News & Politics

Baker-Hamilton Won't Solve Iraq, Just DC's Iraq Hangover

For the Iraq disaster to end, someone in DC is actually going to have to make a difficult decision -- admit defeat, invite a bloody civil war, lose face before a pair of rogue terror-supporting states -- and it's obvious that no one's ever going to do that, not until there's absolutely no choice.
In private, some members of the Iraq Study Group have expressed concern that they could find themselves in not-quite-open confrontation with Mr. Bush. "He's a true believer," one participant in the group's debates said. "Finessing the differences is not going to be easy." -- David Sanger, New York Times, "Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade," Dec. 1.
What a fiasco this whole Baker-Hamilton episode is, with all its attendant leaks and media manipulations -- a veritable symphony of Typical Washington Bullshit. It has all the hallmarks of the pusillanimous, cover-your-ass mentality that rules our nation's capital, where all problems are political problems and actual real emergencies never make it to the desk of anyone who matters.

The Baker-Hamilton commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group, is due to release its long-awaited recommendations this Wednesday, but the overall gist of the panel's labors was obvious way back in March, when President Bush first appointed the panel. Baker-Hamilton from the very start was a classic bullshit cloud in the proud tradition of those damnable congressional "studies" we hear about from time to time, in which "bipartisan panels" are convened to much fanfare and packed off to the wilds of suburban Virginia for years of intellectually masturbatory activity -- the usual solution, whenever House or Senate leaders are faced with a genuinely thorny political issue that offers no easy or obvious solutions, i.e. a problem that can't be simply blamed on one or the other political party, but which needs actual fixing.

Whenever one of those issues pops up, Washington politicians generally find themselves at a loss. They don't know what to do. For the vast majority of these buffoons, their expertise lies elsewhere. These guys know how to spread their legs for campaign contributors, raid the budget for redundant public works projects, and worm their way onto the six o'clock news wearing a hardhat or a Cubs cap -- but the average elected official knows very little about actually solving real political problems, because in most cases that's not what got him elected.

The successful politician today is the one who can best convert the agendas of his campaign contributors into politically saleable policies. That's the business of government today; both the legislative and the executive branch are mainly engaged in searching out and finding the acceptable mean between voter sentiment and financial interest. It's sort of an ongoing math problem -- figuring out how many voters you can afford to fuck every four years, or how much money you should be extracting, and from which sponsors, for each rape of your constituents.

That kind of negotiation, Washingtonians are great at. But there's no upside to taking on difficult problems for most politicians, who a) usually don't give a shit anyway, since there are few problems outside of anthrax-infected envelopes that actually affect a Washington politician's life, and b) have few institutional remedies for effectively addressing problems even if they were so inclined, since so many backs need to be scratched en route to taking action.

And so, when faced with an unsolvable or seemingly unsolvable political conundrum, most politicians feel there's only one thing to do. You appear onstage with your rival party's leader, embrace him, announce that you're going to find a "bipartisan" solution together, and then nominate a panel of rotting political corpses who will spend 18 months, a few dozen million dollars, many thousands of taxpayer-funded air miles, and about 130,000 pages of impossibly verbose text finding a way for both parties to successfully take the fork in the road and blow off the entire issue, whatever it was.

It's important, when you nominate your panel, to dig up the oldest, saggiest, rubberiest, most used-up political whores on the Eastern seaboard to take up your cause. That way, you can be sure that the panel will know its place and not address any extraneous issues in its inquiry -- like, for instance, whose fault a certain war is, or whether the whole idea of a "War on Terrorism" needs to be rethought, or whether the idea of preemptive defense as a general strategy is viable at all, or whether previously unthinkable solutions may now have to be countenanced, or whether there is anyone currently in a position of responsibility who perhaps should immediately be removed from office and hung by his balls. Your panel should contain people who are not experts or interested parties in the relevant field (since experts or interested parties might be tempted to come up with real, i.e. politically dangerous solutions), but it should contain people who are recognizable political celebrities whose names will lend weight to your whole enterprise, although not for any logical reason.

Baker-Hamilton was a classic whore-panel in every sense. None were Middle East experts. None had logged serious time in Iraq, before or after the invasion. All of them had influential friends on both sides of the aisle all over Washington, parties in the future they wanted to keep getting invites to, ambitions yet to be realized. You could assign Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, Sandra Day O'Connor and Vernon Jordan to take on virtually any problem and feel very confident that between the four of them, they would find a way to avoid the ugly heart of any serious political dilemma. If the missiles were on the way, and nuclear Armageddon was just seconds off, those four fossils would find a way to issue a recommendation whose headline talking points would be something like "heightened caution," dialogue with Sweden, and a 14% increase in future funding for the Air Force.

Hence the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton report were predetermined virtually from the start. We could all have expected that the group's only unequivocal conclusions would restate the obvious -- that we need an eventual withdrawal of troops, that there needs to be more "robust regional diplomacy," that Iraqi forces need to assume more of the security burden, and that there will be no hope of a political solution without some cooperation from Syria and Iran. Duh! Because the really thorny questions are the specifics: when do we leave, and, more importantly, what do we offer Iran and Syria in return for their cooperation, what horrifying inevitable humiliation will we be prepared to suffer at their hands, and what form will talks with those gloating countries take?

Baker-Hamilton blew off those questions, and it's no wonder, because no one in Washington wants to deal with them. The Republicans don't want to agree to a withdrawal timetable because it's an admission of defeat and policy failure, while the Democrats don't want to be the first to call for a withdrawal because they're afraid of being pilloried in the next election season for a lack of toughness. Both sides are afraid of being responsible for a civil war bloodbath if the U.S. troops pull out, and neither side wants to be the first to suggest taking the humiliating step of inviting Syria or Iran to the negotiating table with anything like equal status.

Baker-Hamilton takes all of this into account, offering no concrete or controversial suggestions that would bind either party to unpopular action in the near future. In essence, all Baker-Hamilton accomplished was a very vague admission that Bush's Iraq adventure is somehow irrevocably fucked and that we have to get our troops out of that country as soon as possible, a conclusion that was obvious to the entire world two long years ago. But even this pathetically timid intellectual assertion was deemed too controversial to risk unveiling before the 2006 midterm elections, and it's obvious now that both parties have decided to wait until 2008 to deal with the more important questions of "when" and "how."

In the midst of all of the recent fanfare about Baker-Hamilton, some of the actual actors in the Iraq disaster have been using the media to similarly absolve themselves of any responsibility to act. We started to see this happening on November 15, when Michael Gordon of the New York Times (who seems to be spending a lot of time fellating intelligence officials lately) ran a ponderous "news analysis" suggesting that a rapid withdrawal might not be the best idea ("Get Out Now? Not So Fast, Some Experts Say"). In this piece, a host of military and intelligence officials argued vociferously that America's problems in Iraq stemmed from not having enough troops, and that an early withdrawal would accelerate the country's decline into civil war. Among the voices quoted in Gordon's piece is former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who as Jeff Cohen noted was one of the chief pom-pom wavers for the war before the invasion and one of the many experts who insisted that Iraq possessed WMDs. Gordon conveniently left Pollack's record on that score out of the article.

Pollack and other officials like former Central Command head Anthony Zinni furthermore argue in the Gordon piece that what is needed now is an increase in troops in the next six months to "regain momentum" as part of a broader effort to stabilize Iraq.

A few weeks later, Gordon ran another piece ("Bush Adviser's Memo Cites Doubts About Iraqi Leader," Nov. 29) which contained a leak of a memo by National Security Adviser Steven Hadley which basically expressed doubts that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is capable of doing much of anything to control sectarian violence in Iraq.

The gist of both of these Gordon pieces is obvious: the military wants it known that it isn't responsible for any of America's problems in Iraq, and that the real problem is that Bush failed to set up an effective political context for the military to work within.

With the military inundating the newspapers with leaks that basically pass the buck for the Iraq disaster to the diplomats and the politicians, the Bush administration still refusing to publicly face reality, and the politicians outside the administration hiding behind a Baker-Hamilton report that shelves any meaningful decisions until some undetermined date far into the future (while being careful to avoid "not-so-open" confrontations with the president), the Iraq catastrophe can now be safely perpetuated ad nauseum -- and the only people who will suffer for it will be people who don't matter in Washington, i.e. the soldiers and the Iraqi people.

We may soon have to face this fact: with the midterm elections over, and George Bush already a lame duck, the Iraq war is no longer an urgent problem to anyone on the Hill who matters. The Democrats are in no hurry to end things because it will benefit them if Iraq is still a mess in '08; just as they did this fall, they'll bitch about the war without explicitly promising to end it at any particular time. George Bush has already run his last campaign and he's not about to voluntarily fuck up his legacy with a premature surrender or a humiliating concession to Syria or Iran. At least publicly, John McCain is going to head into '08 siding with those in the military who believe the problem is a lack of troops.

For the Iraq disaster to end, someone among these actors is going to have to make a difficult decision -- admit defeat, invite a bloody civil war, lose face before a pair of rogue terror-supporting states -- and it's obvious that none of them is ever going to do that, not until there's absolutely no choice. The Baker-Hamilton report is being praised for its cautious, sensible, bipartisan approach to the Iraq problem (Time magazine even called it "genius") but actually all it is is a tacit recognition of this pass-the-buck dynamic in Washington. Because there is currently no way to even think about ending the actual problem without someone in Washington having to eat a very big bucket of shit, both sides have agreed, in the spirit of so-called bipartisan cooperation, to avoid thinking about ending the problem in the immediate future. Instead, the official policy in the meantime, bet on it, will end up being some version of a three-pronged strategy that involves 1) staying the course or even increasing the amount of troops temporarily 2) seeing what happens in '08, and 3) revisiting the issue after we see who wins the White House two years from now.

Baker-Hamilton wasn't about finding solutions to the Iraq problem. It was about finding viable political solutions to the Iraq problem. Since there are none, it punted the problem to the next administration. Maybe the war will be real to those folks and they'll actually do something. Don't hold your breath.
Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.