Nice Try, Daddy

by , December 10, 2006

What it looks like to me – and to some people in Houston a friend and I have talked to who are in a much better position to know firsthand – is that Daddy called on his old friend and consigliere to save Junior from himself. Jim Baker, impelled by friendship and other ties, saw a chance not only to perform a possible service, but to burnish his legacy as the statesman who finally brought peace to the Middle East.

Together Daddy and Jimbo called on Robert Gates, a consummate careerist who had been able to trim whatever ideational sails he possessed to serve under Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bill Casey and Brent Scowcroft, but who had been essentially a Bush family retainer (not in the inner circle but close) for more than a decade. The Bushes had put him in charge of the Bush School at Texas A&M, then helped him into the sinecure-like presidency of A&M. But he agreed to return once more to direct government service to try to save Junior.

A couple of days after the public unveiling of the vaunted and eagerly-awaited report from the Iraq Study Group, it’s beginning to looks as if Junior, clueless as ever, is ready to rebuff Daddy’s well-intentioned rescue attempt. Sure, he’ll kick Rumsfeld over the side and participate in making him the scapegoat for everything he himself has done wrong. You don’t climb the slippery political pole to the presidency – even from a position 100 yards ahead of most other contenders in a 200-yard climb – without developing a certain cold-blooded ruthlessness after all. But he’ll stick with the policies that brought him to the brink, thank you very much.

PRAGMATISM AND FLIGHTS OF FANCY

The Iraq Study Group report contains certain bows to reality, but a number of flights of fancy that suggest the members of the group – who are, after all, all veteran government employees, suggesting their grasp on reality was never all that strong – have no notion about how hard it would be to implement their ideas.

The most impressive aspect of the report – genuinely worth reading, believe it or not – is the assessment contained in the first 40 pages. It is grim but essentially realistic. It highlights the increasing levels of violence and the inability of the current "stay the course" strategy – which is no strategy at all but hope wrapped in illusion – or the Iraqi government as currently constituted to improve conditions substantially.

Most of the troubling facts are here. "Violence is increasing in scope, complexity, and lethality." Sectarian violence, between Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis, is the major contributor, while "al-Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts." U.S. "military units are under significant strain." Iraqi security forces are being trained but there are serious questions as to whether they are loyal to a national Iraqi government or to sectarian or tribal groupings, and they are in no position to provide security within Iraq without outside help.

The report even disposes handily of one of the more egregious but superficially plausible arguments apologists for the war sometimes deploy. Remember the argument that the violence is largely confined to four provinces, that the other 14 provinces are (relatively) free of outright sectarian violence? So there’s plenty of success that the malignant "mainstream" media refuse to report? Well, here’s the ISG report:

"Four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces are highly insecure [which doesn't necessarily mean the others are highly secure] – Baghdad, Anbar, Diyalah, and Salah ad Din. These provinces account for about 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 16 million. In Baghdad, the violence is largely between Sunni and Shi’ite. In Anbar, the violence is attributable to the Sunni insurgency and to al-Qaeda, and the situation is deteriorating." So the serious violence is "confined" to the provinces where 40 percent of Iraqis live, and it may be at its worst in the most important city of all, the capital, Baghdad.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

What to do? That’s when it gets a bit nutty. The report’s recommendations are a combination of practical (and impractical) incremental steps and utopian flights of fancy.

The essence? Newly intensified U.S. diplomatic and military efforts combined with timetables (note that there’s little reluctance to impose timetables on the "independent" and "sovereign" Iraqi government, but no taste for timetables for the U.S. government) for the Iraqi government to accomplish important goals like demobilizing independent militias. Adjusting the U.S. mission to emphasize training of Iraqis by "embedding" U.S. advisers in Iraqi security units rather than confronting insurgents and sectarian militias directly. This should lead to being able to withdraw roughly half of the 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, perhaps by the end of next year. But those remaining would do so on an open-ended basis.

The group’s first proposal, however, strikes me as part useful and part pie-in-the-sky. Launch a "comprehensive New Diplomatic Offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq and the region." This would include forming an Iraq International Support Group consisting of all countries that border on Iraq, including Iran and Syria, plus Egypt, the Gulf States, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and other countries – perhaps Germany, Japan and South Korea.

FIXING EVERYTHING

This group would then work to stabilize Iraq, on the assumption that all these countries fear chaos in Iraq, for various reasons, including the fear that it might lead to destabilizing their own governments. The Support Group, however, "will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict." So the U.S. should bring Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist to the table and get a comprehensive peace process going.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, despite occasional respites, has resisted outside mediation for decades. Why does the study group think a new effort is likely to succeed? Beyond noting that "The vast majority of the Israeli body politic is tired of being a nation perpetually at war," the report does not identify new hopeful developments, and it elides negative developments, as far as Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is concerned, like the election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority parliament and the recent war in Lebanon.

It also strikes me that while it would be nice to resolve Israeli-Palestinian issues without too much further bloodshed, doing so would likely have little if any impact on the situation in Iraq. Contempt for Israel is surely a component of what motivates insurgents and others in Iraq. But more urgent and local issues, like the status of the formerly dominant Sunnis, the ambitions of the previously repressed Shi’ite, and the division of oil revenues, are almost certainly more significant motivating factors. Not that violence is a particularly effective way to gain what various groups conceive of as their goals, but in a system of rule of some by others, even (or especially?) when it is putatively democratic, depends on coercion and violence.

It is probably useful to reopen relations and talks with Iran and Syria. But to expect such talks to resolve all the region’s problems sounds utopian.

AVOIDANCE SHUFFLE

Other problems are sidestepped. The report acknowledges, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to a large extent owes his position to the fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, yet it wants Maliki to disarm that and other Shi’ite militias. How is he to do this?

While acknowledging that the Iraqi central government, such as it is, lacks the capacity to provide security, provide basic services like electricity and trash collection, and is rife with corruption and dominated by sectarian forces, the report expects it to "pull up its socks" (as a certain former Defense Secretary might put it) and go forward with a unity government that respects the rights of minorities and divides oil revenues equitably. It will probably take more than forming an international support group and embedding a few U.S. Troops in Iraqi units.

The report never touches the most fateful question. What if the current Iraqi government, which is more fiction than reality already, effectively crumbles?

What is needed in Iraq is more than a minor course correction, but dramatic steps toward ending U.S. involvement in a country we never should have invaded in the first place. There are risks in that course as in any course, including an intensification of sectarian violence or civil war.

The United States started this war and bears some responsibility for the aftermath. (Instead, many Americans are taking to blaming the Iraqis, who didn’t ask to be invaded, for not being sufficiently diligent about setting up a Western-style parliamentary democracy hardly any of them want. Those ingrates!)

Almost four years on, the United States has demonstrated that, as an occupying power whose influence is rapidly diminishing, it cannot solve Iraq’s problems. It is time to let the Iraqis have a go at it. Beginning now.

Read more by Alan Bock