Just days before its publication, the much-anticipated report of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq came under attack Monday from the Democrats’ top foreign-policy voice, Senator Joseph Biden, in an address to a Jewish group in New York.
Biden, incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the Baker-Hamilton report, parts of which had been leaked to the press days earlier, does not provide a plan to reach a sustainable political settlement there. He also derided proposals, associated with Baker, to link progress in Iraq to the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as “dangerously naive.”
“The notion that an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would end a civil war in Iraq defies common sense,” Biden told the Israel Policy Forum. “Israeli-Palestinian peace should be pursued aggressively on its own merits, period — not as some sort of diplomatic price to make the Arab states feel good so they will help us in Iraq.”
Biden, who is believed to be considering a presidential run in 2008, blasted President Bush for “going AWOL” on the Israeli-Palestinian track over the past six years, saying he could “not fathom” how the president did not find the time to visit Israel even once since he was elected.
The Baker-Hamilton commission, formally known as the Iraq Study Group, issued its recommendations Wednesday. They include a gradual and partial withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and a call for direct talks with Syria and Iran, as well as more vigorous American mediation on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
“The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability,” the group’s executive summary said. “There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment includes direct talks with, by and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria.”
Bush recently launched two internal administration reviews of Iraq policy, in what some critics called an attempt to offset the impact of the Baker-Hamilton report. In several statements last week, the president appeared to be dismissing in advance the expected recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including troop withdrawals. However, his advisers have repeatedly said in recent days that there would be a new course once the various policy reviews were digested.
Some observers saw political significance in the fact that the Democrats’ incoming foreign policy chief chose the peace-oriented Israel Policy Forum for his first appearance before a Jewish group after the election.
At the same time, the president of the Israel Policy Forum, attorney Seymour Reich, distanced himself afterward from parts of Biden’s talk. He said that while the senator was “technically correct” in claiming that no linkage should be made between Israel and Iraq, the perception in the region and in many parts around the world was different.
“Israel should take advantage of this to actually make some peace overtures,” Reich said. “This is what Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert is already doing by reaching out to the Palestinians.”
Biden focused most of his address on his advocacy of a federalized and decentralized Iraq, a plan he initially proposed with Leslie Gelb, a president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations. Biden said he hopes the plan will attract fellow lawmakers as the situation in Iraq continues to escalate and as the policy of supporting a strong central government in Baghdad is failing.
“I will push this in Congress with my colleagues and through hearings,” Biden told the Forward before his speech. “I believe other Democrats will join me, but I doubt the administration will do so.”
His Republican counterpart on the Senate committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, has expressed support for a federal solution and agreed to a grueling schedule of in-depth hearings on Iraq when Congress reconvenes next month.
While Biden’s plan has won few formal endorsements in Congress, his aides claim it is gaining traction, despite widespread Democratic calls for troop withdrawal. “The Biden plan has some good points, but we need to make sure we don’t shortchange the Kurds again,” said Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. “But our main focus in Congress is now on bringing the troops home.”
The administration has rejected the plan, claiming it has no support among Iraqis. A poll released in June by the International Republican Institute found that 78% of Iraqis disagree with the idea of segregating Iraqis according to religious or ethnic sects, and 89% believe that establishing a unity government is extremely important to Iraq’s future.
Gelb, who initially proposed the federal plan three years ago, said the administration tried to undercut the plan by misrepresenting it. “They purposefully claim we want to partition the country,” he said. “They are bending to pressure from the Saudis who do not want any breakup of Iraq.”
Last week, Nawaf Obaid, a consultant with the Saudi government, published an opinion article in the Washington Post claiming in no uncertain terms that the oil-rich kingdom would consider funding and arming Sunni militias in Iraq to counter Iran’s influence if American troops withdrew. Saudi Arabia distanced itself from Obaid and terminated his consultancy contract as a result. However, most observers saw his essay as a calculated Saudi warning about the possibility of a regional war if Washington decided to pull out or cater to the different sectarian groups in Iraq.
Gelb noted that support for the federal plan was “picking up steadily” in Congress because people are beginning “to focus on the fact that no insurgency ends without a political deal. This leads ineluctably to a federal solution as an alternative to what we have tried and failed to achieve in the past three years.”
Leading Republican senators such as Lugar and John Warner of Virginia, the outgoing chair of the Armed Services Committee, as well as Sam Brownback of Kansas, have publicly stated that a federal solution should be seriously considered.
On the campaign trial, several lawmakers, including Texas GOP Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and newly elected Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, expressed support for a more drastic proposal put forth by American diplomat Peter Galbraith to partition Iraq in three states along ethno-religious lines — Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.
Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia and an adviser to the Kurds on constitutional issues, said the partition had already happened and that Washington should not try to put together what is in effect already a broken-apart country.
In an opinion article published May 1 in the New York Times, Biden and Gelb argued that since sectarian strife has become a bigger security threat than the insurgency and a de facto partition is already in place, the argument in favor of maintaining a unified Iraq is becoming increasingly moot by the day. Blaming Bush for his absence of strategy and warning that Congress could end up mandating a quick pullout, they proposed maintaining “a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shi’ite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” The central government would also ensure that the oil-poor Sunni Arab region receives 20% of Iraqi oil revenues. The Iraqi parliament recently passed legislation envisioning strong regional entities.
Some analysts said splitting the country along ethnic and sectarian lines would ignite massive population relocations and major upheaval in Iraq’s major cities, where all three groups reside. Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now working as a research fellow at the National Defense University, termed the Biden plan “naive” in that it fails to spell out how the regional division would be implemented and lacks support among Sunnis and Shi’ites.
However, other experts said that populations in those mixed areas are separating on their own because of the growing sectarian militia activity, including in the capital.
“I do think that we are likely to hear people say that there is an informal Biden plan underway naturally as the ethnic communities in Iraq self-align in response to intimidation or to avoid bloodshed,” said John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former deputy defense secretary official in the Clinton administration. “Baghdad is the central problem in that regard — like Sarajevo was in the Balkans.”