December 6, 2006

"For this we waited nine months?"

Excerpting Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. (ellipsis mine)

...after nine months of deliberation and an unprecedented build-up of expectations that these sages would produce some brilliant, original answer to the Iraq conundrum, the study group's recommendations turn out to be a pallid and muddled reiteration of what most Democrats, many Republicans, and even Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials have been saying for almost two years. Thus, according to at least six separate commission sources sent out to pre-spin the press, the Baker-Hamilton report will call for a gradual and partial withdrawal of American forces in Iraq, to begin at a time unspecified and to be completed by a time unspecified. The goal will be to hand over responsibility for security in Iraq to the Iraqis themselves as soon as this is feasible, and to shift the American role to training rather than fighting the insurgency and providing security. The decision of how far, how fast, and even whether to withdraw will rest with military commanders in Iraq, who will base their determination on how well prepared the Iraqis are to take over. Even after the withdrawal, the study group envisions keeping at least 70,000 American troops in Iraq for years to come.

To say that this is not a new idea is an understatement...

...One of the more striking aspects of the Iraq Study Group's report is that these recommendations are clearly not anyone's idea of the right plan. As the New York Times put it, they represent "a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March." One commission source declared, "We reached a consensus, which in itself is remarkable." "Everyone felt good about where we ended up," said another. We're happy for them. But reaching consensus among the 10 members of the group was presumably not the primary goal of this exercise. The idea was to provide usable advice for the Bush administration that would help it move toward an acceptable outcome in Iraq. In that, the commission has failed...

...It's not as if the Baker commission has accomplished nothing, however. Although its recommendations will have no effect on American policy going forward, they have already had a very damaging effect throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East and in Iraq. For the Iraq Study Group, aided by supportive American media, has successfully conveyed the impression to everyone at home and abroad that the United States is about to withdraw from Iraq. This has weakened American allies and strengthened American enemies. It has exacerbated the problems in Iraq, as all the various factions in that country begin to prepare for the "inevitable" American retreat. Now it will require enormous efforts by the president and his advisers to dispel the disastrous impression that the Baker commission has quite deliberately created and will continue to foster in the weeks ahead. At home and abroad, people have been led to believe that Jim Baker and not the president was going to call the shots in Iraq from now on.

Happily, that is not the case.

See also today's BOTW with Taranto commenting on the ISG suggestion that one pre-condition of our success in Iraq is solving the Arab-Israeli dispute. Oh, is that all?

The ISG's recommendations are thought to reflect the foreign-policy school known as "realism"--that is, the belief that nations act in their own interests and that it is folly to expect them to do otherwise. But one of the ISG's recommendations shows why this concept is too simplistic:

The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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.

The U.S. has tried for decades to resolve the Israeli-Arab problem, and the results have been either meager (peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan) or execrable (a terrorist regime in the Palestinian Authority). Why is it "realistic" to think that more of the same will magically transform the region now?

Self-evidently it is not. In truth, the so-called realists make two unrealistic assumptions. The first is unrealistic even by their own lights: that Arab nations, far from being concerned only with their own interests, have a sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause.

The second goes to a fundamental problem with realism: a failure to distinguish between nations and regimes. It's obvious that it would be in the interest of Arab nations--especially the currently nonexistent Palestinian one--to coexist peacefully with Israel. But the regimes that rule those nations are concerned above all with self-preservation. Stirring up hatred against an external enemy--the Jews--serves the purpose of diverting popular attention from the regimes' depredations.

This is why democracy matters. Democratic regimes are far from perfect, but by providing for popular accountability, they align the interests of the regime with the interests of the nation better than any other system that has been devised. In a world of democracies, realism would be a lot more realistic.

The NR editors on engagement with Iran and Syria:

Just talking will not paper over these big differences unless we are willing to give the Iranians and Syrians serious incentives. Accession to the World Trade Organization, one of the ideas floated by the report, is just not going to cut it. Nor will it be possible, as recommended by the ISG, to broker an Israeli-Arab peace deal that will make Iraq’s neighbors behave. Realistically, Syria would want immunity from the consequences of its assassination campaign in Lebanon, and perhaps renewed suzerainty over that country. Iran would want a tacit acceptance of its nuclear program. If the ISG thinks Iranian and Syrian cooperation in Iraq is worth this price, it should say so. But it doesn’t, making its diplomatic recommendations utterly unserious.

Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic:

The report may be less remembered for its details than for its double-edged political effect. On the one hand, it has been a catalyst to force the Bush Administration to initiate its own policy reviews, and step up its own diplomatic initiatives. That is an unmitigated good. On the other hand, by essentially making an end run around the Administration, the group risks seriously undermining it. But that is something the Administration can fix by emerging from all of these reviews with a decisive policy direction; professionally executed. Despite the election results, the Administration’s fate may still be in its own hands.

George Will at RCP.

Posted by dan at December 6, 2006 11:20 PM