James Baker did not enter the Senate committee room bearing two tablets. But the Bush clan adviser and former secretary of state had high expectations to meet Wednesday morning when he and his fellow commissioners of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group publicly disclosed at a Capitol Hill press conference their collective wisdom on how to fix George W. Bush’s war in Iraq–if, as they more than once noted, that’s possible. Baker and his colleagues presented no surprises–given a week’s worth of leaks about the report’s findings. But they made it official: the Washington establishment has judged Bush’s management of the war a failure.
No such bold statement exists in the 142-page report. And before the scores of reporters and dozens of camera crews, Baker, former Representative Lee Hamilton, and the eight other ISG poohbahs offered no harsh words for the fellow Baker got into the White House. Yet the report is unequivocal. “The situation in Iraq,” it says, “is grave and deteriorating,” and the Bush administration must “pursue different policies.”
Citing such statements, I asked Democratic power-lawyer Vernon Jordan, one of the commisioners, if the report is an outright repudiation of Bush’s handling of the war. Flashing a wide smile, he replied, “That’s implicit.” Baker has politely sent a message to Bush the Younger: you screwed up.
The report is both a political and policy document. By declaring that Bush’s current approach is misguided, the Baker-Hamilton commission creates greater space for a debate over alternatives. Its report undermines Bush’s recent claims that “we’re winning” in Iraq and that he has “a strategy for victory.” You’re not and you don’t, the report retorts (between the lines). This slap from Baker and the other Republican members (former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Senator Alan Simpson, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger) is significant. When has such a group of Washington influentials offered a stinging indictment–even if gently–of the defining mission of a president from their own party? This report comes close to being a vote of no confidence from the Republican elite.
Having dismissed Bush’s prosecution of the war, Baker and his comrades try to fill the vacuum with 79 mostly middle-of-the-road policy recommendations. They do not side with the withdrawalists who urge initiating disengagement immediately or within months. (“Precipitous withdrawal,” Baker maintained, “could lead to a blood bath and wider regional war.”) They do not endorse the proposal from neoconservatives and Senator John McCain for dispatching more troops to Iraq. (“Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq,” the report says, adding, “we do not have the troops.”) They do not support dividing Iraq into parts. (“It could not be managed on an orderly basis,” Baker said, and partition could cause “a humanitarian disaster or broad-based civil war.”)
The commission calls for a pullback of combat troops by the first quarter of 2008–“subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground”–as part of shifting the U.S. military mission from combat to training and support operations. (Bush, the commission notes, should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq.) This mission switch, according to the commission, must occur in tandem with a “diplomatic offensive to build consensus for stability in Iraq and the region”–an effort that would include approaching Iran and Syria and seeking “a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts.” The Baker gang proposes creating an Iraq International Support Group that would involve all countries bordering Iraq and other nations in the region and world. The commission also recommends that the United States pressure the Iraqi government concerning “milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance.” The report lists various benchmarks Washington should demand of the Iraqis, including passing a law governing oil revenue sharing (by early 2007), completing “reconciliation efforts” (by May 2007), gaining control of the army (by April 2007), and appreciating the value of the Iraqi dinar by 10 percent to combat inflation (by the end of this year). And the pressure must be explicit. If the Iraqi government does not make “substantial progress,” the report notes, the Bush administration “should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the government.”
Is all this truly “a better way forward,” as the report puts it? It certainly is better than the muddle-through approach of the Bush administration. The report lays out specific ways the US military should attempt to improve the training of Iraqi security forces–mainly by increasing the number of U.S. military personnel embedded with Iraqi units. And withdrawing combat troops is a key part of the plan. But one can easily pick apart the fundamental recommendations. The US military has already trained 300,000 Iraqi troops and police officers–or so Vice President Dick Cheney claims–and the program has been a failure. The report cites “significant questions” about the abilities and loyalties of Iraqi units. “The state of the Iraqi police is substantially worse than that of the Iraqi army,” the ISG concludes. Is there reason to believe that a new round of training of security forces in this highly fractured state can be done in a manner that works?
The same goes for other recommendations. The report urges both supporting and applying pressure on “the Iraqi government.” Is Bush nimble enough to do this? More important, is the Iraqi government truly a working and viable entity that can be effectively assisted and nudged simultaneously? “Key players within the government too often act in their sectarian interest,” the report says. “Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders frequently fail to demonstrate the political will to act in Iraq’s national interest, and too many Iraqi ministries lack the capacity to govern effectively.” It adds that sectarian militias “are currently seen as legitimate vehicles of political action.” The report sums up a primary obstacle:
Sunni politicians told us that the U.S. military has to take on the militias; Shia politicians told us that the U.S. military has to help them take out the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda. Each side watches the other. Sunni insurgents will not lay down arms unless the Shia militias are disarmed. Shia militias will not disarm until the Sunni insurgency is destroyed. To put it simply: there are many armed groups within Iraq, and very little will to lay down arms.
How to break this deadlock? The report does not say. And Baker conceded that Iran might have no interest in participating in a diplomatic endeavor designed to stabilize Iraq. He was more optimistic about Syria: “With respect to Syria, there’s some strong indications that they would be in a position if we were able to enter into a constructive dialogue, that they could–would be in a position to help us and might want to help us.”
At the press conference, Baker, Hamilton and Company discussed political divisions in the United States more than they did those in Iraq. They repeatedly echoed the report’s call for the forging of a bipartisan political consensus on Iraq. Baker, the commissions and their report point to the divisive debate within the United States as a critical problem. Whether that’s so or not, they left untouched a bigger matter: will Bush listen (to them or anyone else) and chart a different course?
The commissioner met with Bush prior to the press conference, and Hamilton said he was “immensely pleased today when President Bush indicated to us that this report presents to the American people a common opportunity to deal with the problems in Iraq.” But the report is more than an “opportunity.” It’s a specific plan resting on ideas Bush and his aides have already shoved aside. The Bush White House has indicated it has no interest in discussing the Iraq mess with Iran and Syria. Bush has repeatedly stuck with an open-ended commitment: US troops will stay in Iraq until the mission is completed. The Baker commission–as limited as its recommendations may be–is asking Bush to change policy in a dramatic fashion. Does Bush, one reporter asked, “have the capacity to pull a 180?” Baker replied, “I never put presidents I work for on the couch.”
But–couch or no couch–that is the question. Bush’s intentions are more important than the middle-of-the-road/give-it-one-more-shot particulars of the ISG recommendations. The commission is going out of business. Its members will be testifying before various congressional panels in the weeks and months ahead. But they will not be pressing Bush in any organized way to adopt their proposals–or to alter his own approach. What matters more than the merits of Recommendation No. 37 (“Iraqi amnesty proposals must not be undercut in Washington by either the executive or the legislative branch”) is whether Bush accepts the report’s fundamentals–Iraq is getting worse and his policies have failed–and whether he is willing to reconsider what to do in Iraq.
At the press conference, Baker talked about improving the “chances for success,” not about victory. “We stayed away” from using the word “victory,” he said. Hamilton observed, “I don’t know if [Iraq] can be turned around.” No one connected to the commission positioned him- or herself as a policy savior. “There is no guarantee for success in Iraq,” the Baker report says, noting that “the ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out.” Baker readily acknowledges his panel’s recommendations might not do the trick. There’s little hubris within the report.
On the first page, the panel notes, “Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support.” That suggests “our leaders”–meaning the president–has not been so. To their credit, the ISG commissioners frankly concede–all too willingly–that their proposals might not work. But now that the Baker report is finally done and the Bush family’s Mr. Fixit has declared no magical solution exists, the Iraq debate reverts to the basics: can Bush candidly admit Iraq is a debacle and can he ponder meaningful alternatives to the present course? For that question, there’s no answer from the wise men (and one wise woman) of Baker’s study group.
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.