Baker's 'realism' must not be a cover for retreat

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 07/12/06):

Iraq Study Group report: full text

Ned Parker's blog: after the study group

More breathless speculation has surrounded the report issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) than could ever have been justified by its predictably pallid laundry list of recommendations, or the likelihood that they would transform White House thinking on Iraq and the wider Middle East.

The most, perhaps only, brilliant thing about this report has been the advance publicity secured for it by its co-chairman James Baker III, former Secretary of State under George W’s father and, more pertinently, fixer-extraordinary to Republican presidents since the Reagan years.

In a remarkable, meticulously prepared public relations coup, he has persuaded commentators in America and overseas that this would be the week when political realism made its comeback, consigning to history’s dust-heap the disastrous idealism of neoconservative thinking about democracy as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism. A war-weary United States would settle for working with the world as it wickedly is, brutal dictators and all.

This is all about America, really, not Iraq. It speaks volumes that the report devotes 46 of its 142 pages not to Iraq, but to the group’s august composition and proceedings. When ten veteran political “realists”, five Democrats and five Republicans, claim to have reached a “consensus” on Iraq about which “everyone felt good”, the obvious inference to draw is that a political truce in America figured more prominently in their lengthy deliberations than did the framing of a coherent policy for arresting Iraq’s drift into murderous anarchy.

Mr Baker and his co-chairman, the veteran Democrat politician Lee Hamilton, hail from that happier era when politics, it was said, stopped at the water’s edge. Their anxiety to heal the American political condition by ending the bitter foreign policy schism on Iraq is laudable. It may even be necessary in order to revive domestic support for the long haul of containing global terrorism. War weariness presents a greater threat to America, and to its friends and allies, than do the hitmen of Baghdad’s blazing suburbs. But a domestic political truce would do untold damage if it were bought at the cost of eroding international confidence in American steadfastness and, thus, in the reach of American power.

That is a risk. Iraq is unfertile ground for compromise. Consensus is about splitting the difference. How do you split the difference between Democrats who want a rapid retreat from Iraq, and those Republicans who, like Senator John McCain, argue that the US must do what it takes to get Iraq to the point where it can govern and defend itself? Only by resorting to little white lies.

Dignified with phrases such as “responsible transition”, a “support role” and challenging Iraqis to “take control of their destiny”, the group’s much vaunted “new way forward” points discreetly, as one member put it, “down the path out”.

Those who expected brilliance or originality will be disappointed. Despite the report’s claim to elevate substance over rhetoric, much of this is a rehashing of conventional pieties. Many of the report’s jumble of 79 recommendations are a repackaging of old ideas, including unworkable plans that the group ought to have been readier to jettison than unquestioningly to adopt.

It could, for instance, be argued that the Pentagon’s consistent obsession with reducing force levels has been the oxygen that fanned terrorist and sectarian violence in Iraq to furnace heat. The Baker report talks of halving the US military presence by early 2008, to 70,000 troops. A year ago the Pentagon goal was to bring all but 100,000 home by this Christmas. Plus ça change. These numbers games are beside the point. They could also be dangerous, creating the impression that the US political establishment is more interested in damage limitation than in a durably stable Iraq.

Repeated announcements of US troop reductions, subsequently “modified” because violence then unsurprisingly intensified, have empowered the murderous militias by convincing fearful Iraqis that they may have no alternative to their “protection”. The more doubts there are about US staying power, the fiercer will be the fight for the spoils.

A temporary “surge” in US military deployments, now finding support in the Pentagon, could stiffen Iraqi resolve. The Baker report places more reliance on a political “surge”. This would involve the setting of political “benchmarks” for Iraqi progress towards national reconciliation, against which to judge how worthy the country was of continued support. Baker argues that benchmarks would induce a sense of urgency; and there is little doubt that Iraqis are as disgusted as Americans by their venal, self-seeking and vengeful politicians. But the merest hint that the US might take its toys home if these benchmarks are not met, leaving Iraqis to bleed for the sins of their masters, would be more likely to induce panic in Iraq — and glee in neighbouring Syria and Iran.

The weirdest assumption the ISG makes — and it has Baker thumbprints all over it — is that the road to a stable Iraq lies through Tehran and Damascus. The notion that America can turn this fine pair of mischief-makers into Iraq’s bestest friends is absurd. Iraq as a divided and dependent client state would give Iran a further foothold in the Arabian peninsula, advancing its ambitions to challenge the Sunni political hegemony in the Middle East. The Baathist Assad dynasty, father and son, has consistently seen in Iraq a political and ideological rival. In Saddam Hussein’s day, it made common cause with Iran, and it continues to help terrorists to slip across the Syria-Iraq border. A democratic Iraq is no more welcome than the democratic Lebanon that Syria is doing its utmost to strangle at birth. Neither of these two countries is remotely interested in a strong and unified Iraq, let alone Iraq as a poster child for Islamic democracy.

They are, however, interested in forcing the US to treat with them on their own terms. The Baker plan for wrapping these two into an alliance to watch over Iraq sends shivers down the spine. It awakens memories. Memories of Mr Baker offering Assad senior a free hand in Lebanon in 1990 — which Syria will now try to get back. Memories of Iraqis being left in the lurch before — by the elder Bush, when Mr Baker was his hyperactive and highly effective Secretary of State. In the first Gulf War, Bush senior urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. They rose to the challenge, and the US stood by when Saddam then butchered them by the thousands.

Americans, who trust and respect Mr Baker, may find comfort in this report. Iraqis, who do not trust him, will not. They may suspect that he has only American politics, not their interests, in view, and that realism in his book is code for putting politics before principle. The younger Bush, as he weighs the Baker counsel against other more robust advice, would do well to remember that.