources, increased funding, and more personnel. Additional troops and resources, however the United States adjusts course cannot be physically emplaced to support a credible change in US resources, nor mitigate the untenable situation.
 The policies of disengagement, removal, and withdrawal are juxtaposed by a poor understanding of the Iraqi stability. The options study, however well formulated cannot credibly be supported when the ISG members have demonstrated a poor understanding of the existing security situation and the near term conditions; the confluence of the ISG option implementation within this poorly understood nexus does not bode well for credible planning, as was the problem with the original Iraqi invasion and stability plans in 2002-2003.
 The incorrect assert than removing Rumsfeld will embolden the United States to depart on a winnable strategy. Removing Rumsfeld does not mean all unrealistic assumptions have been removed; or that the remaining players have more realistic assumptions, or viable options.
The US will have to approach Iran, not only in terms of what they may or may not be able to offer for Iraq, but in how the regional actors, including Hamas and Hezbollah will or will not be effectively engaged. It remains to be seen, despite Isreali’s push for war, and default acceptance of a less secure and stable Iraq, to what extent Israel interferes with US efforts to engage with Iranian backed forces in Lebanon or with Syria.
If there is going to be real Middle East stability, the Iranian position will have to be considered in terms of what Israel does or does not need to do to contribute. Arguably, Israel has contributed to the problem by supporting an unrealistic set of expectations about the war, the risks, and the threats. Although US citizens are not directly blaming Israel, a real solution to Iraq will have to consider approaches which ultimately require Israel to account for its complicity with the unrealistic plans, accelerated timelines.
Although the US leadership in the White House is responsible for implementing policy, it is incorrect to assign total responsibility to the White House. The American government has separated power, and Congress shares in the policy making through oversight, staff inquiry, and formulation of legislative language.
Whether Congress did or did not effectively do its job in no way means the policy is exclusively the President’s responsibility. It is incorrect for the new Congressional leadership to state the Executive has sole responsibility for the success and failures; the correct approach is for the Congressional leadership to accept that they are stuck with a failed American government policy.
One expectation of ISG observers is, in the wake of a change in leadership in Congress, that the failed oversight will reform the review of the ISG option study. This is not supported.
The ISG is incorrectly perceived as the best positioned body to present options, formulate a policy, and make the case to Congress. Conversely, Congress is incorrectly perceived, through a simple change of leadership, to have superior ability to oversee policy. This is also not supported.
The problem is the expectation that, because the ISG is best supported, Congress and the President are most likely to jointly endorse the recommendations, pass them to Gates to implement, and hope for the best.
Reconsidering the ISG formulation, Congress is not well positioned to oversee and challenge what it has largely not reviewed. Indeed, Congress will approach the ISG not with a balanced position with a credible basis to ask questions, but largely probing the ISG through the veil of ignorance. Even the ISG staff are unwilling to comment on the near term prospects of Iraq; how Congress, despite less information and study, will be in a position to effectively oversee and question the ISG option study remains a dubious proposition.
Some observers expect the ISG options to be largely endorsed only if the Congress does not effectively challenge or probe the final conclusions. The danger, as with the initial Iraq invasion plans, is the Congress, because of an inferior information position, will more likely endorse what it does not understand.
At worst, the same nexus which arguably undermined the American policy implementation in Iraq – that of ineffective plans meeting an impossible situation, combined with inadequate oversight – could replay itself, but with greater problems.
The risk is that the Congress, in asserting it’s desire for change, will largely not adjust when engaging with the ISG policy study: Embrace what it does not understand; not effectively challenge the plan; and assert that a change in direction is a change in policy and expected outcomes. This approach simply expands the size of the tent for the fools to parade and wander.
The danger is that the so-called new leadership in Congress is not effectively looking at the larger issues and problems; nor open to the full range of policy options and risks. By selectively removing options from consideration, the leadership has effectively narrowed the set of possible policy options to a narrow subset of what may need full consideration.
It is problematic to argue the President cannot be impeached; or that American war crimes trials cannot be discussed. Although these outcomes may be preferred, a credible Congressional oversight and staff inquiry cannot be limited to desirable outcomes, but the full spectrum of outcomes. For the “new” Congressional leadership to remove options from the table at the outset repeats the errors of the original Iraq invasion planners: Failing to examine all options and risks; and unrealistically embarking on a success-oriented plan.
For Congress to solve the Iraq problem, the solution lies with remedying what failed in the American political system, then ensuring the same flaws are not injected into the subsequent policies. The current Congressional leadership approach, even if replaced with new players, does not show signs it will look at the generalized lessons of what failed; nor credibly ensure its oversight of the ISG or Executive branch will similarly be adjusted, or tailored to prevent recurrence of these failures.
Addressing Iraq requires facing to politically charged issues: Iranian power relative to US oil interests; and American exhaustive support for Israeli military and security interests.
Rather than look at the Middle East as an isolated subset, a credible solution to the problem would be to look at a transnational solution which multiple players can jointly agree.
Iran’s nuclear program is within their right and power to pursue. The solution is not to confront Iran on peaceful energy development, but to work with Iran to export similar energy solutions to other continents including China and Africa.
Similarly, rather than look at Iraq as a problem which challenges American interests relative to Iran or Israel; a better approach would be for the US to work with the regional players, and UN Security Counsel members to develop export markets in Africa, and address regional development issues.
The solution is to work with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, inviting them to participate in the development efforts in their country; and ensure capital resources are effectively managed, not squandered under loose accounting rules.
China and Russia share a common border, and have mutual interest: China needs Energy; and the Russians have untapped energy supplies. Despite the mutual trade benefits, China observes an easier path through Africa, taking advantage of the African’s rebuke of American threats: Simplistically, either cooperate with the abuses under the American Administration, or lose trading privileges.
To address the instability in Iraq, the American government will have to review the flawed assumptions which prevented Americans from considering the translational solutions which would have otherwise developed Africa, mitigated poverty, and removed the social and economic factors driving terrorism. Until the broader issues and assumptions being the original flawed policies are understood, the American Congress is doomed to repeat the same flawed assumptions within repurposed policies. Flawed assumptions, however hidden or explained away, remain no matter how many options studies are done.
The way forward is not to narrowly define the solution for Iraq in terms of what Iran or the United States or the Iraqis will or will not gain. The larger objective should be to rally all the nation’s citizens to work toward a common goal of regional development; prudent resource management; and viable energy development.
The solution to Iraq partly lies in how the Chinese, Russians, and Africans are engaged; and to what extent the Iraqis and Iranians are approached not as adversaries or client states, but as co-equals with the Untied States. American cannot go it alone; and the Chinese have shown they will make headway when the Americans refuse to change path.
Regional development in Africa is possible. They have resources, a large population, and are eager to develop in an efficient manner. Americans have well shown in Iraq that, in the absence of credible financial controls, scare capital resources can be quickly squandered.
The way forward is for the world to understand why the Iraqi oil revenues were allowed to be squandered; and lawfully punish those who failed to ensure the Iraqi sovereignty and resources were protected. Until the flawed policies and plans predating the invasion are unraveled, the Americans cannot credibly hope to convince the Iraqis, much less to international community, that it has adequately reviewed the situation; or that it has fundamentally changed, and stands ready to embark with more credible governance.
Gates may have been involved with the initial ISG analysis. However, the longer he remains disconnected from the final, critical deliberations, the less capable he will be to credibly argue for, much less implement as SecDef the final plan. Secretary Rice needs to be visibly brought into the Nexus; whether her apparent silence relates to her concerns in other areas remains to be understood.
Congressional Oversight of the ISG Option Study
Congressional leadership, until they effectively get on board, will require some handholding. This does not mean that they are incapable of oversight; only that the entire situation with Iraq has narrowly focused on just that: Iraq, not the larger solutions. Congress is encouraged to recognize that it has entrenched assumptions and approaches to oversight which will take time to disentangle.
Given the ISG final options have not been approved, we will have to speculate when offering a series of guideposts for Congressional leadership as they plan for the hoped for summit with the Executive Branch on Iraq.
___ When discussing Iraq, have we credibly shown that the solutions must be narrowed to Iraq; or can we discuss larger solutions which will move the solution into a larger dynamic.
___ How have the options incorporated the Chinese and Russian interest in Africa.
___ If we were to credibly show in Iraq that the US is able to work with the Iranians, Hamas, and Hezbollah, would it be possible to use this approach in Africa.
___ To what extent have we offered the competing factions within Iraq a viable alternative to their present, narrow conflict
___ How would broadening the scope of the solution -- from merely whether Iraq is or is not stable to something that looks broader – give the competing factions something they can jointly agree they can share, participate, and work together
___ To what extent might Iraqi competing factions, if given a viable stake in the development of Africa, give them the power, prestige, and stature to offset negligible losses in Iraq
___ If Iraqi insurgents were offered, in exchange for putting down their arms, a credible approach to support a financial livelihood, and earn real cash for their families act as an incentive to support the government reforms after Saddam has left
___ To what extent might the Chinese and African development objectives be broadened to include American financial capital, and Middle East labor
___ Have we discussed with the Africans and Chinese how their mutual goals might be expanded to include other development projects
___ Have we approached the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi insurgency to consider how they might respond to a larger approach that would develop export markets; create jobs; and grant additional power and energy resources
___ Have we considered to what extent this approach, should it involve the Palestinians, might afford them a chance to focus on common development goals, and mitigate the tensions between Israel and the Palestine
___ What is the view of the Russians, Saudis, Syrians, Jordanians, Turks, and Kurds on this issue: Do they view themselves as having a stake in this approach; or should we only look at the solution in terms of what the three ethnic players have – Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds.
Congressional oversight of the Iraq Study Group Options may be seen as credible if the scope of the solution were broad; and the understandable mess in Iraq – which America has helped create – is transformed into a solution which the Americans can assign credit to the current combatants.
Peace and stability means resolution of conflict. Yes, America is largely at war, publicly, with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and the Taliban. However, the common objective of all is for the United States to be less of a source of tension, and part of a solution.
The approach which Congress chooses will have great consequences. The way forward is to learn the lessons of the failed Iran-Contra Affair, accept regional actors may not necessarily accept all US positions, and understand that Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Venezuelan complaints about America – although annoying – are not much different than the complaints Palestinians, Iraqi insurgents, and the Taliban have voiced.
The way forward is for the United States to choose to work with the UN Security Council, engage directly with the Chinese and Russians, and solicit their support to jointly do what the Americans have refused to do: Share the benefits of a post WWII world with those who live in a Post Cold War era.