Rival Iraq Report Wins Attention in Washington

Correction Dec. 21, 2006

This story cites Eliot Cohen as a key contributor to the AEI report on Iraq strategy. While Cohen agrees with the findings of the report, he did not take part in its preparation. Both Cohen and Frederick Kagan are affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute. Both were consulted by President Bush on how to reshape Iraq strategy.

The Congressionally-funded Iraq Study Group report was unveiled recently with pomp and ceremony. But quietly, inside the Pentagon, the ISG report is widely regarded as unrealistic. A rival plan from the American Enterprise Institute provides its own prescription for Iraq, and is gaining traction in the Bush administration.

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President Bush will finish this week with a visit to wounded American troops in a Washington hospital. That may serve as a reminder of the stakes in the decisions the president may soon make. He's been getting advice on Iraq. It's coming from the State Department, from the Pentagon, and from a much-publicized outside study group led by a former secretary of state. And then there's a plan from the influential think tank known as the American Enterprise Institute.

NPR's Guy Raz reports that plan is getting plenty of attention at the White House.

GUY RAZ: Sometimes pundits can also be players. Take Frederick Kagan, for example. In the days after James Baker and Lee Hamilton unveiled their prescription for fixing Iraq - the ISG Report - Frederick Kagan, a military historian with the American Enterprise Institute, offered his review.

Mr. FREDERICK KAGAN (American Enterprise Institute): I think that the core recommendations are either impossible or absolutely unacceptable.

RAZ: Dead on arrival, in Kagan's view, because Baker and Hamilton proposed to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq by early 2008.

Mr. KAGAN: The notion of training up the Iraqis, drawing down by the levels that are suggested and the timetables that are suggested is militarily unrealistic.

RAZ: But what rankled John Hopkins professor Elliot Cohen more than anything else was the way the report was unveiled. Cohen was offended that Baker and Hamilton hired a big name public relations firm. They arranged the press tour.

Professor ELLIOT COHEN (Johns Hopkins University): Any an Annie Lebowitz photo shoot as well, and the publishing contract and all that. The truth of the matter is, I think the study group is really pretty much dead on arrival. I don't think it's going to have much of an impact.

RAZ: Okay, so there's the pundit part. Now the player part. It turns out Frederick Kagan and Elliot Cohen decided to come up with a plan of their own to propose. It's being called the AEI Report.

And the White House liked it so much. It invited the primary authors Kagan, Cohen and the recently retired vice chief of staff for the Army, Jack Keane, to meet with the president.

General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): The key thing here is not the surge per se.

RAZ: Which is what Frederick Kagan wants to emphasize.

Mr. KAGAN: What we're really talking about is a change in strategy, and redefining the strategic mission of American military forces in Iraq. So far, the mission of American military forces in Iraq has been training the Iraqi Army and handing over responsibility to the Iraqis. What we're saying is, the primary responsibility has to be securing the Iraqi population.

RAZ: Which is to say protecting the Iraqi people. And why? Well, Elliot Cohen says it's a classic counterinsurgency strategy.

Mr. COHEN: Fundamentally, the way you win a counterinsurgency fight - yes, it's a fight about ideas; yes, it's a fight about development, but fundamentally it's a fight about security, about can you protect the population.

General KEANE: And if you do not address that in the near term, then we are going to lose.

RAZ: This is Retired General Jack Keane. He co-authored the AEI Report.

General KEANE: So what we need is additional U.S. forces with Iraqi forces, securing the population to bring down the level of violence so it's at a level that Iraqis can manage. And until we do that, the Iraqis are going to continue to struggle and fail.

RAZ: But even Kagan and Cohen are prepared to acknowledge that their plan may not work. Cohen is conflicted over Iraq anyway. His oldest son is a second lieutenant in the Army, preparing for his second Iraq tour.

Mr. COHEN: As a father, my interest lies in saying we should just shut this thing down tomorrow, but you can't - as a citizen, you can't talk that way.

RAZ: And as a citizen, Elliot Cohen says, we have to give it one more try.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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