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The Iraq Report: Mission, Milestones, Diplomacy

<strong>Different Times:</strong> In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt.
Eric Draper
AFP/Getty Images
Different Times: In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt.

The first line of the summary of the ISG report doesn't mince words: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," it reads.

It's impossible not to read the report as anything other than a clear rebuke of the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq.

To watch its unveiling earlier Wednesday, one couldn't help but notice the irony in seeing former Secretary of State James Baker III advising against a "stay the course solution."

Baker, of course, is the man largely responsible for a process in Florida that led to President Bush's 2000 election victory.

He's an old Bush family friend who has now told the president -- in somewhat more polite language -- that his Iraq policy has failed. And to salvage the project, the administration has to be prepared to do things it has earlier ruled out: things like talking to Iran and Syria, drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq, and convening a comprehensive Middle East peace summit.

The report is not binding. It's not a piece of legislation and it carries no legal weight. But it cannot be ignored either, because of the combined gravitas of the men and women behind it.

Readers of the report are told, for example, that at this point, "no one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq will stop sectarian warfare."

We learn from the report's findings that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in Iraq are carried out by sectarian militias. And that -- despite repeated insistence from the White House to the contrary -- al-Qaida is only involved in a small number of the attacks. And that most of the terrorism is carried out by Iraqis, not foreign fighters.

What the bipartisan commission DOES recommend can be summed up in three words:

Mission, milestones and diplomacy.

According to the report, the United States must change its "primary mission" in Iraq. That will enable U.S. forces to begin a slow but steady withdrawal over the next year. The goal being that by the first quarter of 2008, more than half of all troops currently in Iraq would be back at home.

The idea of a phased and definite draw-down would, according to the report, pressure the Iraqi government to work faster on achieving political goals. At the moment, Iraq's elected government is badly fractured and failing to confront the chaotic sectarian violence. The United States, the report insists, should not give the Iraqi government an "open-ended committment" to remain in the country.

What will prove most controversial, and perhaps difficult for the Bush adminsitration to accept, is the proposal to open direct talks with Iran and Syria. These two countries have a lot of influence in Iraq -- whether on the terrorism front or the political one. They also bear a lot of responsibility for the chaos now gripping that country. The panel concludes that without engaging Iran and Syria, Iraq cannot be tamed.

The Bush administration has insisted it will not deal with Iran until the Islamic Republic freezes its uranium-enrichment program -- a pre-cursor to building the bomb. But the ISG report recommends dealing with Iran nonetheless.

Same goes for Syria: It's clear that Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants have helped train Iraqi terrorists. Yet the ISG report indicates that Syria can help the United States achieve its long term objectives for Iraq: a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself.

The report also links a resolution for Iraq with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The panel suggests convening a two-track peace process: one, on the Israeli-Palestinian front; the other on the Syria/Lebanon/Israel front. Baker, who famously brought together Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Madrid in 1991, told reporters that reviving a comprehensive peace process is imperative. Without it, Iraq cannot be pacified.

The White House has hinted it will follow the recommendations of the panel. But as the drafters acknowledged, it will take time to implement all 79 recommendations. And the Bush administration -- with two years left in office -- may not have enough time.

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Guy Raz
Guy Raz is an independent producer who has been described by the New York Times as "one of the most popular podcasters in history."