Discussing the report of his bipartisan Iraq Study Group with the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, former Secretary of State and Bush-pere fixer James Baker must have already sensed the inevitability that nothing will come of his efforts to salvage the mess young Bush has made in Iraq: “I hope we don’t treat this like a fruit salad, saying, ‘I like this, but I don’t like that,’ ” Baker told the senators, to warn them away from their own line-item-veto approach to it. “It’s a comprehensive strategy designed to deal with the problems in Iraq, but also to deal with other problems in the region. These are interdependent recommendations.” Not according to President Bush, who told a news conference the same day he was sure Baker and Lee Hamilton didn’t expect him to embrace all of their recommendations. He also made it abundantly clear that some of its most important proposals are to his tastes what broccoli was to his father’s. Exhibit A: Talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq — Bush made clear he had no intention of following that one. (Instead, he reiterated his preconditions for allowing Iran and Syria to help the U.S. out in Iraq! Uh, I think you may want to think in terms of incentives; they’re the ones who’re going to have the preconditions, Mr. President…)
That position is likely to be reinforced by such head-in-sand hawks as Cheney and the plays-one-on-TV grand strategist Condi Rice, fiercely egged on by the Israel-first crowd, who see any rapprochement between Washington and either Tehran or Damascus as a danger to be aggressively countered. And the commonsense linkage made by Baker-Hamilton between prospects for success in Iraq and in the wider Middle East showing U.S. willingness to act in an even-handed way between Israel and the Palestinians, first and foremost by forcing them back to the peace table, is, predictably, being hysterically denounced Likud’s American cheering section. Then again, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is so confident that Bush won’t change his position on Iran and Syria that he told his cabinet to keep mum on the issue, lest they make it look as if Israel is inappropriately intervening.
But the Baker-Hamilton bashing bandwagon always has room for more: The Kurds, including President Jalal Talabani, are focusing on issues such as the report’s proposed regional strategy and restraints on “de-Baathification”, but their primary concern is that the report has blown the whistle on their de facto secession from Iraq, questioning whether it suits the wider purposes of stability in the region for the Kurds to take control of the contested oil city of Kirkuk, for example.
Some of the Shiite leaders also appear to be reluctant to embrace the idea of a regional conference, because the Shiite-Sunni balance is far more favorable to them when things are kept at home. (Iran has plenty more influence in Baghdad than does Jordan or Saudi Arabia, so they’d probably be fine with leaving the Iraqis to sort things out themselves.)
The regional strategy has been the focus of most of the criticism of Baker-Hamilton, and yet that regional strategy really is the key component of the course correction it advocates. That’s because his report is premised on the fact that the Bush Administration’s gamble in Iraq has failed dismally t — the unilateral application of America’s overwhelming military might has not created the pro-U.S., Israel-friendly regime at the heart of the Middle East that its architects imagined and hoped would provide the spark that transformed the region on the same lines. Instead, it has produced a failed state at the heart of the Middle East, and those among its political leaders who could be counted as U.S. allies have, for the most part, returned to their homes in London, while the country’s technocratic elite are emigrating in their thousands. Toppling Saddam has immeasurably strengthened Iran, and today the political forces with momentum on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide are the Islamists for whom ending U.S. influence in the region is a key point of consensus. Traditional U.S. allies are looking increasingly feeble and isolated, their plight personified by Jordan’s King Abdullah, the charming product of the English public school system, who has taken to telling any U.S. interviewer that will listen that unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved in a matter of weeks, the sky is going to fall.
Read the Baker report’s proposals carefully, and it’s plain that what it’s suggesting is a framework for managing the failure of Bush the Younger. Those the U.S. loves least in the region will not be swept away by any “democratic tsunami”; reality demands recognizing that their ability to influence events has actually increased while that of the U.S. is in steady decline. Salvaging something from Iraq demands that they be offered incentives for cooperation, as part of a wider “grand bargain” to stabilize the chronic, Chernobyl-like instability that the U.S. has brought to the heart of the region.
Baker knows that regional consent will give the political-military strategy currently being pursued by the U.S. its best chance of achieving something positive, and prepares the way for managing the fallout if it fails. And it certainly recognizes the probability of failure. The report’s political-military recommendations, after all, are simply an intensification of the policies being pursued at present — training and deploying Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. forces, securing Baghdad, pressing Iraq’s political leadership to rein in Shiite militias and offer accommodation to the Sunni insurgents, and so on. The difference, perhaps, is that Baker-Hamilton says there’s no point in doing this for more than another year — the Sunni insurgency has proved too tenacious to be militarily eliminated; the Shiite militias are part of the ruling coalition and the parties that dominate the government have shown little inclination to make the concessions to the Sunnis necessary to win their assent for the new order, and so on. A regional grand bargain, then, becomes an essential insurance policy — if you have failed to eradicate adversaries and rivals, best to engage with them in pursuit of a framework of understanding that can, at least, manage your differences.
Foreign policy for grownups, in other words. Pity that there aren’t any in control in the White House. Challenged by the British media who, unlike the White House press corps, are willing to rough Bush up when he spews silly spin in defiance of reality, the President last week came back with this marvelously Orwellian formulation: “I am disappointed by the pace of success.” (What was that thing Bob Dylan once sang about “there’s no success like failure…”?)
Teletubbies say “Mission Accomplished”
At this point, it’s worth returning to Mark Danner’s brilliant New York Review of Books essay on the Administration’s “War of the Imagination,” which seeks to explain how it was that the U.S. was able to commit such patent blunders in Iraq that most U.S. officials on the ground could recognize them as that. It really is a fascinating piece, because it sets out just how George W. Bush literally dispensed with the policy process that had served every post WWII president before him — the careful collating and weighing of findings by different arms of the national security bureaucracy into assessments of the balance of forces and the options available and their consequences. Danner writes:
Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the Iraq war—how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the government knew very well at the time were mistakes—must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2002 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn. In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power—enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world…
Thus the War of Imagination draped all the complications and contradictions of the history and politics of a war-torn, brutalized society in an ideologically driven vision of a perfect future. Small wonder that its creators, faced with grim reality, have been so loathe to part with it. Since the first thrilling night of shock and awe, reported with breathless enthusiasm by the American television networks, the Iraq war has had at least two histories, that of the war itself and that of the American perception of it. As the months passed and the number of attacks in Iraq grew, the gap between those two histories opened wider and wider. And finally, for most Americans, the War of Imagination—built of nationalistic excitement and ideological hubris and administration pronouncements about “spreading democracy” and “greetings with sweets and flowers,” and then about “dead-enders” and “turning points,” and finally about “staying the course” and refusing “to cut and run”— began, under the pressure of nearly three thousand American dead and perhaps a hundred thousand or more dead Iraqis, to give way to grim reality.
The election of November 7, 2006, marks the moment when the War of Imagination decisively gave way to the war on the ground and when officials throughout the American government, not least the President himself, were forced to recognize and acknowledge a reality that much of the American public had discerned months or years before. The ideological canopy now has lifted. The study groups are at their work. Americans have come to know what they do not know. If confronted with that simple question the smiling President Ahmadinejad of Iran put to Mike Wallace last August —”I ask you, sir, what is the American Army doing inside Iraq?”—how many Americans could offer a clear and convincing answer?
Danner outlines how it was that Bush literally shut down the thinking processes of the U.S. government, insulating himself from any information that would offer him shades of gray to muddle his “moral clarity.” Instead, he would follow his gut instinct. Yes, it is bizarre to the point of being almost inconceivable that the leader of the world’s last superpower could aggressively insulate himself from anything approaching a rational policy process. But perhaps it is testimony to the failings of what Greg Palast has called “the best democracy money can buy” that individual whose emotional and intellectual makeup are so obviously those of an angry adolescent has final authority over U.S. foreign policy — or, as he once put, “I’m the decider.”
Baker-Hamilton essentially tells Bush that in order to rescue U.S. strategic interests and avoid a looming regional disaster, he will have to reverse much of the foreign policy he has pursued since taking office. Somehow, I doubt that this is a man who can admit failure, and do what he can to salvage the situation. Instead, Bush will continue to search for signs out there affirming his fantasy, most recently making common cause with Abdulaziz al-Hakim, whom Bush has a strange habit of calling “His Eminence” (Hakim is simply the leader of a political party and the commander of a militia — perhaps the most sectarian of the Shiite parties, and certainly the one closest to Iran). Hakim, of course, has no intention of doing what the U.S. wants the government to do in response to the Sunnis, of course, but no matter. He’s obviously saying something the fantasy-minded Bush wants to hear.
Right now the signs are that it’s already too late to save the Iraq mission, and that this Administration is incapable of either recognizing the scale of their defeat or doing what is necessary to contain the damage. Instead, expect them to muddle along until the problem can be handed over to Bush’s successor. And maybe drop a few bombs on Iran along the way, just to show how “Churchillian” you are.