Having read the national bestselling paperback The Iraq Study Group Report, I am not so convinced by much of what I am reading about it from writers on the left. Many progressives have interpreted the document’s real message as a call for “Stay the Course Lite” or as a not-so-cloaked argument for privatizing Iraq’s massive petroleum reserves. (Of course the centrality of oil in all of this should never be in doubt, but the situation in Iraq has spun out of control in ways that go far beyond privatization schemes. And of course the ISGR is predicated on salvaging US imperial power, redeploying it and rebuilding. Pointing out such things is like “discovering” that the sun again came up in the east.)
Nor are the pundits of the gray center getting it: They seem bogged down in the report’s seventy-nine suggestions. Shift US troops to advisory roles? Will Iran come to the table in good faith?
In a strange inverted fashion, I am most compelled by the readings that have emerged from the far right. They understand the document for what it is: an abject admission of total failure. Rush Limbaugh summed it up best when he mocked the document as “The Iraq Surrender Group Report.”
Limbaugh is totally correct. That’s what it is: a plan for defeat with honor. To put the report in very simple terms, its message is: The United States got its ass kicked, time to go. Or, if you prefer a direct quote: “The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out.” And later they ponder how to “avert catastrophe.”
All of the report’s suggestions flow from that basic understanding. And though it is written in polite, obfuscating Beltway vernacular, the report offers up a devastating critique of the Bush Administration’s Middle East foreign policy. Most provocative, it correctly links Iraq’s meltdown to a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; these days that sort of suggestion is downright subversive. The right-wingers hate this report so passionately because they actually understand what it is saying.
The report criticizes Bush on a number of key topics. It notes the lack of Arabic speakers in the Green Zone and the lack of any contextual understanding of the insurgency: For more than two years, the Pentagon has had very few analysts who have been working on knowing the enemy. It mentions that the civilian leadership has badly alienated the military leadership.
The report does the basic service of laying out a who’s who of key Iraqi leaders. It discusses the vexing problem of federalism, sectarianism and partition–and rightly bucks the Galbraithian proposal that if you just cut the mess up into three parts, it’ll quiet down. (In the end Ambassador Peter Galbraith may see the future correctly, but the process of partitioning Iraq would be apocalyptically violent and is not something to wish for.)
On the issue of reconstruction, the report notes that “serious questions remain about the capacity of the U.S. and Iraqi governments.” Think about the first part of that for a moment. It goes on to add: “The coordination of assistance programs by the Defense Department, State Department, United States Agency for International Development, and other agencies has been ineffective. There are no clear lines establishing who is in charge of reconstruction.” The $21 billion already spent is presented as a total waste; the report describes the still appalling lack of basic services.
And why would that be? The report hints politely: “Substantial reconstruction funds have also been provided to contractors, and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has documented numerous instances of waste and abuse. They have not all been put right.” The authors seem pleased that there is now a bit more oversight and “fewer cost-plus contracts have been granted.” In addition, they note that the increased “use of Iraqi contractors has enabled the employment of more Iraqis in reconstruction projects.” It is all too little too late, and anyone reading this should know that.
The report notes with concern that the overall costs of the war are wildly out of control: “To date, the United States has spent roughly $400 billion on the Iraq War, and costs are running about $8 billion per month.” It notes that all long-term cost together could run as high as $2 trillion. It further notes that: “The public interest is not well served by the government’s preparation, presentation, and review of the budget for the war in Iraq.”
Not only is the cost out of control but, according to James Baker and company, so is the President–abusing his power to mask the cost and bully Congress into writing blank checks. “Most of the costs of the war,” they write, “show up not in the normal budget request but in requests for emergency supplemental appropriations. This means that funding requests are drawn up outside the normal budget process, are not offset by budgetary reductions elsewhere, and move quickly to the White House with minimal scrutiny.”
Then, even more stunning, this: “The executive branch presents budget requests in a confusing manner, making it difficult for both the general public and members of Congress to understand the request or to differentiate it from counterterrorism operations around the world or operations in Afghanistan. Detailed analyses by budget experts are needed to answer what should be a simple question: ‘How much money is the President requesting for the war in Iraq?'”
But that’s not all: “circumvention of the budget process by the executive branch erodes oversight and review by Congress…. When the President submits an emergency supplemental request, the authorizing committees are bypassed. The request goes directly to the appropriations committees, and they are pressured by the need to act quickly so that troops in the field do not run out of funds. The result is a spending bill that passes Congress with perfunctory review. Even worse, the must-pass appropriations bill becomes loaded with special spending projects that would not survive the normal review process.”
That’s pretty harsh and pretty realistic.
So why do they do this? Perhaps some of the old guard fear what Marxists used call to a “legitimation crisis.” Listen to this: “Continued problems in Iraq could lead to greater polarization within the United States. Sixty-six percent of Americans disapprove of the government’s handling of the war, and more than 60 percent feel that there is no clear plan for moving forward. The November elections were largely viewed as a referendum on the progress in Iraq…. U.S. foreign policy cannot be successfully sustained without the broad support of the American people.”
Finally, the report suggests the unsuggestable: It may be time to rein in Israel. It’s a measure of how degraded political discourse has become that to even suggest this draws vicious attack. But facts are facts, and the Baker-Hamilton commission is correct in assessing that “Iraq cannot be addressed effectively in isolation from other major regional issues, interests, and unresolved conflicts. To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East… are inextricably linked.”
If that is true, then: “There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria.”
Outrageous! How could they suggest that Israel has anything to do with this? For readers with such reactions they answer: “Iraqi opposition to the United States–and support for [radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-] Sadr–spiked in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon.”
Andwhat about oil? Yes, the report’s authors want to privatize it. Recommendation 63 reads: “The United States should encourage investment in Iraq’s oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies.” But the Iraqi oil industry is becoming a black hole, written off by world markets and no longer a factor in pricing. The national oil company and the oil ministry are, by all reports, in total crisis. During most of the US occupation, the northern oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk have been totally offline due to insurgent sabotage on the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline that exports to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. As much as one-quarter of all oil pumped in Iraq is likely stolen and smuggled out in trucks. Go to the Turkish-Iraqi border and you’ll see lines of oil-smuggling trucks parked three abreast, running for up to a dozen miles waiting to cross at night.
Iraq is currently producing at roughly one-third of its peak levels. Iraq’s pre-1991 production peak was 3.9 million barrels per day. The Gulf War and sanctions cut capacity by about 1 million barrels a day. But under occupation the country’s production was set to soar to 6 million barrels a day by the end of the decade. That won’t happen. The chaos of war is keeping production at 2 million barrels a day or less. Today Iraq exports average only 1.5 million barrels a day.
Experts close to the industry say the country needs $20 billion to $60 billion in capital investment if it is to recover its former glory. That deficit alone practically insures future privatization–or at least liberalization of participation by foreign firms and oil majors.
The Baker-Hamilton commission was not trying to pull a fast one, sneak in some legal changes that will allow privatization. Rather, the group was up-front about its goals: The authors offer a plan for defeat with honor (that is, some salvaged political credibility) and, if possible, the possibility of stability sooner rather than later. And their proposed method is also a departure from the current zeitgeist: diplomacy rather than blind force. Given the very limited parameters of the political moment–what’s so wrong with all that?