As an attempt to clean up the mess created by President Bush and his neocon advisors, the report [.pdf] of the Baker-Hamilton commission is an admirable effort. Yet, in the end, it is too little, too late.
The report is divided into two major sections an assessment of the situation as it now stands, and an action program complete with 79 recommendations. From the very first sentence, the assessment is merciless: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," the commissioners aver, and
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al-Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized."
Where have the commissioners been during the past few months the past year? Because the reality is that all these dire consequences have already occurred.
Iraq’s "government" cannot even control Baghdad, and the humanitarian catastrophe is already chronicled in the rest of the report, which details the rising casualties 3,000 Iraqi dead in a month and the flight of over a million people, many of them the sort of professionals whose skills are essential to reconstructing the country.
Neighboring countries have already intervened, with Iran funding and providing logistical and political support to the Shi’ite parties in the ruling coalition, and volunteers coming from Saudi Arabia to fight in the Sunni insurgency without interference from Riyadh.
Sunni-Shia clashes are occurring throughout Iraq, accounting for a good deal of the casualties, and the only question is whether this sectarian warfare will spread throughout the Middle East. As for al-Qaeda cashing in on a "propaganda victory," this happened the moment the U.S. attacked Iraq, and there’s no undoing the damage done.
And I have news for the commissioners: America’s global standing has already taken a big hit. We are, after all, being defeated by a bunch of ragtag guerrillas, militarily as well as politically. So much for the pretensions of a "hyperpower" that dreams of global hegemony: the world’s mightiest "superpower" can’t even occupy and control Baghdad, let alone the rest of the world. Oh, but look on the bright side: if this doesn’t cure us of our insufferable hubris, then nothing will.
Of the Baker commission’s litany of dire consequences, my favorite is the last: God forbid Americans should become "polarized"! It might mean they’re waking up to the gigantic fraud perpetrated by the "consensus"-builders and the touters of a "bipartisan" foreign policy. We should all go back to sleep and reading the Baker commission report is likely to do just that, figuratively if not literally.
The Baker commission has failed from the very start, then, because the worst is already upon us: according to their own report, "the situation in Baghdad and several provinces is dire," and "pessimism is pervasive." The clock, we are told, is ticking: in spite of our "exceptional and dedicated efforts," "the ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing." Oh horror of horrors there’s a patch of earth that the warlords of Washington don’t control! How can this be?
So, the assessment is "dire": what, then, are the prospects for "moving forward," as the report puts it? While "there is no guarantee for success," say the commissioners, they have come up with a plan: accelerated Iraqization of the fight against the insurgency. This is nothing new, but the commissioners have a novel way of implementing it: they want to embed 30,000 or so American troops in Iraqi military units, so as to speed up the training process. This is portrayed as the key element of an exit strategy:
"By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams, and in training, equipping, advising, force protection, and search and rescue. Intelligence and support efforts would continue. Even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would maintain a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, as well as an increased presence in Afghanistan."
In other words: we’ll still have thousands of troops in Iraq, and those that aren’t in that country will be "redeployed" in the general vicinity. It’s a withdrawal without really withdrawing. We would still be tied down in Iraq well beyond 2008, and for all their admonitions to the Bush administration that we ought to reassure the Iraqis we aren’t after permanent bases, one wonders how we are going to deploy an army of trainers, advisers, special ops, and other military personnel if we don’t have bases in country. As for a real withdrawal, the commissioners are adamantly against it:
"Because of the importance of Iraq, the potential for catastrophe, and the role and commitments of the United States in initiating events that have led to the current situation, we believe it would be wrong for the United States to abandon the country through a precipitate withdrawal of troops and support. A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions, leading to a number of the adverse consequences outlined above. The near-term results would be a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy. Al Qaeda would depict our withdrawal as a historic victory. If we leave and Iraq descends into chaos, the long-range consequences could eventually require the United States to return."
This is basically a reiteration of the "you break it, you buy it" doctrine. There is a certain logic to that, but the question arises: when does our responsibility end? Or is it endless? The commissioners themselves argue against the idea of an "open-ended commitment," and yet their arguments against a "precipitate" withdrawal put no meaningful time constraints on our obligation.
The irony is that all the negative outcomes they list "a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy" are the consequences of the war the U.S. government initiated. It created a power vacuum when it destroyed the Ba’athist regime. It inflicted great human suffering by, first, imposing draconian sanctions, then bombing great portions of Iraq into a pile of rubble. The Anglo-American occupation is the cause of region-wide destabilization now proceeding at a rapid pace, and al-Qaeda is already celebrating its victory which was won the moment George W. Bush gave the command to invade. As for eventually being "required" to return this is only true if we accept the interventionist premise the commissioners all share, which assumes that no region of the world can long exist without American meddling.
In spite of its flaws, however, the Baker commission report is a giant leap forward in more ways than one: to begin with, it breaks the long-standing taboo against talking to the Iranians and the Syrians. Secondly, it links the question of Palestine to the broader issue of maintaining peace in the Middle East, and, not only that, it also acknowledges the centrality of the Palestinian problem. Our Israel-centric policy in the region has ruled out dealing with either of these aged sore spots: the great value of the Baker-Hamilton report is that it reasserts the necessity of pursuing American interests, as opposed to purely Israeli interests. As such, what John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call "the Lobby" is already screaming bloody murder at this aspect of the report and it’s music to my ears.
The significance of this report goes far beyond the issue of how we get out of Iraq: Baker-Hamilton marks the beginning of resistance by some in the elite to our seriously distorted and dysfunctional foreign policy, which puts narrow ideological interests above the national interest.
A rebellion is afoot, and not just in the streets but in the corridors of power: the wise men and women of the establishment are worried that our crazed president and his neoconservative Rasputins are seriously alienating the people from their government. A theme running through the report is nervousness about the growing opposition to the war: after all, if the people start questioning the assumptions of U.S. foreign policy, then they might start wondering about a whole lot of other things closer to home. And that could get quickly out of hand
Getting back to the immediate question of how we get out of Iraq, however, the Baker report was out of date before it was even published: the reality is that we’ve already been defeated, and the only remaining task before us is to devise a face-saving orderly retreat. The insurgents won by stalemating us. They knew we couldn’t stay forever: victory was merely a matter of biding their time and keeping their powder dry. We took Iraq away from the Ba’athists, only to hand it to Moqtada al-Sadr.
Baker thinks or, rather, hopes the Iranians and the Syrians will somehow pull our chestnuts out of the fire, but they won’t as long as we have 140,000 soldiers massed on their borders. They won’t as long as the rhetoric of this administration sounds remarkably like that coming out of Tel Aviv.
Both countries have certainly tried to engage us diplomatically: the Iranians made an offer on their nuclear program not long ago and were apparently eager to negotiate. The U.S. disdained their approach. The Syrians, for their part, have openly proclaimed their willingness to negotiate with the Americans although this would be a lot easier if we actually had an ambassador in Damascus. The current one was recalled when trumped-up charges against the Syrian government were made by the far-from-impartial UN investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri. And those economic sanctions imposed on Damascus would have to be rescinded. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, however: Congress is still, as Pat Buchanan trenchantly put it, "Israeli-occupied territory," and AIPAC wounded as it is by the arrest of two of their top lobbyists on charges of spying for Israel is still formidable. I expect the diplomatic element of Baker-Hamilton’s proposal will be the first to be shot down.
In any event, we can’t wait for 2008 to get the troops out of Iraq, for the simple reason that it’s too dangerous to keep them there. The primary destabilizing factor in the region is the presence of American troops in Iraq. As long as they are there, the insurgents have a cause to rally around, as does Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Every day the conflict comes closer to spilling over Iraq’s porous borders, into Syria, Iran and beyond. The longer we stay, the more chances there are of a regional conflagration breaking out.
Left to their own devices, the Iraqis will sort things out. It may not be a pretty sight: but, then again, it never was that pretty to begin with. The long, slow withdrawal of American forces from Iraq envisioned by Baker-Hamilton endangers our troops unnecessarily, and the prospect of "embedding" American soldiers in Iraqi-led units is even worse. The insurgents are already infiltrating Iraqi military and police units: "embedding" them alongside these characters is bound to prove fatal for a large number of our best soldiers. If we are going to get out, then let us get out pronto and leave the Iraqis to determine their own future. If that future is a dark one, then the inescapable knowledge that we are largely responsible may act as a brake on our brashness and willingness to intervene elsewhere.