A Perfect Failure
(Published in The Weekly Standard, December 11, 2006)
In the frenzied final week of the Iraq Study Group's deliberations, co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton took time out to pose for a photo spread for a fashion magazine, Men's Vogue. This might seem a dubious decision given the gravity of the moment and their self-appointed roles as the nation's saviors. The 'wise men' who counseled Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam and the members of the Kissinger Commission who tried to reshape Ronald Reagan's Central American policies did not sit for Annie Leibovitz in the middle of their endeavors. Nor did they hire a mega-public relations firm to sell their recommendations (supposedly intended for the president) to the public at large, as Baker and Hamilton have done.
But we think the chairmen's self-promotion and big-time product marketing are perfectly understandable. They have to do something to distract attention from two unpleasant facts.
The first is that after nine months of deliberation and an unprecedented build-up of expectations that these sages would produce some brilliant, original answer to the Iraq conundrum, the study group's recommendations turn out to be a pallid and muddled reiteration of what most Democrats, many Republicans, and even Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials have been saying for almost two years. Thus, according to at least six separate commission sources sent out to pre-spin the press, the Baker-Hamilton report will call for a gradual and partial withdrawal of American forces in Iraq, to begin at a time unspecified and to be completed by a time unspecified. The goal will be to hand over responsibility for security in Iraq to the Iraqis themselves as soon as this is feasible, and to shift the American role to training rather than fighting the insurgency and providing security. The decision of how far, how fast, and even whether to withdraw will rest with military commanders in Iraq, who will base their determination on how well prepared the Iraqis are to take over. Even after the withdrawal, the study group envisions keeping at least 70,000 American troops in Iraq for years to come.
To say that this is not a new idea is an understatement. Donald Rumsfeld and top military officials have from the beginning of the occupation three years ago aimed to do precisely what the Baker-Hamilton group now recommends. In 2003, the Pentagon set a goal of reducing the forces from 130,000 to 30,000 by the end of the year, handing responsibility for Iraq to the newly formed Iraqi army. Every year since, the Pentagon has aimed to reduce U.S. forces substantially. This time last year, defense officials announced their intention to reduce the force of 150,000 to well under 100,000 by the end of 2006.
So now here comes the Iraq Study Group suggesting that the present force of about 140,000 should be reduced to around 70,000 by early 2008. But as with all similar plans previously devised by the Pentagon, the timing, according to the Washington Post's sources, 'would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it.' As Democratic senator Jack Reed noted, the group's recommendations repeat 'what some of us have been saying for a while.' But, of course, the Baker plan will face the same challenges as all previous such suggestions. In the past, Pentagon desires to draw down the force foundered precisely because 'circumstances on the ground' did not permit a reduction of American forces. Despite efforts to make it appear otherwise, then, the real recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is 'stay the course.' For this we waited nine months?
One of the more striking aspects of the Iraq Study Group's report is that these recommendations are clearly not anyone's idea of the right plan. As the New York Times put it, they represent 'a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March.' One commission source declared, 'We reached a consensus, which in itself is remarkable.' 'Everyone felt good about where we ended up,' said another. We're happy for them. But reaching consensus among the 10 members of the group was presumably not the primary goal of this exercise. The idea was to provide usable advice for the Bush administration that would help it move toward an acceptable outcome in Iraq. In that, the commission has failed.
There is another problem for Baker, of course, which justifies the money the commission is spending to hire the Edelman public relations firm. It is that the Baker commission report is, as the press likes to say, dead on arrival. Over the course of the past few weeks, and especially this past week, President Bush has made clear that he has no intention of following the commission's recommendations. In his press conference with the Iraqi prime minister this past Thursday, Bush took a direct slap at the Iraq Study Group. 'I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,' he told reporters. But 'this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.'
As for Baker's other significant and more original recommendation--that the United States hold direct talks with Iran and Syria to get their help in Iraq--Bush nixed that idea, too. In Estonia last Tuesday, the president said, 'Iran knows how to get to the table with us, and that is to do that which they said they would do, which is verifiably suspend their [uranium] enrichment programs.' This the Iranians have steadfastly refused to do, of course. As for Syria, Bush continues to accuse Syria, rightly, of trying to retake control of Lebanon by means of assassination and support of terrorist violence. He gave no indication that he was willing to begin direct talks with Syria on Iraq.
It's not as if the Baker commission has accomplished nothing, however. Although its recommendations will have no effect on American policy going forward, they have already had a very damaging effect throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East and in Iraq. For the Iraq Study Group, aided by supportive American media, has successfully conveyed the impression to everyone at home and abroad that the United States is about to withdraw from Iraq. This has weakened American allies and strengthened American enemies. It has exacerbated the problems in Iraq, as all the various factions in that country begin to prepare for the 'inevitable' American retreat. Now it will require enormous efforts by the president and his advisers to dispel the disastrous impression that the Baker commission has quite deliberately created and will continue to foster in the weeks ahead. At home and abroad, people have been led to believe that Jim Baker and not the president was going to call the shots in Iraq from now on.
Happily, that is not the case. Although neither the American media nor many observers of the American political scene seem to realize it, there is nothing the Baker commission can do to force Bush to take a different course than the one he chooses. Nor is it easy for a Democratic majority in Congress to call the shots in Iraq. In the American system, the president always has enormous authority in foreign policy, if he wants to exercise it. President Bush clearly does. He intends to pursue steadfastly his own course in Iraq. He is determined not to withdraw before it becomes stable and, yes, democratic. He will not be buffeted by conventional wisdom or by Baker and his colleagues, no matter how much they employ public relations tactics to defeat him.
Yet there is one 'power broker' that still matters: the American public. Unfortunately, and dangerously, the president appears to have largely lost their confidence. Certainly, the election results were a strong signal that Americans are unhappy with the war in Iraq. At the same time, we were struck by exit polls that showed the public was equally concerned with a too precipitous pullout from Iraq, suggesting the American people know quite well what is at stake in the war there. Many Americans, it would seem, are still open to a plan for Iraq that has a chance of working--if the president acts soon. If not, no matter how strong a position he has constitutionally, he will not be able to sustain his Iraq policy.
We remain dissatisfied with the way the president has allowed his Pentagon and top military officers to persist in what has proved to be an ineffective strategy in Iraq. We hope that he will now take the steps necessary to accomplish his stated objectives in Iraq, including a substantial increase in the number of U.S. forces in Baghdad and throughout the contested parts of the country, as well as a long overdue increase in the total size of American ground forces so that higher force levels in Iraq can be sustained. But right now we can only applaud the president's courage and determination and his willingness to resist the pressures of those who would now sound the retreat.