The Nation

A Way Out

In the Washington Post yesterday, Dana Milbank wrote, "Political Washington is in a state of suspended animation these days…leaders of both parties seem unable to do much more than heap blame on Maliki and argue about whether or not to call the Iraq carnage a civil war."

Actually, that depends on which "leaders" Milbank is referring to.

There are detailed withdrawal plans available for consideration. Each one provides a framework for finding a way out of this disaster that has disintegrated into a humanitarian catastrophe. The Congressional Progressive Caucus – the largest caucus in Congress – met last week with George McGovern, co-author of the 142-page Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now. Written with former history professor and State Department Middle East expert, William R. Polk, the book calls for a withdrawal to be completed over approximately seven months with a subsequent massive reconstruction effort led by Iraqis and largely funded by the United States (at a far cheaper cost than maintaining the occupation).

On why he wrote the book, McGovern told the Washington Post: "I found that lots of thoughtful people had come to the conclusion that the war was a mistake, but they would say now that we are there, we can't pull out. It's the same argument I combated for 15 years during the Vietnam War….We concluded that instead of reducing terrorism, the [Iraq] war was aggravating it -- that we were in a more dangerous position with regard to Iraq and other countries as a consequence of the invasion…. [Polk] found that top people in the military don't think this war can be won…How do you end this? You begin to plan a systematic withdrawal. We're not talking about a stampede for the border – none of this silly business of cut and run."

McGovern and Polk advocate for an international peacekeeping force drawn from "Arab or at least Muslim countries." They write that the United States could fund such a force for two years at approximately two percent of the cost of continuing the war over the same time period. The plan describes the need for an immediate cessation of work on US military bases – which the authors say are "growing in size" and are "being given aspects of permanency."

The reconstruction effort outlined in their plan includes: destroying landmines; construction of buildings and infrastructure in a nation where over $100 billion to $200 billion in property damage has been incurred; restoration of Iraqi cultural sites damaged by the construction of US military facilities; reparations to Iraqi civilians for loss of life and property as the British are doing; grants to train Iraqi professionals who will develop Iraq's civic institutions, as well as aid to help skilled workers who want to return to the country; the voiding of all oil contracts made with American companies at discounted rates during the occupation; and rebuilding the public health system at "less than the cost of eight days of occupation, about $1.7 billion."

While one may have differences with elements of this plan, it certainly deserves a hearing. But it seems increasingly unlikely that such a plan will have traction among the cautious blue ribbon Inside-the-Beltway types. Sources inside the Progressive Caucus say that the members who met with McGovern emerged from the discussion impressed and motivated to ensure that other views are considered besides the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. (And don't expect any bold leadership there. As Erik Leaver – a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies – comments, "As a result of political pressure from the White House, the Iraq Study Group's report is not a reflection of the best minds of our nation on how to stop the killing and violence in Iraq and how to bring our troops home… the ISG's 'lowest common denominator' approach will keep US forces in Iraq for years to come without producing the political changes needed to stabilize Iraq.")

The Caucus intends to bring McGovern back again in January --along with a number of ex-CIA officials, diplomats, and military folks. The goal of these meetings is to work out a decisive plan for withdrawing our troops.

As Rep. Lynn Woolsey – co-chair of the Caucus – said following the meeting with McGovern: "Our continued military occupation is inflaming the situation, costing life and limb of not only our troops, but also countless innocent Iraqi civilians. The voters sent a message on November 7th giving the Democrats the majority with a clear mandate to bring an end to this horrific occupation. The voters did not give my party a mandate simply to…wait for cues from a blue-ribbon committee."

So, while there is no doubt that some Democrats will play it safe and wait for others to try to solve the crisis – there is a parallel track of progressive Democrats who aren't waiting to keep their promise to the American people to find a responsible way out of Iraq. The oft-maligned great patriot, George McGovern – who holds the Distinguished Flying Cross for service as a bomber pilot in World War II and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for humanitarian service – along with his co-author, William Polk, are both vital resources toward that end.

Out of Iraq By '08?

A front page story in the Washington Post today declares: "Iraq Panel to Urge Pullout Of Combat Troops by '08."

The headline makes it sound like all US troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by 2008. In reality, the rest of the article makes clear, that's not what the Iraq Study Group is recommending.

"The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it," the Post reports. "The panel included a significant caveat for the 2008 goal for troop withdrawals by recommending that commanders should plan to pull out combat units by then unless 'unexpected developments' make them decide that such a move would be unwise."

Moreover, the Post buries the kicker: as many as 70,000 US troops, half of the current force, will stay in Iraq indefinitely to embed with Iraqi forces. Instead of US troops fighting the insurgency, whatever that means nowadays, US troops will help Iraqis fight the insurgency. (In practice, it means that US forces will help the Shiites and the Kurds kill the Sunnis.)

Say what you will about the merits of that plan, but it doesn't sound like an end to the war. If anything, the Iraq Study Group has dealt a blow to proponents of a speedy withdrawal.

According to the New York Times, "the group never seriously considered" the views of respected national security figures like Congressman Jack Murtha, who argued that America should begin redeploying troops as soon as feasible.

The Democrats the panel did interview, such as Senator Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, "seemed to agree that hard timelines could invite trouble," the Times reports. Their reasoning is not explained.

This is Washington after all. When a consensus becomes a consensus, you don't ask why.

Baker Report Puts Bush in a Corner

It's crunch time for George W. Bush.

He has to decide whether or not to change his Iraq policy, as James Baker, his father's secretary of state, weighs in with a report that applies much pressure on him. According to Friday's edition of The Washington Post, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group chaired by Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton will recommend next week that Bush withdraws nearly all US combat troops from Iraq by early 2008. Baker's group attaches qualifiers to its call for this redeployment, noting such a drawdown should occur only if circumstances on the ground permit it. (And this pullout would be accompanied by moves aimed at enhancing US support of Iraqi military units, such as embedding US troops within Iraqi units.) But even Baker's conditional call for disengagement is a sharp retort to Bush, who has repeatedly dismissed the notion of withdrawing troops until, as he puts it, "the mission is completed." The commission's report--if the leaked accounts are correct--will send a message to Bush: Iraq is not working, you must shift strategies.

The simple question is, will he? Doing so would be an admission that he has botched the job. Bush may not be willing to--or able to--concede that difficult point. But his father's crowd--and their Democratic partners on the panel--is telling him straight-up that his Iraq project (the defining element of his presidency) is failing. Can Bush process this?

The congressional Democratic leadership has been much helped by Baker's panel. Though the Democrats have not forged a consensus position, most have backed some version of withdrawal. The Baker report will provide them plenty of political cover. After all, can Karl Rove attack Baker and fellow commission members Edwin Meese III (Ronald Reagan's attorney general), Sandra Day O'Connor (a former Supreme Court justice nominated by Reagan), and Alan Simpson (former Republican senator) as cut-and-rum wimps who want the terrorists to win? Talking about withdrawing US troops (and transforming the mission in Iraq from combat to support) is now perfectly respectable. Bush, Dick Cheney and administration aides have been nudged into a corner.

The Iraq Study Group "embraced everything we asked for," gloats one Democratic Senate staffer. During the group's deliberation, Senator Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader, and Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who will assume chairmanship of the armed services committee, met with Baker and the commissioners. Reid and Levin presented them with a memo that called for starting a phased withdrawal, initiating a regional diplomatic initiative, and appointing a special envoy. "It looks like the Baker report is an endorsement of our position," this Senate aide says. "It's aligned with our call for a change in direction. Baker-Hamilton will add to the momentum for change."

As conditional as the commission's withdrawal recommendation might be, its report is indeed a slap at Bush. It also undermines conservatives--such as Senator John McCain--who have proposed sending far more troops to Iraq, and the report undercuts neocons who have dismissed the idea of engaging Iran and Syria in the effort to stabilize Iraq.

The Baker-Hamilton commission has not come up with a roadmap to success. Pulling out US combat troops could be accompanied by greater chaos and conflict in Iraq--and perhaps in the region. (In a Washington Post op-ed several days ago, Saudi adviser Nawaf Obaid warned that Saudi Arabia might intervene in Iraq to protect Sunnis--even if this could lead to war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.) But Baker has rendered a harsh judgment on the son's war. He has shifted the debate. Withdrawal--of some kind--is now the majority position.

Will Bush acknowledge this new reality? Or might he become a Captain Queeg-like character, isolated in his adherence to a discredited and failing policy of muddling through? Bush does remain the commander in chief. Until congressional Democrats become bold enough to challenge his conduct of the war by withholding funds for it (a point that most Democrats are not yet near), Bush gets to call the shots in Iraq. He and Cheney can ignore Baker's advice. But now that the Baker report is out, Bush has a fundamental choice: to admit he has messed up and change direction or to stay the course (even though he's no longer allowed to use that term). For whatever faults the Baker report might have, Baker deserves credit for pushing Bush the Younger--whose presidency Baker enabled by winning the Florida recount battle--to this moment of reckoning, even if it's a moment Bush refuses to recognize.


NEW INTELL CHAIR: On Friday morning, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi named Representative Silvestre Reyes chairman of the House intelligence committee. There's nothing objectionable about Reyes, but she missed an opportunity to make a stellar choice by picking Representative Rush Holt for the post. To learn why, see my recent column on this matter here.

DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Colin Powell: "I Would Call It a Civil War,"

When NBC and MSNBC began to refer to the civil war in Iraq by its proper name, they took the predictable hits from rightwing media -- Fox personalities were aghast at the notion that journalists might actually go off the White House script, while Rush Limbaugh says he doesn't really care what we call the fight because its time to "just blow the place up."

With all due respect to Mr. Limbaugh and the clarifying power of his preferred substances, it does matter what we call the fight in Iraq.

If what is taking place in that country is a civil war, as opposed to a meaningful battle in the war on terror, then there is every reason to withdraw U.S. troops from the region as quickly as possible. At a point when polling shows that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the U.S. troops to leave, when Americans say they want an exit strategy not just in polls but in their votes on election day, and when U.S. and British military analysts are reaching a consensus that a continuing U.S. presence fosters anti-American sentiment globally, there is simply no reason to keep young men and women from East St. Louis and Ottumwa in the crossfire between Sunni and Shia death squads.

So is it a civil war?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says it is.

"I would call it a civil war," the man who ran the State Department during President Bush's first term told a forum in the United Arab Emirates this week.

"I have been using it (the phrase 'civil war') because I like to face the reality," Powell explained, according to news reports from the business conference he was attending in the Persian Gulf state.

Powell, whose testimony before the United Nations prior to the war played a critical role in "selling" the project, was asked at Wednesday's conference whether he regretted that testimony. The former secretary of state said he did, indeed, regret it, while making the excuse that he was working with the information that was available to him at the time.

What does the information that Powell is now working with tell him?

While he is still stopping short of calling for full withdrawal, Reuters reports that Powell said that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq should be reduced.

It is time, Powell said, to begin winding down the U.S. presence because, he explained, "The coming strategy has to be an Iraqi strategy, not American strategy."

Has Powell joined the cut and runners? No. As he says, he's just decided that he prefers to face reality.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by author Gore Vidal as "essential reading for patriots." David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, says: "With The Genius of Impeachment, John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so."

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

Same Old Same Old

House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi ought to find a quiet place where shecan sit down and recount the election. She was not chosen by her friendsin Silicon Valley or by the friendly investment bankers on both coasts.They no doubt contributed generously to the party's candidates. But herHouse majority was made possible by millions of fed-up Americans readyto gamble that Democrats might try something new--on Iraq, on the soggyeconomy for working people and other grievances.

So why does Pelosi begin the education of her freshman members with aseminar on Rubinomics? Robert Rubin, the Citigroup executive and formerTreasury secretary, will appear solo next week before the partycaucus to explain the economy. Pelosi has scheduled anothercaucus briefing on Iraq, but that includes five expert voices of varyingviewpoints. Rubin gets the stage to himself.

When labor officials heard about this, they asked to be included sincethey have very different ideas about what Democrats need to do in behalfof struggling workers and  middle-class families. Pelosi decided againstit. This session, her spokesman explains, is only about "fiscalresponsibility," not globalization and trade, not the deterioration ofwages and disappearing jobs. Yet those subjects are sure to come upfor discussion. Rubin gets to preach his "free trade" dogma with no onepresent to rebut his facts and theories.

A fundamental debate is growing within the party around these economicissues and Pelosi knows this. It is seriously unwise for this newSpeaker to leave an impression she has already chosen sides. Theinterpretation by Washington insiders will be: Pelosi is "safe;" she isnot going to threaten Rubin's Wall Street orthodoxy. Far-flung voterswill begin to conclude Democrats are the same-old, same-old money party.This is the sort of party "unity" that can earn Pelosi a very shorthoneymoon.

The Baker Cop-Out

After months of speculation, the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, is preparing to release its much-hyped report on American policy toward Iraq.

According to the New York Times, the "final report will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal." The implicit message is that President Bush needs to tell the Iraqi government that he will start withdrawing troops next year.

Yet the the report ducks the crucial questions of how and when the troops should be removed--and where they should go.

"The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries," the Times writes.

To its credit, the Times says the report does call for "direct engagement with Iran and Syria," a step that should have occurred long ago. Yet by failing to lay out a detailed exit strategy, the report represents somewhat of a cop-out. This is more of a political document than a policy paper. Its findings are no substitute for a principled and specific alternative policy, of the sort offered by people like Chuck Hagel, Jack Murtha and Russ Feingold.

"I am troubled by reports that the Group will not recommend a timeline to redeploy our troops from Iraq," Feingold said today. "While I welcome the reports that indicate the Group will recommend greatly expanded diplomatic efforts in that region, not including a flexible timetable for redeployment of our troops would be a mistake that weakens both our efforts to help Iraqis reach a political solution in Iraq and our national security."

Let's hope that Bush listens to the Group's best recommendations. But let's also hope that leading politicians in Washington think for themselves and do not hide behind Baker.

Card Check and Inequality

Mickey Kaus, in his inimitable permalink-free way takes a shot (kind of) at the Democrats' stated plan for attacking the growing inequality in America, a phenomenon which has finally, miraculously ascended to the status of Serious Issue. Basically, the proposals on the table aren't exactly radical. We're not talking some kind of social democratic reordering of the American welfare state. The basics are raising the minimum wage, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, expanding the EITC, expanding Pell grants for higher education, and reforming labor laws.

Kaus' objection is both that these are too little and too much. He zeroes in on one item, the proposal to make it possible to form a union by getting a majority of workers to sign a card asking for one, as a bridge too far. Card check, he writes, "could dramatically change the structure of the American economy for the worse, spreading unprodctive, legalistic, Detroit-style union practices (work rules, promotion by seniority, protections for lousy workers, etc.) by subjecting non-union workers to thuggish peer pressure."

Kaus is correct that card check is the most potentially radical proposal on the table, but wrong about its effects. Due to lax enforcement of labor laws, and their inherent weakness, it's become virtually impossible to organize a union through the traditional NLRB election process. In fact, it's gotten so bad that a lot of unions, most notably those in the Change To Win coalition have pretty much given up on NLRB elections, preferring instead to use PR campaigns to pressure employers into agreeing to "neutrality," meaning they'll allow a union election without actively campaigning against it. The Employee Free Choice Act would make neutrality the law, and more than any other single piece of legislation help revive the American labor movement. It seems to me that it's simply impossible to really address inequality in America without a robust labor movement.

Also, aside from the libelous implication that union organizers are "thuggish," Kaus seems to think that more unionization will lead to more companies tied down in expensive, sclerotic labor contracts like those that are killing GM. But it's not the union contracts that are killing GM per se, so much as it's the old corporate welfare state model of employer-backed health insurance and pensions, a system that is proving destructive in an era of globalization.

Jacob Hacker has proposed one solution, a form of universal insurance that would package together insurance for a variety of the uncertainties Americans increasingly face: from the risk of a catastrophic illness to job loss due to technological change. Kaus is right that as a package, the Dems' proposals aren't going to solve the inequality problem. But universal insurance combined with stronger unions would go a long way.

Two Cheers for Senator Webb

In today's Washington Post columnist George Will lectures Virginia's newest Senator for his boorishness. His evidence? Wednesday's Post report that at a recent White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb "tried to avoid President Bush," refusing to pass through the reception line or have his photograph taken with the man Webb had often criticized on the campaign trail.

When Bush asked Webb, whose son is serving in iraq, "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq." When the President again asked "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "That's between me and my boy."

Now Webb had a reason for what he did. As he told the Post, "I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall. No offense to the institution of the presidency, and I'm certainly looking forward to working with him and his administration. [But] leaders do some symbolic things to try to convey who they are and what the message is."

Will considers the incident on the White House reception line and concludes that Webb is a "boor" and has shown a "patent disrespect for the presidency."

I'd argue that Webb--as Senator Chuck Schumer put it the other day (perhaps failing to understand the irony of his statement)--is "not a typical politician. He really has deep convictions."

And conviction and courage and, yes, a maverick Senator who's willing to upend the false civility of inside-the-beltway rituals are what's needed in these times.

President Bush's war of choice has put Webb's son's in harm's way. Why shouldn't Webb refuse to shake that man's hand--or seek to be used in a photo-op?

In his column/lecture, Will says the new Senator "might consider this: In a republic, people decline to be led by leaders who are insufferably full of themselves." Seems to me that applies to the current occupant of the White House--not the new Senator from the good state of Virginia.

The Lessons of Iraq, Gates-style

Robert M. Gates, the man slated to fill the "stuff happens" combat boots of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, offered his first cautious pass at the lessons of the Iraq War this week. In a questionnaire he filled out for the Senate Armed Services Committee in preparation for his upcoming confirmation hearings, he responded to a query about what he would have done differently with the following, according to the Associated Press:

"'War planning should be done with the understanding that post-major combat phase of operations can be crucial,' Gates said in a 65-page written response submitted to the committee Tuesday. ‘If confirmed, I intend to improve the department's capabilities in this area…With the advantage of hindsight, I might have done some things differently.'"

With the advantage of "hindsight"… hmmm.

So, let's see if we can get this straight: With hindsight, his lesson would be that, in the next Iraq-style invasion and occupation, we should focus more on that "post-major combat phase"--a nice phrase that resonates with our President's famed "mission accomplished" moment on May 1, 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, when he announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

Of course, by then, a lot of "stuff" had already happened and Baghdad, as well as much of the rest of Iraq had been thoroughly looted. But assumedly the new Secretary of Defense has learned his lesson: More troops for the occupation, more well-trained US MPs for the streets, a few people who actually speak the language of whatever invaded countries we might end up in, and maybe a good strongman in our pocket, not to speak of an undisbanded army of well-trained locals to keep him and us company.

It's so early in the "withdrawal" game and yet Gates' sad answer sums up the sad state of what passes for debate right now in the mainstream, including among the members of James Baker's Iraq Study Group.

Of course, there's only one lesson of the Iraq War to start with, the sort of lesson that parents tell kids every day: Don't do it!

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a Secretary of Defense who, having absorbed the lessons of this war, would begin planning to do no planning for future invasions of Iraq-like countries, not to speak of the post-major combat phases of such invasions. But we might as well wish for the confirmation of Tinkerbell.