Will President George W Bush abandon his strategy in the Middle East by adopting the Baker-Hamilton report?
Seasoned observers of the American scene may have regarded the creation of the ISG as a political manoeuvre by the Bush administration to defuse the Iraq issue on the eve of mid-term elections in the United States.
The philosophy behind the ISG has a long history in American politics that, despite its democratic structures, has always included some Byzantine aspects. What better way of kicking the can than having elder statesmen, from both parties, come together to conjure a consensus where none appears feasible?
To come back to the ISG, while its creation may have been useful in terms of calming American partisan ardours on Iraq, it would be foolish to see its confused and often contradictory analyses and recommendations as a blueprint for a serious strategy.
To begin with, the report does not define the problem it presumes to address. Instead, it offers a series of assertions, often weakened by the use of the passive voice and an endless number of “ifs” and “buts”. It foments further confusion by an avalanche of adjectives and adverbs. We are told that the “situation” is ” grave” or ” deteriorating” and that the US should prepare to withdraw its troops” responsibly” while working “closely” with the Iraqi government.
The report never mentions the fact that what is happening in Iraq is a war. That enables its authors to avoid the key questions: What is this war about? Is it worth fighting from the point of view of American national interests? Who is the enemy? How to achieve victory?
Instead of the dreaded word “war”, the report uses the word “situation”, as if it were dealing with some marital dispute or lovers’ tiff in a sitcom. It puts the emphasis on what it calls a “New Diplomatic Offensive” in the same way as one calls a marriage counselor or a mother-in-law for help in a sitcom.
The proposed “New Diplomatic Offensive” or NDO consists of a litany of woes about the “situation” and a long wish list for the way more than 100 nations should act on Iraq.
The report dictates the script for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the European Union, Iraq’s neighbors, and the Security Council, not to mention the entire United Nations.
In other words, it bases its hopes for “improving the situation” on what scores of other nations, including some strategic enemies of the United States and Iraq, might or might not do. The authors seek a Middle East in which the lion lies with the lamb, both listening to an American lullaby after the US has betrayed its friends and allies by cutting and running.
Even then, the proposed NDO drowns in a sea of illusions.
To pre-empt charges of appeasement from the “neocons”, the authors attach so many preconditions to talks between the US and its two regional enemies, Iran and Syria, that no one in Tehran or Damascus would be able to accept the invitation. The report fixes seven preconditions for talks with Syria and four for Iran- preconditions that, to be fulfilled would require a change of strategy, if not regime change, in Damascus and Tehran. The authors do not say why Syrian and Iranian rulers should risk political suicide by helping the US consolidate a pro-American regime in Baghdad.
Having presented Iran as the key interlocutor, the authors casually note that their contacts “with Iran’s government leads us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq.” What a surprise! The authors do not seem to know that the strategy of the Islamic Republic is to drive the US out of the Middle East and to reshape the region according to the Khomeinist ideology.
A Swedish proverb says: Why settle for a single dish when you can have the smorgasbord!
Prompted by years of unsatisfied yearning on the margins of diplomacy, the report’s authors have gone for the largest and most varied smorgasbord imaginable. Not content with dealing with the “situation” in Iraq, they have produced a barrage of recommendations to solve all other conflicts in the region, starting with the 100-year old Israel-Palestine issue. The result is a tangled web in which the “situation” in Iraq is so tied to other “situations” that it becomes insoluble.
The report makes more than five dozen recommendations, some of which contain further” mini-recommendations”. The problem is that implementing most of them depends on actors not controlled by, or hostile to, the United States.
The fact that recommendations of widely different importance are banded together is a sign of either intellectual laziness or political posturing.
The report says: ” It is critical for the United States to provide additional political, economic and military support for Afghanistan.” Yes, you read correctly. It is Afghanistan that the authors want to support further, not Iraq which is the subject of their study. The authors are unhappy that “the huge focus of US political, military, and economic support on Iraq has necessarily diverted attention from Afghanistan.”
When it comes to supporting Iraq, we are offered recommendations such as this: ” The President and the leadership of his national security team should remain in close and frequent contact with the Iraqi leadership.” And, “The President should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq.”
Oblivious of reality, the authors of the report, often praised as “realists” as opposed to the “idealists” around Bush, adopt an almost theological tone to demand the full and strict implementation of their 67 Commandments.
They write that their recommendations are “comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation.” More importantly, their implementation should start before the end of December!
The wish list includes inter alia : peace between Israel and Arabs, a solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an end to Syrian meddling in Lebanon, the uprooting of the drug trade in Afghanistan, an end to 13 centuries of feuds between Shiites and Sunnis, and the endorsement by the whole world of America’s ambitions in the Middle East.
The Baker-Hamilton smorgasbord offers some small but poisonous dishes designed to please people like Congressman Jack Murtha.
These include an assertion that the American military commitment in Iraq undermines US security in other parts of the globe. There is also the suggestion that the US transfer its resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, rejecting more than 30 years of planning to enable the US to fight two wars simultaneously, if and when necessary.
The most poisonous little dish, however, comes in the form of an attempt to blackmail the Iraqi government. The report threatens that unless the Iraqi government achieves “national reconciliation”, the US should start withdrawing its forces, abandoning Iraq to its fate. That threat gives the terrorists and insurgents an incentive to prevent national reconciliation in the hope of forcing the Americans.
The ISG’s report, useful though it may have been in reducing tension in US domestic politics, is at best useless and at worst dangerous as far as the war in Iraq is concerned. The US must decide whether it has the will to fight and win or, of it does not, how best to disengage from the Middle East.