Last Thursday's Republican debate ended with a terrifying scenario presented to the field of candidates. Iran's nuclear program:
has continued to advance. U.N. weapons inspectors … are now saying that it appears that Iran is on the verge of being able to produce and may even be producing nuclear weapons. Iran has suspended its cooperation with the U.N. nuclear agency and asked the inspectors to leave the country. Cross-border incidents in Iraq involving elements of the Revolutionary Guard … continue to increase and are a continuing problem for U.S. forces there and for the Iraqis as well.
What would you do in this hypothetical situation? Brit Hume asked the debaters. According to Sen. Sam Brownback, "[W]hat you're describing is much of the situation that we're facing today." A moment later, Sen. John McCain agreed: "Your hypothetical is closer to reality than many of us appreciate."
It's safe to assume that Gen. David Petraeus appreciates the realities concerning Iran. "Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence," he stated in his report to the House of Representatives Monday. This should not be treated as news; Petraeus has said similar things in the past, and he is hardly alone in drawing a connection between violence in Iraq and the constant meddling of its neighbors. Just the other day it was reported that the United States will build a small base on the Iranian border in an effort to hinder the smuggling of advanced weapons from Iran into Iraq.
Still, Petraeus, like most of the Republican contenders, was long on describing the problem and short on prescribing a cure. Targeting and capturing Iranian and Hezbollah operatives within Iraq is hardly a solution to the problem. "Advanced explosive devices provided by Iran" helped "elements" who have "assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders [and] killed and wounded our soldiers," he said. But the recommendations Petraeus submitted to Congress dealt only with the messengers, the "Iranian-supported militia extremists."
"Iran plays a harmful role in Iraq," said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Petraeus' wing man. Crocker is the man who was given the task of wasting his time talking to the Iranians about helping Iraq. "While claiming to support Iraq in its transition, Iran has actively undermined it by providing lethal capabilities to the enemies of the Iraqi state," he testified. In the Q&A session, his military co-presenter made it even clearer to anyone who refused to understand. Since the talks with Iran, the last round of which took place in August, he said, the level of Iranian activity has risen, not diminished.
This was an astounding refutation of one of the false premises on which the Iraq Study Group report was based, namely, that engaging Iran will provide more stability. "Iran's interests would not be served by a failure of U.S. policy in Iraq that led to chaos and the territorial disintegration of the Iraqi state," argued the report. But Crocker and Petraeus all but dismissed this assertion. Crocker declared, "An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will mean massive human suffering—well beyond what has already occurred within Iraq's borders. It could well invite the intervention of regional states, all of which see their future connected to Iraq's in some fundamental way. Undoubtedly, Iran would be a winner in this scenario, consolidating its influence over Iraqi resources and possibly territory."
Still, one thing can be said for the Iraq Study Group that is hardly true of the double act playing Congress this week. The ISG at least tried to find a solution for Iranian/Syrian meddling. "Engaging Iran is problematic," it said. "Nevertheless, as one of Iraq's neighbors Iran should be asked to assume its responsibility to participate in the Support Group." Crocker and Petraeus merely complained about these nations' behavior without offering any recipe for improving the situation or solving the problem.
"The Iranian government seems to ignore the risks that an unstable Iraq carries for its own interests," said Crocker, repeating a mistake also present in the ISG report. The Iranian government does not ignore the risks, rather it calculates that the benefits might be greater. Petraeus had made the same point 20 minutes earlier: "A rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq … exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran." In practical terms, the only solution offered by Petraeus as far as Iran is concerned was: Don't leave, stay in the region. This leaves the cards in the hands of the ayatollahs. Sticking to one's guns might be an admirable position, but it is hardly a tool with which to roll back the aggressive, expansionist Iranian regime.
Writing about the Iraq Study Group report the day it was published, I complained, "The debate … doesn't address the most probable outcome of the committee's recommendations: The Syrians will not cooperate, the U.N. Security Council will not convince the Iranians to give up on their nuclear program, and the Iraqi military will not be ready to assume power in the country. And then what?"
Listening to Petraeus and Crocker, their answer to that question seems to be: then nothing. It is not just that the commander and the diplomat didn't produce a new solution, they didn't even leave us with the miserable one that Baker and Hamilton were ready to try.