The Iraq Study Group Report acknowledges that the situation in Iraq is dire. Hopes for democracy have given way to strategies that will limit anarchy in Iraq and instability in the region in the wake of American troop withdrawal. Crucial to the report's strategy is to reverse the "tepid" international support of American efforts.
The report therefore calls for an International Support Group that actively involves all regional powers, American allies and the United Nations. Its analysis recognizes the diplomatic failure so far and an opportunity to limit losses upon U.S. military withdrawal.
The press so far has emphasized the report's recommendation that the United States engage directly with its adversaries - namely Iran and Syria. Yet for the Bush administration, the recommendation that it engage directly with the UN and its allies - Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - is an even greater challenge.
The acknowledged fact that America stands virtually alone at a moment of catastrophic failure is stunning because during the past half-century, the United States has built a rich alliance structure and has been generous to its allies. This isolation reveals a loss in diplomatic capital that cannot easily be restored, as the report so optimistically assumes. Regaining our allies' trust that the United States is committed to multilateral consultation will take years.
America squandered its capital because its actions in Iraq violated standards of legitimate rule by outsiders. There are differences between imperialist powers that send troops to foreign countries for self-aggrandizement and nations that send troops temporarily to address a crisis or redress unjust conditions. In the wake of the two world wars, the League of Nations and later the UN instituted a system of mandates and trusts to govern the territories of the losing states in such invasions. Standards were thereby set for outsiders' rule that apply to current movements of governing administrators on a trusteeship basis authorized by the UN in war-torn states from Sierra Leone to Kosovo.
These standards include multilateral authorization for military action - clearly violated by the United States in regard to Iraq. Subsequent to the invasion, the United States violated these still-evolving standards with terrible consequences for its claims to legitimacy.
Trustees, unlike imperial powers, cannot be seen to be exploiting their trust territories. This is why trusteeships today give joint governing responsibilities to a variety of countries, international agencies and humanitarian organizations. In Iraq, the United States had extraordinary help from Britain and token help from others - President George W. Bush described them as "the coalition of the willing." But as the United States became the decider inside the Green Zone, rather than a partner sharing responsibility, it lost legitimacy.
The Iraq Study Group's only suggestion of neutral oversight is the amnesty program for insurgents. This is too little and too late. Had there been international authorization of the invasion, the standard route to a neo-trusteeship could have been followed. "Friends of the Secretary General," for example, would have brokered a cease-fire, major allies would have funded "Troop Contributing Countries" (such as Jordan and Bangladesh), and these troops, less subject to attack than Americans for a host of reasons, would have maintained order. This would have given a chance for an elected Iraqi government to govern and humanitarian groups to do their work.
But this was not to be. Having squandered its legitimacy in the invasion and in the occupation as well, the United States at its moment of maximal need has hardly any allies on whom to call for moral, military and political support. Even Britain is distancing itself from being seen as a stalwart supporter of the American-led occupation. Yet these allies have been asked to help administer Iraq as troops are withdrawn.
With this history of lost opportunity, the diplomatic offensive outlined in the report has only a low probability of success. The report explains why America's adversaries might accept a deal not to exploit the vacuum left with American withdrawal. But it is silent on how America's allies, constrained by their own citizens who want nothing to do with Iraq, can be induced to give cover to an American retreat. The report assumes full cooperation from the UN, an organization that has been held in open contempt by the Bush administration. The United States, as the world's superpower, may have some leverage with its allies and the UN, but not enough.
The report has underlined the Bush administration's diplomatic disaster and made useful suggestions on how the international community can be deployed such that anarchy and regional disorder will not follow in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawal. This is America's only hope to leave with honor. But, given its squandered capital, the chances for a dignified and peaceful withdrawal are low.
David D. Latin is a professor of political science at Stanford University.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.