A defiant George Bush today said he and Tony Blair agreed that “victory” in Iraq was important just one day after the Iraq Study Group delivered a withering critique of current policy.
In a joint press conference in Washington, Mr Bush said the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group (ISG) were “worthy of serious recommendation”, but the president sent out a clear signal to his critics that he was still seeking victory.
Which means he’s not even trying to consider the ISG report. Addressing Walter Shapiro’s question — “Will Bush listen to reason?” — the answer appears to be no.
A day after Robert Gates — who left the panel after he was nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon — admitted we were not winning the war, the Iraq Study Group upped the ante by beginning its report with this soon-to-be-famous appraisal, “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” But the 10-member bipartisan committee also went out of its way to congratulate its own even-handed fair-mindedness, even as former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson railed against what he called “the 100-percenters” — ideological warriors whom he described as people who are “not seekers, they’re seethers.” In an earthy counterpart to the high-minded tenor of the proceedings, Simpson also claimed that these zealots of the left and right “have gas, ulcers, heart-burn and B.O.”
Sounds like a trip to the drugstore is in order. Get the dirty hippies some antacid and deodorant!
The significance of the Iraq Study Group has little to do with its actual recommendations, which Baker admitted were not a “magic formula that will solve the problems of Iraq.” Rather its importance rests entirely with the luster of the former officials on the commission, including two secretaries of state (Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger), a secretary of defense (William Perry), an attorney general (Ed Meese) and its only woman, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Baker jokingly described them as “a group of has-beens” — but the reality is this is about as blue-ribbon an assemblage as you get in contemporary America aside, perhaps, from the front row at a state funeral.
But it may not be enough to convince Bush to accept the abject failure of his Iraqi adventure — a message the president has not heeded when it was delivered by press reports, retired generals, think-tank studies, opinion polls and the results of the 2006 congressional elections.
Indeed, it appears the blue-ribbon assemblage was so intent on being bipartisan and reasonable and odor-free that it delivered a tub of tasteless, odorless mush. Fred Kaplan writes,
The report of the Iraq Study Groupâ€”which Baker co-chaired with Lee Hamilton, that other Wise Man-wannabeâ€”was doomed to fall short of expectations. But who knew it would amount to such an amorphous, equivocal grab bag.
Its outline of a new “diplomatic offensive” is so disjointed that even a willing president would be left puzzled by what precisely to do, and George W. Bush seems far from willing.
Its scheme for a new military strategy contains so many loopholes that a president could cite its language to justify doing anything (or nothing).
And when you’re dealing with an obstinate blockhead who sees only what he wants to see and does only what he wants to do, the last thing you want to give him are loopholes. This was not the time to be reasonable. This was the time to be very, very clear.
John Dickerson says the message Bush needs to hear is in the report — point 1 is “cut the crap” — but you know Bush isn’t getting that message if he’s still flapping around about “victory.”
David Corn writes that the report “was akin to a no-confidence vote in Bush from leading members of the Republican elite.”
But neither Baker, his fellow commissioners, nor the report confront the implications of this charge: whether Bush is capable of absorbing the proposals of the Iraq Study Group or any ideas beyond a stay-the-course strategy. … They note that Iraq is a broken society, riven with sectarian conflict, and that the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds have reached a violent standoff. In such circumstances, where – and how – can US military power be applied to good end? The commissioners fixate on the training of Iraqi forces, a failed enterprise to date. But they do not advocate withdrawing combat forces until early 2008 and then only “subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground”. What’s the mission for the combat troops until then? Who’s the enemy? Who are they fighting? The commission offers no insight on this crucial front.
The commissioners also do not grapple with the tough matter of when it might become no longer morally defensible to ask an American soldier to die for Bush’s project in Iraq (if that point hasn’t already been reached). At the press conference, Hamilton said, “We believe that the situation in Iraq today is very, very serious. We do not know if it can be turned around. But we think we have an obligation to try.”
The report is imbued with this one-last-chance tone. But who decides when that chance is gone – if it remains? Over the past three years, pundits, politicians and experts have at various times declared that the Bush administration possessed one final opportunity and that the next few months would be crucial. Yet Iraq has not turned around; it only becomes a more hellish place and presents a more vexing dilemma. Baker’s Iraq Study Group, which will now disband, is not willing to say Iraq is lost. But it tells us – between the lines – that the man in charge has created a problem for which there may be no answer. It is hard to imagine Bush adopting the group’s main proposals, since he has previously dismissed them (including withdrawing troops to pressure the Iraqi government and talking to the Iranians and Syrians about Iraq). So it is hard to fathom this report making a last-chance difference, whether or not the recommendations have any merit. It’s far easier to imagine the need for another Iraq Study Group six months down the line.
The only Iraq Study Group that will matter is the one that takes the keys to the war machine out of Bush’s hands and says, enough. It’s over.
Be sure not to miss Jonathan Steele’s analysis of the ISG report. I don’t agree with Steele entirely, but he’s worth listening to.
The first purpose of the commission, Steele says, was to “provide an alibi for the president ahead of last month’s congressional elections.” That didn’t work.
The second purpose was “to co-opt the Democrats behind Bush’s war.” That probably was a purpose, although one might argue most of ’em were already pretty well co-opted. Steele explains,
Now the plan is to get the Democrats locked into agreeing with the main thrust of Bush’s Iraq policy over the next two years, with the aim of preventing it from provoking a major divide during the 2008 campaign for the White House.
The problem with this is that if, in 2008, U.S. troops are still dying in Iraq, then it’s going to provoke a “major divide” somehow or another. The only way to get it not to provoke something is if it goes away, which is not likely if we stick to Bush’s Iraq policy. But here’s the most interesting part:
The third purpose in appointing Baker’s panel is the most extraordinary.
The country’s political elite wants to ignore the American people’s doubts, and build a new consensus behind a strategy of staying in Iraq on an open-ended basis with no exit in sight. “Success depends on unity of the American people at a time of political polarisation … Foreign policy is doomed to failure – as is any action in Iraq – if not supported by broad, sustained consensus,” say Baker and his Democratic co-chair, Lee Hamilton, in their introduction. In other words, if things go wrong, it will be the American people’s fault for not trusting in the wisdom of their leaders.
The Baker panel recognises, as does Bush, that the central plank in US policy in Iraq over the next two years has to be a dramatic reduction in US casualties. At the present rate, it will only be a few days until more Americans will have died in Iraq than in the attacks of 9/11. Adding the US death toll in Afghanistan that point has already been reached.
Bush’s war on terror has killed more Americans than Osama Bin Laden’s terror.
What Baker proposes is essentially a continuation of what Bush is already doing – trying to reduce US deaths by moving troops out of the front line while avoiding any commitment to a full US withdrawal.
This bears watching.
Spencer Ackerman comes closest to the truth, IMO —
Given the specific lineup of the 10 wise men and women serving on the Iraq Study Group, the most conspicuous absence is that of supermodel Heidi Klum. Sure, she has no relevant experience in foreign policy, nor any real knowledge of Iraq — but neither do commissioners Sandra Day O’Connor, Vernon Jordan, Alan Simpson, or Edwin Meese. What Klum does have to offer is a lesson completely lost on the commission, one taught each week on her hit reality show Project Runway: you’re either in, or you’re out. When it comes to Iraq, it’s good advice.
From the commission’s perspective, however, such advice would represent a dangerous breakdown of Washington’s most enlightened foreign-policy tradition — that is to say, bipartisanship.
Yes, we must be tasteful and soothing. And odor-free.
The Iraq Study Group, led by George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, and 9-11 Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton, made a point from the outset of its work to rule out the outer boundaries of the Iraq debate. Its report refuses to bless the idea of sending new combat forces to Baghdad, the favored solution of hawks like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman; and it also blanches at what Baker called “precipitous withdrawal,” the position held by many in the Democratic Party, the country as a whole, Iraq, and the world. A safe consensus is what the commission is out for, as reflected by the name for their strategy: “responsible transition.” That’s something that anyone could embrace. (Except, well, George W. Bush.)
I can just see them wind up the day’s august discussions, then retiring to the den for brandy.
The Iraq Study Group congratulates itself for being fair and responsible, all the while smelling of vanilla, with just a hint of lilacs and citrus. And, I predict, all of their work will be for naught. Because nothing will change until someone with some power raises a stink.