When an official American report talks about collapse in Iraq and catastrophe sweeping through the region, its sheer novelty after years of denial gives it a certain credibility. Don't be fooled. The Iraq Study Group's report (The Way Forward A New Approach) is just as unrealistic as all the other plans for getting the United States out of Iraq without loss of face.
And don't assume that some cataclysm is going to shake the entire Middle East either. It's just an American defeat, not the end of the world, and the wild talk about chaos spreading across the whole region almost exactly parallels the "domino theory" that held sway in the United States the last time that country was losing a war, in Vietnam.
Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright once claimed that "we are the indispensable country," but there are no indispensable countries.
It was the American invasion that unleashed the violence. The departure of American troops will not automatically end it, for the invasion "opened Pandora's box," as Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, admitted last March.
The rival groups cannot even begin the endgame until the U.S. forces pull out and yet the ISG report still does not commit the United States to a full and final withdrawal from Iraq.
The report contains some useful minor advances over previous Washington doctrine like the admission, finally, that almost all the resistance fighters in Iraq are local people; according to the ISG, only 1,300 "foreign fighters" are in Iraq but there are no new ideas in it.
Fair enough. As the newly appointed secretary of defense, Robert Gates, put it, "Frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq." But rearranging the old ideas won't work either.
Build up the Iraqi army and police? They are already divided into sectarian units that will not act against their own sect.
Get Iran and Syria to help? Why on earth would they, after being painted as "rogue states" by Washington for the past six years?
Broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? Sure, with a Bush administration that has never dared to put any pressure on Israel, Hamas rejectionists at the heart of the elected Palestinian administration, Lebanon trembling on the brink of a new civil war and a largely paralyzed cabinet of discredited hawks clinging to power in Israel.
In any case, President George W. Bush, one of the world's more stubborn individuals, will probably reject any recommendations that require him to abandon his delusional optimism.
It is very unlikely that the bulk of U.S. troops will be out of Iraq before the next election, in November 2008.
However, it is very likely that they will be out of Iraq six months later, no matter whether the new president is a Democrat or a Republican. And what will happen then?
Iraq faces more slaughter, although nobody knows how much more. It might just break up into three parts, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, with only a few tens of thousands of extra deaths as the price of finally dissolving the state that was created almost 90 years ago.
The Shia Arabs might successfully subjugate the Sunni Arab minority, at a considerably larger cost in lives, and retain loose links with an entirely self-governing Kurdistan. Or, most likely of all, the entire country might be dragged into a Lebanese-style civil war lasting for many years and killing hundreds of thousands more.
But the broader predictions of chaos spreading through the region borne by refugees and "Islamist terrorists," of regimes toppling and Shia-Sunni conflicts erupting from Bahrain to Lebanon, are probably wrong. These dire predictions are about as credible as the old domino theory.
Just as the U.S. administration exaggerated its power to effect change on the way in, so it overestimates the harm it is likely to do by leaving.
And what if radical regimes do seize power in one or more of the major Arab states?
Hard luck on the local people, of course, but even then the United States doesn't pay a high price. Oil is the only thing the Middle East produces that is of real importance to the rest of the world, and it ultimately doesn't matter who runs these countries (except to their own people), because even the most radical regimes have to sell their oil.
Post-revolutionary Iran is one example; Gadhafi's Libya is another. They must have the oil income in order to feed their people.
Whatever Bush does now, it will all be over in another few years (except for the Iraqis, of course). And the interest level is already dropping in most capitals as people figure out that it will only be a small, local disaster (except for the Iraqis, of course.)