Monday, December 18, 2006

Another View of the ISG Report

Niall Ferguson makes some fairly interesting observations about the ISG Report positioned against how the MSM has reported it.
Most commentators have interpreted the report of the Iraq Study Group as a well-crafted admission of defeat. Predictably, that was exactly how President Bush himself reacted to it. "I… believe we're going to succeed," he told reporters on Thursday. "I believe we'll prevail… One way to assure failure is just to quit, is not to adjust, and say it's just not worth it."

Addressing one of the report's key recommendations, he bluntly declared that Iran and Syria "shouldn't bother to show up" for negotiations about Iraq if they don't "understand their responsibilities to not fund terrorists" and if the Iranians won't "verifiably suspend" their uranium enrichment programme.

Yet anyone who bothers to read the ISG's report carefully — as opposed to skimming the executive summary — can see that it neither proposes "quitting" Iraq nor pins serious hope on Iranian or Syrian assistance. Quite the reverse.

Persuasion in the realm of grand strategy is more a matter of rhetorical art than science. The first essential step is to identify your target audience. Most readers of the report assume that it is directed at President Bush. That is wrong. Its principal target audience is Congress, and particularly the new Democratic majorities in both houses. And the aim is not to persuade a stubborn president to admit defeat. Rather, the report's aim is to persuade legislators that withdrawal from Iraq — no matter how much their constituents may yearn for it — is not an option. The report's other intended readership is Arab governments throughout the Middle East. The message for them is the same: an American exit from the region is what you most have to fear.
I have to say that Bush's statements on Syria and Iran talks being non-starters was something that should have been left unsaid. Though the ISG Report is fairly restrained in its enthusiasm on the topic, it does make a case for trying to get them involved. I think there is a tactical action on this point that is still being missed. Taking a diplomatic mission to these countries will force them into the arena of public opinion in the Middle-East more than they are now, and if they refuse to assist openly, they will be on the losing side of the propaganda war. I do see a Information War occurring in the Middle-East right now and the US has been fairly weak on succeeding their. I don't expect that we could get much out of Syria or Iran, but we could push them into being the fall guys who would allow other countries to participate who would never help otherwise. I'm looking at Saudi Arabia and Turkey specifically.

The Persuasion argirment, with regards to the congress doesn't get me much thoughs. If their idea was to persuade the Congress, then they could have made their arguments toward a win rather than just surviving. That would get more people on your side rather than just reading the MSM and then shrugging it off.
The second step in the process of persuasion is to conjure up a nightmare vision of the future if the action you envisage is not taken. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, for example, John Maynard Keynes depicted Central and Eastern Europe laid waste by anarchy and civil war, if the 1919 Versailles Treaty were not revised and Germany appeased. In his 1946 "Long Telegram", George F Kennan portrayed the entire world subverted by a ruthless Soviet Union, if the United States did not adopt a policy of retaliation and containment. Both masterpieces of persuasion; both highly influential.

The worst-case scenario proposed by the Iraq Study Group is the one about which I have been writing since February: "Sectarian warfare, growing violence [and] a slide toward chaos", leading to "the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe". Here are the report's most important lines: "Neighbouring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread … across the Islamic world. [There could be] Shia insurrections — perhaps fomented by Iran — in Sunni-ruled states. Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora's box of problems."

The consequences would be much more than a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda and a humiliation for the United States, which is what they worry about on Capitol Hill. In such a conflagration, no Middle Eastern government — with the exception of the fundamentalist Shiite regime in Teheran — could feel secure. And that is precisely why Arab rulers should dread an American exit.

That's convincing. Al-Qaeda has done better at getting their propaganda out that it is a glorious win for the faith to drive out the westerners. They don't even want the thought of civil strife to be acknowledged, mainly because it would make the sectarian friction more evident and allow the moderates to make some gains in smoothing out the problems. Again, a propaganda or information operation that would be in our interest to make progress on.
Step three in the art of persuasion is to propose remedies that sound attractive to your target audience. These the ISG has produced, and in profusion. But you need to read the small print of all 79 recommendations. Consider the long-anticipated "diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region". Much has been made of the willingness of the ISG's co-chair, James A Baker III, former Secretary of State, to open negotiations with Iran, once a reviled member of President Bush's "Axis of Evil", as well as with Syria, no friend of the United States.

"A nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies," declares the report in a sentence that Mr Baker must surely have written, and should offer them "incentives as well as disincentives". Note that word "disincentives". Mr Baker's idea here is not to go cap in hand to Damascus and Teheran. Rather, as he explained to the press this week, it is to "flip the Syrians" by appealing to Sunni solidarity, and to isolate the Iranian regime by exposing its "rejectionist attitude".

In other words: get the leaders of all Iraq's neighbours into the same room and play "spot the Shia". The calculation is that if Iranian aspirations to regional hegemony can be laid bare, then it will be much easier to get broad support for some serious "disincentives".

Funny how that part about disincentives is nearly completely missed in reporting.

I'll skip the part on troop numbers. In fact I think his argument is a bit fuzzy due to his naming more people from the DoS and the DoJ coming in, which wouldn't be from the DoD.

He also discusses more money for economic assistance which doesn't really address that a lot of that money has been redirected to protecting existing infrastructure from the insurgents. Personally, I think the use of economic aid as a carrot for cooperation of various groups could be helpful if used in a tactful manner. You can't just yell that we won't help you if you don't help us. There needs to be more subtlety than that.

If the ISG Report was supposed to be such a success in the art of persuasion, I'm afraid I don't see it. It was too easily twisted out of shape by the press and those who want extreme measures in Iraq. Unfortunately, the citizens of the US will just take the word of the MSM rather than reading the report, and the back pressure on the congress from the constituency will block the viability of many of the good ideas in the report.

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