The conclusions of the Iraq study group’s long-awaited report, released overnight, come as no great surprise, since they had been extensively previewed in the media over the last few weeks. Nonetheless, they represent a major break with the Bush administration’s thinking on the subject.

The report (the full 142-page text is available here) calls for a gradual withdrawal of American combat troops, greater self-reliance by the Iraqi government, and diplomatic engagement with Iraq’s neighbours. In “unusually sweeping and blunt language” (as The New York Times puts it), it rejects the “stay-the-course” option that the White House (and of course the Howard government) has consistently adhered to.

It also tells a number of home truths about the situation on the ground in Iraq, pointing out for example that “Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq” (page 4), and that “79 percent of Iraqis have a ‘mostly negative’ view of the influence that the United States has in their country” (page 35).

Perhaps most surprisingly, the report elevates the Arab-Israeli conflict to centre stage, as Tony Blair had advocated last month:

“The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts” (page xv).

This is very much a “realist” document. As far as I can see there is no survey of the origins of the war; for its authors, the invasion is problematic not because it was a crime against international law, but because it hasn’t worked.

But realism is a step forward compared to the president’s messianic denial of reality, and the report’s recommendations, had they been implemented 12 months ago, might have saved thousands of lives. By now it is probably too late for anything to do much good other than a speedy withdrawal.

AFP comments that “The report was initially seen as giving political cover for Mr Bush to change course on Iraq”, but so far, apart from polite expressions of thanks for the group’s efforts, there are no indications of a change of heart. As yesterday’s NY Times editorial says, “Bush has certainly shown little sign of opening his mind”.

Peter Fray

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