What Does Gates’ Appointment Mean for Iraq?

It’s official, the new SECDEF will be Robert M. Gates, current president of Texas A&M University, and former director of central intelligence and deputy national security adviser under George H.W. Bush.

But more significant than his past experience is the fact that Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a commission created at the behest of Congress to recommend strategy changes in Iraq — and led by another Bush I confidante, James A. Baker III.

Thus, Gates’ appointment is a clear signal that the administration intends to embrace many of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. Those recommendations have not been released yet, but most news reports indicate they will represent a decided shift toward realism.

Among the most likely recommendations, Howard LaFranchi writes in The Christian Science Monitor, are a new diplomatic push to enlist Iran and Syria in efforts to stabilize Iraq, more pressure on the Iraqi government to take steps to quell insurgent violence, and a reduction and retrenchment of U.S. troops.

Judging from the limited information we have, the findings of the Iraq Study Group would seem to share much in common with other recent common-sense proposals for a new strategy in Iraq, such as the one Fareed Zakaria outlined in a recent Newsweek cover story.

This kind of dual strategy of stepping up pressure on the Iraq government to cut a political deal while pulling U.S. troops back to a few bases within Iraq where they can be a less visible, more expeditionary presence, also has the virtue of potentially winning the support of both parties in Washington.

For evidence of this, one need only note the plan for Iraq that Hillary Clinton proposed in an Oct. 31 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Clinton’s plan for Iraq contains three main parts:

First, we need to press consistently, privately and publicly the Iraqis to become serious about achieving an internal reconciliation and political solution and present real consequences for their failing to do so.
. . .

Second, we do need what many of us have been calling for now for months, even years at this point: a public international conference of the parties in the region — the Turks, the Saudis, Egyptians, the Emirates, the Jordanians, but also the Syrians and Iranians. We need to put everybody on the record as to whether they will make public commitments to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and to further the task of Iraq’s stability.
. . .

And thirdly, we do need to begin — I had hoped by the end of this year — a phased redeployment. I joined with Senators Levin and Reed and the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House in proposing a phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq during this year, 2006. That would also include a change in the mission of U.S. forces to one of training and supporting Iraqi troops and targeting counterterrorism (sic) as well as protecting American operations and personnel and facilities.

Given that the proposals for a new strategy in Iraq now coming from many different quarters all seem to share three basic basic components — increased pressure on the Iraqi government, stepped-up diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors and other regional actors, and some sort of redeployment of U.S. troops — it seems likely these elements will form the basis of a new bipartisan consensus on Iraq.

Given the current atmosphere in Washington, the phrase “bipartisan consensus” might seem like an anachronism but, as Shawn Brimley recently pointed out in a WPR piece on the Iraq debate, “post-election political dynamics will favor arguments and options more grounded in reality than rhetoric.”

Of course, achieving consensus on a new Iraq strategy doesn’t mean that the strategy will work. Indeed, some see the kind of puportedly “new” proposals now being touted by Clinton and others as far from innovative. For this view, see Charles Crain’s Nov. 6 commentary piece on this site.

All things being equal, however, any given strategy’s chances of succeeding are higher if it enjoys wide support in the White House and Congress. Thus, the appointment of Gates as secretary of defense, for the signal it sends about the Bush administration’s willingness to join a new Iraq policy consensus, should be seen as a hopeful sign.