ISG's Suggested Regime Changes: No More Possible Than Persuading Pigs to Fly

Last week, Washington was all atwitter about the report of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. Its 79 recommendations included some constructive suggestions for new military tactics and for reorganizing the Iraqi government. But it concentrates more on what it calls the "external approach," a "reinvigorated diplomatic effort," a (with capitals in the original) "New Diplomatic Offensive."

This New Diplomatic Offensive would not only be directed at securing Iraq’s border and reducing violence within them, but would also, astonishingly, be directed at producing a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. All this because, the report says, "all key issues in the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism — are inextricably linked.

Well, everything is linked to everything, I suppose, and you could even argue that everything is "inextricably" linked to everything. But it’s hard to see why, to take one of several possible examples, Iraqi Sunnis would stop shooting Shiites and American troops if the United States successfully pressured Israel to give the Golan Heights to Syria. Nor is it clear that a removal of U.S. objections to Iran’s nuclear program would persuade the Shiite militias to stop shooting.

Regime change has been achieved in Iraq by military action. The ISG would seek to reduce violence in Iraq by regime change in Iran and Syria — regime change to be achieved by negotiation. But it gives no persuasive reason to believe this is possible.

In its narration of the facts, the report acknowledges that Iran has been promoting violence in Iraq and that Syria is at best negligent in preventing it. Later, it asserts that reducing violence in Iraq is in Iran’s and Syria’s interest. It would be nice if the leaders of Iran and Syria thought so, and I suppose it’s theoretically possible that if we explain things to them in patient negotiations, they might be persuaded. But not, I think, much more possible than persuading pigs to fly.

As instruments of persuasion, the ISG report presents very little in the way of sticks and some very dangerous carrots. The only stick I saw was the suggestion that, if the United States withdraws, Saudi Arabia might intervene militarily in aid of the Sunnis. That doesn’t seem likely to get the mullahs quivering. The report suggests that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was persuaded to give up his weapons of mass destruction by patient negotiation. But he did so shortly after Saddam Hussein was pried out of his spider hole. It looks like the stick, not carrot, did the trick.

In any case, the carrots Iran and Syria will surely seek would heavily outweigh any help they could provide in Iraq. Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, and its president vows to seek a world without Israel and America. Syria wants to squash the investigation of its assassination last year of Rafik Hariri and to resume its control of Lebanon.

Baker and Hamilton have been labeled foreign policy "realists" in news stories and columns in the run-up to the release of the ISG report. But it doesn’t seem very realistic to expect that we can get regime change in Iran and Syria through negotiations. Nor does it seem very realistic to expect that negotiations between Israel and Palestinians can reach a mutually acceptable solution when the Hamas government rejects Israel’s right to exist.

The ISG report is critical of the Iraqi government, and its call for sharply reducing the U.S. troop levels there by 2008 suggests an attempt to put pressure on the Iraqi government to take more steps to reduce the violence than it has done so far.

One such step the report mentions is "equitable distribution of oil revenues." An excellent point. Since April 2003, I have been urging the creation of an Iraqi oil trust, modeled on the Alaska Permanent Fund, which would distribute a portion of oil royalties annually in equal amounts to every man, woman and child in Iraq.

The Iraqi constitution clearly allows, indeed invites, the creation of such a fund. It would be difficult to implement — the government would have to create a workable private banking sector. But it would give every Iraqi, of whatever ethnic group or sect, an ongoing interest in the success of the government — and an incentive to stop the attacks on oil and other infrastructure.

It’s a more realistic way to improve life in Iraq than counting on negotiations to change the regimes of Iran and Syria.