Nothing left for lonely Bush except one more push

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 15/12/06):

George Bush has wisely decided not to ruin everybody’s Christmas by announcing his plans for a new strategy in Iraq before the end of the year. It would have been preferable if the White House had not added to the general impression of disarray in Washington by saying initially that he would speak next week and then saying he would wait. But in grand strategy as in courtship, even when you are inclined to haste, it is better to be right than quick. We will have to wait until the new year.

It is unlikely that the delay is caused by President Bush’s desire to ponder more deeply the findings of the Iraq Study Group, released last week. Rarely in the history of the deliberations of great men has the shrift accorded their views been shorter. Not that you would know it from reading the world’s press.

Outside the US the Baker report was greeted with the kind of hushed reverence with which the shepherds heard out the Archangel that wintry night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The great and the good had deliberated for months and lo! from the clouds there came a great host of the heavenly army with a stunning rebuke for the Bush Administration, pointing the way forward, with stops at all the favourite travel destinations of America’s critics. Simply invite the Iranians and the Syrians to the White House for tea and pistachios, tell the Iraqis to solve their political and religious differences and start shipping the boys home. Oh, and while you’re at it, lean on the Israelis to solve their differences with the Palestinians, and everything will be fine. Next: the Baker report into The Cure For The Common Cold. 79 Recommendations!

In America, where true realism these days holds sway, as opposed to the phoney “realism” beloved elsewhere, Baker has been met with a great deal more circumspection — and not just by the dwindling band of dead-enders in the Bush bunker. Democrats publicly welcomed the report’s observation that the administration screwed up in Iraq (did we need a commission to tell us that?) But privately some of the party’s most senior foreign policy people are just as perplexed by the general emptiness of the report’s recommendations as anyone else.

The ISG’s conclusions have been met with such a drenching chorus of raspberries that an intriguing conspiracy theory is doing the rounds in Washington. It says that Mr Baker, the loyal Bush family friend, agreed to be the fall guy. By demonstrating that, after all his serious efforts, the best he could come up with was a set of recommendations that run the gamut from the ineffably predictable to the laughably unworkable, he showed the world that maybe the President’s approach — stick it out, stay the course, soldier on — really is the least unpalatable of all the options.

The main lesson of the Baker process is about governance. Delegating leadership of the conduct of a very live and hot war to a group of former government officials and retired politicians was always an odd idea. It is a measure of the disturbing lack of competence of the Bush team that they allowed the impression to get out that they were seriously considering doing just that. Though James Baker and his co-chair, the former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, have serious, though recently unburnished, foreign policy credentials, the rest of the august group was a little light on the subject. They included the Democratic grandee Vernon Jordan, whose last big contribution to public life was to help Bill Clinton to find a suitable job for a young woman so she wouldn’t talk to anyone about having provided him with oral sex in the Oval Office. Then there was Alan Simpson, the Wyoming senator, whose 18 years in the Senate are remembered fondly by no one except those who recall his remarkable ability to flip a coin, kick it with the back of his heel and then catch it in his shirt pocket. I’d have thought if you can do that, bringing peace to the Middle East should be like falling off a log.

To be fair to them, they were only doing what they were asked. And, I suppose, as silly as some of their supposedly grave recommendations were, they were no less silly than some of the near-criminal bêtises for which President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (who leaves office today, two years too late) have been responsible.

So Mr Bush has spent the last week widening the circle of advisers. No one seems to think the awful status quo in Iraq will do. But no one really believes in the get-out-of-jail-free option either. The generals want a change of strategy to bolster the Iraqi Army. Some hardliners have been urging a more explicit US tilt towards the Shia majority in what is, by any measure, already a civil war. The Saudis summoned Dick Cheney to Riyadh last month to warn him that if it happened they would jump in on the Sunni side. Senator John McCain and neoconservatives are urging a ramping up of US military efforts.

Six years into an eroding presidency, Mr Bush has nothing left now but Iraq. His relevance to all things political will steadily diminish. A hostile Congress will grant him almost nothing he wants in domestic legislation. His potential successors will put as much water between them and him as they can. More even than a president normally is, Mr Bush is alone with this decision. He can choose to manage the messy consequences of his Iraq gamble, cut his and the world’s losses and wind it down. But if he does that he knows for sure his presidency will be judged a colossal failure. His vision of democracy in the Middle East will be a bloody shambles.

He is more likely to think, I suspect, as he reflects alone in the next few weeks, that he still has a chance to change that verdict — to bring all that America’s might can muster and give it one final, serious, push for success. It is, surely, at least, what he should do.