The forthcoming report by James Baker's Iraq Study Group has enjoyed the biggest public buildup since the Segway. And it is likely to be just as big of a bust.
Here's why the Baker-Hamilton report is destined to land with a thud, after weeks of messianic hype. According to sources who have seen the draft report introduced this week, the group will recommend deeper engagement with Iran and Syria in hopes these countries can help us quell the violence in Iraq. But George W. Bush, who remains a true neocon believer—"It's the regime, stupid"—is very unlikely to cut deals with such evil states, except in the most foot-dragging way. In any case, with each passing week Iraq's sectarian fratricide makes these neighboring countries less and less relevant. One doesn't have to be trained by Hizbullah or the Iranian secret service to grab a few Sunnis off the street every night and shoot them in the head. But until those killings stop, the yes-it-is-a-civil war-no-it's-not-a-civil-war in Iraq will continue to rage out of control.
The James Baker-Lee Hamilton group will also recommend tackling the problem of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But this central issue of Islamist discontent no longer has much to do with the violence in Iraq, just as the violence has less and less to do with Al Qaeda. The neocon fantasists, in their headiest days, used to say that "the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad." This meant that somehow, in ways they could never spell out, the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be resolved after democracy was achieved in Iraq. Now Baker's thought seems to be that the road to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem. This is just as silly as the earlier idea. Take this down: the road to Baghdad goes through Iraq.
Above all, sources indicate the Baker-Hamilton group will fudge the issue of what the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq should be, and what a specific timetable for withdrawal should look like. This means that, almost as soon as the report comes out in early December, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be able to ignore it, and he likely will. Prominent Democrats like Sens. Carl Levin, Jack Reed and Joseph Biden will begin to dismiss it and reintroduce their own plans. Biden, for example, plans to hold six weeks of hearings in January, after he takes over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that will quickly turn Baker-Hamilton into a relic of that long-ago autumn of 2006.
What's happening in Washington right now is the worst sort of cover-your-backside politics. The nation's officialdom, Republicans and Democrats both, continue to indulge in the outer-galactic notion that Iraq is "winnable" or "losable." President Bush still seems to be deluding himself that "Al Qaeda" is behind the violence in Iraq, as he said in Latvia yesterday, and this week he's supposed to meet with Maliki in Jordan in hopes he can get the Iraqi leader to crack down on the violence. This requires the pretense the Maliki doesn't owe his political life to one of the chief authors of the violence, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr . Assuming the Bush trip was well-thought-out strategy and not merely a political ploy—not a safe assumption—the only possible explanation for it is that the president wants to split Maliki off from Sadr, forcing him to reform his government. But that is playing with dynamite in the middle of a conflagration. And Sadr, in any case, is probably too smart to give up his political hold on Maliki: his loyalists in Parliament announced today that they would merely suspend their participation in the government.
The biggest reason why Baker-Hamilton will bust big time, however, is that while the diplomatic Baker cautiously forges consensus, the fast-moving events in Iraq are making him look as if he's standing still. Consider: out at Ft. Riley in Kansas, the U.S. Army is engaged in its biggest training of "transition teams"—advisers to be embedded in the Iraqi military—since the Vietnam war. The 11-man transition teams amount to only about 5,000 advisers so far, and some 15,000 are needed to truly professionalize the Iraqi Army, says Lt. Col. John Nagl, commander of the 1-34 Armor. In order to train up those additional U.S. advisers, President Bush must decide to stand down U.S. forces in Iraq and give the Iraqi Army the lead. That would allow regular U.S. Army battalions to park their tanks and artillery pieces, so that U.S. officers and noncoms could become advisers.
This major shift is going to occur no matter what Baker-Hamilton says. The future course of U.S. involvement is set for a long time to come: as the Iraqi Army matures beyond the five or so divisions that are now functioning, very brave American officers will join them, guiding their movements with the latest technology that effectively will give them a proxy air force. This will be a slow, painstaking process, neither cut and run nor stay the course. Just find a medium-term way to extricate yourself with your scalp intact.
Iraq is not winnable or losable. All it is, in the best case, is manageable. What's needed instead of careful consensus building in Washington is a Richard Holbrooke or a Henry Kissinger out in the field, a tough, no-nonsense negotiator who can grapple with the reality of the American failure in the region and simply seek the most honorable way out. Perhaps the best hope for this kind of adult solution now lies with Robert Gates, who served on the Baker-Hamilton group until he was named to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense. Gates, a longtime CIA analyst, is a true big-tent guy who has made a career out of sifting out nonsense. In his 1996 memoir, "From the Shadows: the Ultimate Insider's story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War," Gates took a nonideologue's view, identifying useful elements of foreign policy from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Both hawks and doves, he says, had part of the cold war equation right. "If presidents had listened only to the hawks, U.S. belligerence and aggressiveness would have been so overwhelming that the Soviets would have been afraid to undertake changes in their system, to have let down their guard at all," he wrote. "If presidents had listened only to the doves, not only would the Soviets have seen many opportunities to gain strategic military advantage and new influence in the Third World; there would have been significantly less pressure on them to change." His interpretation of the victory over the Soviet Union is that it was won through "both confrontation and conciliation, conflict and dialogue."
In the end, the most enduring legacy of the Baker-Hamilton report may be Gates himself, a philosophy of management over vision. At least that's better than what we have now.