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Political Kabuki

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The Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group report has been out for a few days now and the dust is beginning to settle. Was it worth all the hoopla? That depends on your expectations. The ISG is the creation of the traditional foreign policy Establishment. The ISG report carries both its imprimatur and its limitations. Its description of the current situation in Iraq is scathing because it is reasonably honest. As a quasi official judgment of the policy elites on Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and the neocons, it is damning. As the roadmap we should be using to find our way out of Iraq, it is less than convincing.

The ISG report has its positives and these are:

1) It has produced an official statement that Iraq is unwinnable and that the situation there is grave and deteriorating. For most of us, this rates a Homer Simpson sized "Doh!" but in the kabuki world of Washington politics nothing that is said is said until it is said officially and according to the prescribed ritual. The ISG provides the appropriate ritual.

2) It demands a real course change, not an adaptation in tactics or language. Bush's stay the course or "I never said staying the course" staying the course policy is no longer operative.

3) It recommends talks with Syria and Iran and a return to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Talking should never be seen as a reward but a cost of doing business. It’s what grownups do and explains why Bush is so averse to it. As for the peace process, I hope for the best but I would note that James Baker was a major figure in the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush I Administrations and certainly had his chances then to push it if he had so wished. I would also note that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been promised before, not for its own sake but when a President wanted to leave a legacy, start a war, or get out of one.

4) It lays the groundwork and a timetable for our withdrawal independent of what the Iraqis may or may not do. 

RECOMMENDATION 21: If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government.

RECOMMENDATION 40: The United States should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq.

RECOMMENDATION 41: The United States must make it clear to the Iraqi government that the United States could carry out its plans, including planned redeployments, even if Iraq does not implement its planned changes. America's other security needs and the future of our military cannot be made hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government.

RECOMMENDATION 42: We should seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the first quarter of 2008, as stated by General George Casey on October 24, 2006.

The ISG view is that, to all intents and purposes, we should be out of Iraq by early 2008, and yes, I realize there are qualifications and caveats to this. Nevertheless, withdrawal is the key recommendation of the ISG report. Once the decision to withdraw has been made and the process begins, it becomes irrevocable and acquires a force and logic of its own. The question becomes not why should we be in Iraq but "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die there? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

The ISG report also has some impressive negatives. These are:

1) The failure to recognize that Iraq is in civil war,
2) That the government is inherently weak but dominated by one side in this conflict, the Shia,
3) And that the army and police are shells made up of Kurdish and Shia militias.

Having accurately described events in Iraq, the ISG has proceeded to completely misdiagnose them. The result is a list of recommendations that critics of all stripes will correctly point out has little connection to the situation on the ground in Iraq and even less chance of success. Of course, that really isn't the point. The practical effect will be de facto support of the majority Shia in their civil war with the Sunni. Even that isn't the point. Ultimately, the ISG is a mechanism for the legitimation of the principle of withdrawal. It would be nice if its recommendations made sense just as it would be nice if Bush's policies had made sense (and kept us from ever getting into Iraq) but we live in a world of political kabuki. The ISG is not important because of what it is or says but because it will hasten our departure from Iraq.

RECOMMENDATION 21:   If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government.

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Hugh

Hugh

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