Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Baker-Hamilton Report

Discussing the Silent generation that produced the Baker-Hamilton report, I thought I was emphasizing their good points: their commitment to the political order under which they grew up, their respect for data, and their willingness to work together. A comment complained that I had not given enough credit to Dr. Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles for their contributions to American life. Actually I’m inclined to think that we have somewhat overvalued Dr. King’s contribution to civil rights in comparison to older leaders like Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall, whose legislative/legal strategies got the civil rights movement about 75% of the way to full equality. Direct non-violent action got us the last 25%, but it did not, sadly, have such a lasting legacy. As for Elvis and the Beatles, the cultural and social contributions of Silents and Boomers, important as they truly were, only took place, and could only take place, against the background of the relatively stable society our parents and grandparents had put together. It was stable enough to survive our rebellious youth, but it is not surviving Boomers in power.

That paragraph, however, is a digression from the business at hand, a look at the Baker-Hamilton report. And alas, it shows the Silents at their best and worst. While it shows some respect for critical facts, it also refuses to draw the obvious conclusions those facts warrant. Despite the commission’s bipartisan character, it looks more than anything else like a public salvo in a generational family fight among Republicans, with older realists facing off against younger neoconservatives. And perhaps because its members—led by Baker himself—would never have been dumb enough to conquer Iraq in the first place, it essentially finesses the issue of what to do there by proposing what is either yet another optimistic fantasy, or an option for disguised withdrawal. In my opinion, within five years at the very most, some one is going to have to acknowledge that the Middle East, politically, is lost. This report will not help.

The arrangement of the report itself is something of a giveaway. After a good but paradoxical analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq, the recommendations in the second part of the report start with the broader Middle East. Baker and Hamilton and the rest’s real gripe against the Bush Administration is its broader Middle Eastern policy. Since 1973, the United States has balanced enormous aid for Israel with the careful cultivation of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, and even Syria (the latter Baker’s particular achievement in 1990-1, when he brought Syria into the anti-Iraq coalition), and with some pressure on the Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, to work for peace. No one after 1979, unfortunately, ever had the courage to think about re-establishing relations with Iran (except, ironically, the sponsors of the Iran-Contra fiasco), but essentially policy makers tried to deal with the Middle East based on reality. That policy was cracking under Bill Clinton because the Palestinians refused to make peace on the terms the Israelis offered. (Exactly how generous those terms were is a matter of some debate among professionals, but they were certainly better than anything the Palestinians are going to get now.) Given the growing strength of fundamentalism in the Middle East and the apparent lack of any significant political alternative among the Arabs, the long-term prospects for that policy were probably dim in any case. But for almost thirty years it worked pretty well.

We all have trouble recognizing that time has passed us by. (In my case, as I remarked to a friend the other day, it is hard to shake the fantasy that American universities still include a parallel universe of history departments in which the kind of work I do, focusing on the kinds of questions I discuss here, is still taken seriously.) The world was a kinder place for James Baker in the 1980s and early 1990s, when he was on top of the world, and he would like to restore those glory days. But they are gone, destroyed, literally, by a younger generation. Abandoning even-handedness, the Bush Administration has adopted the Israeli position (stated a couple of years ago by Sharon’s aid Dov Weisglass) that when the Palestinians become Finns, Israel will talk to them. President Bush in 2002 essentially stated that Israel could keep any land that it could settle in a final peace agreement. (That statement, which I always found appalling, looked even worse when the New York Times recently published a story showing that many Israeli settlements are on land owned by Palestinian Arabs.) The Administration has treated both Iran and Syria as pariah states, and it hasn’t been the least interested, as far as I can see, in the opinions of the Saudis, the Egyptians, or the other Gulf states. It has staked everything on a fantasy of a newly democratic Middle East full of pro-American (and even pro-Israeli governments)—even though every election in the Middle East has shown a negative trend towards the United States. (Incidentally, President Bush spoke once again the other day of the evil terrorists who are trying to prevent the emergence of a “young democracy” in Palestine, and no reporter, I believe, has ever challenged that vision by pointing out that Hamas actually won the last election by a substantial margin. The President still speaks of Mohammed Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian government.)

And thus, the Baker-Hamilton report focuses on returning to previous policies towards the established Arab states, and towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding the latter, the recommendations, as some conservatives immediately pointed out, contain an obvious, pointed dig at Israel and its neoconservative supporters in the United States: They called for “Sustainable negotiations leading to a final peace settlement along the lines of President Bush’s two-state solution, which would address the key final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return, and the end of conflict.” The reference to the “right of return,” which allows Jews from anywhere in the world to settle in Israel while denying the same right to Palestinian refugees, is unprecedented, and touches one of the most powerful nerves in Israel and in the pro-Israeli lobby in the US. As Jimmy Carter has been pointing out since the publication of his new book, a real taboo prevents much discussion of these issues in public here in the US, but they are obviously heatedly discussed in the upper reaches of the establishment in Washington from which the commission came. To be fair, however, these recommendations are, for the moment, impossible. The Commission also says that only Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist can join the talks, and Hamas, which, again, won the last election, refuses to do so.

And what about Iraq?

Here the paradox of the report is painful and obvious. The Commission must have heard from many who believe that some kind of partition of Iraq is the only way to end the violence, but breaking up countries is not what members of the Silent generation do. (See my earlier post about the Compromisers.) They reject that alternative, apparently sincerely, and call for “national reconciliation.” Yet there analysis of the situation in Iraq shows that almost no one is truly in favor of such a course. Allow me to quote four key paragraphs.

One core issue is federalism. The Iraqi Constitution, which created a largely autonomous Kurdistan region, allows other such regions to be established later, perhaps including a “Shi’astan” comprising nine southern provinces. This highly decentralized structure is favored by the Kurds and many Shia (particularly supporters of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim), but it is anathema to Sunnis. First, Sunni Arabs are generally Iraqi nationalists, albeit within the context of an Iraq they believe they should govern. Second, because Iraq’s energy resources are in the Kurdish and Shia regions, there is no economically feasible “Sunni region.” Particularly contentious is a provision in the constitution that shares revenues nationally from current oil reserves, while allowing revenues from reserves discovered in the future to go to the regions.

The Sunnis did not actively participate in the constitution-drafting process, and acceded to entering the government only on the condition that the constitution be amended. In September, the parliament agreed to initiate a constitutional review commission slated to complete its work within one year; it delayed considering the question of forming a federalized region in southern Iraq for eighteen months.

Another key unresolved issue is the future of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that is home to substantial numbers of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. The Kurds insisted that the constitution require a popular referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk can formally join the Kurdish administered region, an outcome that Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk staunchly oppose. The risks of further violence sparked by a Kirkuk referendum are great.

Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation. One prominent Shia leader told us pointedly that the current government has the support of 80 percent of the population, notably excluding Sunni Arabs. Kurds have fought for independence for decades, and when our Study Group visited Iraq, the leader of the Kurdish region ordered the lowering of Iraqi flags and the raising of Kurdish flags. One senior American general commented that the Iraqis “still do not know what kind of country they want to have.” Yet many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq.

I do not see how anyone can read those paragraphs and conclude that Iraq can peacefully be held together, but that it is the premise behind the panel’s recommendations. Europe and the United States made no parallel attempts to hold together Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, or the Soviet Union—all states created at the same time as Iraq. I have become convinced (and the paragraphs above would do the trick, even if Peter Galbraith’s book hadn’t already) that Iraq is almost certain to be split up, and that the only issue is whether the United States is going to futilely oppose that process until we are driven out of the country or try to make it as peaceful as possible and get some credit out of it. The commission wouldn’t face up to the problem it stated so clearly.

Or did it? The commission report has quite a bit in common with another famous document from another war, the McNamara-Taylor report of October 1963. The Vietnam War at that point was going very badly, but official Washington had managed to deceive itself on that point. Robert McNamara, the report’s principle author, insisted that the bulk of the task would be finished by early 1965 and most American troops would be gone by then. (Unlike Baker and Hamilton, he even threw in an immediate, token 1000-man withdrawal as well.) That report also continued the suspension of aid to Ngo Dinh Diem to try to force him to make political changes, and many of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations show that spirit as well. Indeed, like an earlier Vietnam report, the Taylor-Rostow report of 1961, it calls for intense American involvement within several key Iraqi ministries. Diem rejected those suggestions in Vietnam and there is evidence within this report that they won’t get far in Iraq, either. In short, neither the 1963 report nor this one really has a recipe for success, although both pretended they did. But Baker and Hamilton want a substantial withdrawal of American combat units by the spring of 2008. Given the bleak picture of internal Iraqi conditions that they have painted, that, I think, amounts to washing our hands of the whole matter, and they are too smart not to know that. Iraq, like Iran in 1979, will be written off as a failure and the United States will make a renewed effort to shore up what is left of its position among authoritarian Arab governments.

Like the Germans in 1917 or the Japanese in 1941, we are trapped, for the moment, by our commitment to unrealistic expectations. Somehow we must come out of this with a strengthened position in the Middle East, all our politicians seem to agree; but we can’t. (That analogy is not altogether fair, of course, because we have not committed nearly the resources or done nearly the damage that those two nations had done, but we share the dilemma of having established unrealistic objectives. Our position, in terms of the size of our commitment, is more analogous, perhaps, to the British fighting the American Revolution, and they did find the will to give up, but only after six years.) The Commission’s failure to take on the issue of our objectives has given the Bush Administration its best weapon against it. The Commission hasn’t repudiated our objective in Iraq, and its recommendations won’t secure it.

The Silent generation, once again, believes in process, and many pages of the commission’s report make suggestions for re-organizing the American effort in Iraq and the Iraqi government itself. Perhaps I shall go into these further later, but time will tell whether they can get off the ground.

Near the end of the report, however, the Commission struck a blow for the truth. I quote:

In addition, there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

Certainly that is true. One of the first Silents to have a significant impact within the American government was the late Sam Adams, a CIA analyst who insisted in 1967 that it was wrong to undercount the Vietnam in order to show that we were winning the war. He could not persuade his GI elders, and I doubt that Baker and company, his contemporaries, will persuade the Boomers who have gotten us into this mess. But both were right—the truth will out. I regret, however, that the commission was unwilling to go in the direction that their data, in my opinion, clearly points.


Roger Albin said...

These comments are predicated on the idea that the primary purpose of the ISG report is to provide a realistic policy direction for our involvement in Iraq. This is, at best, only partially true. Like many such Federal commissions, a major goal is to give the administration some political cover for doing something it finds unpalatable. In this context, the conclusions of the ISG, quite a few of which challenge existing policies, are actually surprisingly blunt and challenging. Have they faced up to the likely reality of the wholesale failure of the Iraq misadventure and partition? No. In other respects, however, this is strong indictment of the administration's policies and as Hamilton stated in his testimony, of the failure of Congress to provide adequate oversight of policy. So strong, in fact, that Bush is unlikely to heed any of the recommendations.

Anonymous said...

James Baker and his law firm Baker Botts are paid millions of dollars a year by Saudi Arabia. Baker and his law firm defend the Saudi princes from the many law suits arising out of 9/11.

Baker and company are paid agents of the Arab OPEC companies and is there any wonder why the Baker-Hamilton Report leans towards talking to those whose only desire is to destroy America.

James Baker wants talks with Syria and Iran but the object of their talks, ISRAEL is not invited.

Sounds fair to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your in-depth post on the Baker-Hamilton report. “The question today is, do we break faith with our dead soldiers by staying the course in Iraq, or by cutting and running? Or are there other options beyond the widely criticized Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report? I propose that there is only one viable option and that it to show the world that we do have a center – a moral core – National unity – the will to win.”

Martin K said...

Anonymous: You might turn that argument around 180 degrees: What Baker suggests is the rational course, while the administration is sticking to its guns in what is clearly a doomed policy. To say that the US does not talk to Israel is somewhat of an understatement, so how could you loose from also talking to Syria and Iran?

Unfortunately, your prez has put all his honour in NOT communicating with Iran/Syria, so much that it looks like he will not be able to back down. That leaves you with a bloodfeud with the largest power in the region, a bloodfeud all of your own choosing. And in the enemys territory. And with a severly depleted US army.

Principles Of Democracy and Will to Victory is all very well, but not exactly practical geopolitical tools. Your administration needs to stop reading Ayn Rand and start reading Clausewitz and Machiavelli.

Anonymous said...

By the way that was me with the silent gen comments, I always hate to see folks slagging this generation because that's the generation of my parents - so I take it rather personally.

Part of the reason is that the Boomers keep going on and on about their parents so late in life. A good example of this dysfunctionality is Bush Jr. and Senior. I don't care what anyone claims, the silents are THE greatest generation of the 20th century.

Besides the WWII Generation like the boomers had their best years in their youth, and the Missionaries and Lost Generation created the real leadership (folks like FDR followed by Truman and Ike).