Turning point?

Local activists hope the Iraq Study Group’s report is the way out

Former social worker Ellen Pillard has marched against the war and now sees some hope of a disengagement.

Former social worker Ellen Pillard has marched against the war and now sees some hope of a disengagement.

Photo By David Robert

The text of the Iraq Study Report is posted at www.USIP.org.

“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. … Violence is increasing in scope and lethality.”

The Iraq Study Group Report characterized the U.S. war against Iraq with these words. Heading the commission were the first president Bush’s secretary of state, Republican Jim Baker, and the former chair of the U.S. House International Affairs Committee, Democrat Lee Hamilton. The 10 commission members unanimously supported all recommendations of the report, which says there are some things, but not much, the United States can do to improve the situation.

“The current approach is not working,” Hamilton said. “The ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing. … No course of action in Iraq is guaranteed to stop a slide toward chaos. Yet, in our view, not all options have been exhausted.”

The Baker/Hamilton commission proposes action in three principal areas:

Troops: The United States should withdraw combat troops from Iraq by early 2008.

Benchmarks: The Bush administration should set milestones for Iraq to take responsibility for its own peaceful governance. If the new country doesn’t make “substantial progress,” the report calls for the United States to reduce support in Iraq.

Negotiations: The commission called it critical for President Bush to step up diplomatic efforts in the region.

Throughout the peace activist community in Reno, there was cautious celebration over the report’s release and recommendations.

“The welcome and wonderful news,” Reno First Congregational pastor Bill Chrystal said, “is that the truth is finally out there.” Less than a year ago, Chrystal’s son Philip returned from Iraq without physical wounds.

Some speculate whether the Study Group’s call to withdraw will change Bush administration policy on Iraq.

“I’m afraid the report will just be something that’s shoved into a corner,” said Lisa Stiller, one of the leaders of the Reno AntiWar Coalition. “It’s really important that [we] as citizens really take a look at the report and ask our representatives to honor the spirit of withdrawal. … It definitely says we’re doing something wrong. And I want people to look at it and say, ‘Yes. We’ve done everything wrong.’ “

Congress taking charge?
“I don’t think it’s going to change [the president’s] mind,” Stiller said. “I think the only way to change what we’re going to do is have Congress act. Bush is determined to do what he’s going to do.”

Some Reno peace activists believe that to end the war might require measures like Congress taking a stronger role and cutting off funds, particularly if the Bush administration shows no signs of changing course—or goes through the motions of change without actually changing policy.

“The American people sent a clear message during the election, I thought, against the war,” Assemblymember Sheila Leslie said. The Washoe County Democrat continued, “This is a bipartisan group of very respected people. And if Congress doesn’t use this report to put pressure on Bush … I’m going to be very, very disappointed. … I think we the people are going to have to rise up and protest in a way that we can get the president to listen.”

Not everyone in the Truckee Meadows wants to protest the war, however. Retired Army general Frank Partlow, a former Reno columnist, is known for his conservative views. On the issue of setting milestones for Iraq, however, he agrees with Reno peace activists. There is support for Jim Baker’s call for Iraq to “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,” he said.

“I have absolutely no problem making it clear to the Iraqis that these are their problems,” Partlow said. “[U.S. soldiers are] trying to deal with 5- and 6,000-year-old issues, and they don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the culture. So, it’s up to [the Iraqis] to deal with those issues.”

At least one Reno peace activist, however, does have a problem with holding Iraq’s feet to the fire. Long-time resident Ellen Pillard agrees that the United States should set benchmarks for Iraq, but it troubles her.

“That’s an important bottom line,” the retired social worker said, “but it would also personally make me very sad. … We’ve basically destroyed the country and lost tens of thousands of Iraq lives. … We cannot continue … as [the Iraqi government] spirals into chaos.” But she concedes, “If we can’t help, we have to get out.”

Starting talks
The report also calls for George Bush to open direct talks with Iran and Syria. So far, the president has refused to deal with the two nations. The Baker/Hamilton commission wants the administration to begin diplomatic efforts there.

In response to this, Pillard laughed. “I think we should have been doing this long before. … We have not only wasted the international support that we had immediately after 9/11, but we have ignored our place as a leader in the international … community. And I think that’s a key piece that the Iraq Study Group is now emphasizing, that we must talk, even with our enemies.”

Assemblywoman Leslie agrees.

“Absolutely, I think we have to use all diplomatic measures to get to a solution,” she said. “Why would we not do that? I mean, people are dying—not just our soldiers, but thousands of civilians in Iraq are being killed.”

As a retired Army officer, Partlow has a prescription for Iraq.

“No. 1,” he said, “we need to get U.S. soldiers in a combat sense out of harm’s way. … They’re trying to police people who don’t want to be policed. … The United States Army … is not a traffic-control mechanism.” Partlow wants large numbers of U.S. forces to be stationed distant from Iraqi cities, ready to use force to back up the fragile country against concentrated military attacks.

“Second,” he continued, “you make a real effort to try to train up the Iraqi forces. … That’s going be very, very tough for two reasons. One, it’s hard to train people when they’re getting shot at every day. And the second thing is … until they look at themselves as a national police force, as opposed to a Shia or a Sunni police force, I don’t know how much luck we’re going to have with that.”

Despite the negative tone of the Iraq Study Group report on the situation in Iraq, some view its pages with hope.

“With the election results and this report,” Pillard said, “I begin to feel better about my own country.”

There is even optimism.

“I’m hopeful that this is the turning point,” Leslie said. “Please, God, let it be the turning point.”