Breaking: Baker Commission to call for "gradual pullback" of U.S. troops

Just posted at the Times. The report won’t be delivered to Bush for another week but “people familiar with the panel’s deliberations” say they’re going to recommend withdrawal “relatively soon” but without a firm timetable.

So that’s helpful.

I’m going to read it through now. Update coming.

Update: “It is neither ‘cut and run’ nor ‘stay the course,'” one source told the Times. Right, which is way both sides will hate it.

The military end recommends that roughly half the troops in country redeploy “soon,” hopefully starting sometime next year, either to bases elsewhere in Iraq or the Middle East or all the way home. Which of the three it ends up being will obviously depend on how hairy things are six months or so from now. The other half would stay behind and embed with Iraqi troops in support roles and as instructors, and some would comprise a rapid reaction force. Quote:

[I]t was the military recommendations that prompted the most debate, people familiar with the deliberations said. They said a draft report put together under the direction of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton had collided with another, circulated by other Democrats on the commission, that included an explicit timeline calling for withdrawal of the combat brigades to be completed by the end of next year. In the end, the two proposals were blended.

That’s not a war plan, it’s a deal. How many Iraqi troops do they think are going to hang around waiting to be trained if all-out civil war begins between Sunnis and Shiites? If you’re not going to send American forces after the militias in earnest then you’re abandoning Iraqis to their fate whether or not you’re still physically there on the ground with them. It’s the ultimate manifestation of war by half-measures — almost literally, as it turns out. As for this:

A person who participated in the commission’s debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, “there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached.”

Maliki was stoned three days ago in Sadr City. The sense of urgency is practically embedded in his skull. What, precisely, would the vaunted political settlement accomplish at this point, though, without a military settlement as a precondition? The Sunnis in parliament can’t compromise with Shiites so long as the center of gravity within their sect lies with the jihadis; likewise the Shiites vis-a-vis al-Sadr. If they managed a settlement, they’d have no way to enforce it. Until the militias are cleared away, nothing that happens within the government will mean a thing to anyone outside the green zone. And with half the U.S. troops in the country heading out, the odds of clearing those militias out are close to nil. But then, addressing that wasn’t really the point. This was the point:

Commission members have said in recent days that they had to navigate around such declarations, or, as one said, “We had to move the national debate from whether to stay the course to how do we start down the path out.”

They moved it. Congratulations.

So there’s the military side. What about the diplomatic side? Is it as bad as we’ve feared?

It is.

As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Mr. Bush has been willing to try so far, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Tehran and Damascus.

Assad just knocked off one Lebanese minister and there’s a report today that he has his eye on planning to kill dozens more. Hitchens put it well on Monday:

If the latest assassination in Lebanon caused any embarrassment to the enthusiasm of the Baker-Hamilton team for direct talks with Damascus and Tehran, the embarrassment wasn’t evident. The Lebanese Cabinet may have bravely voted last week, in spite of a campaign of blackmail by Syria’s death squads and religious proxies, to establish a tribunal to investigate the murder of Rafik Hariri, but in Washington, the talk is of getting on better terms with the people who, on all the available evidence, blew up his car…

The objectionable thing about the proposed Baker-Hamilton “talks” is not that they are talks but that they give the impression of looking for someone to whom to surrender.


One week until the full report comes out. Can’t wait.