One of Aesop’s fables recounts how once upon a time Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus, experienced a huge earthquake. “The earth commenced to tremble and shake-and huge boulders flew off the mountain top into the sky,” the fable goes. “It seemed as if the mountain was about to give birth.” Then the sky blackened and the thunderous sound became even worse. Finally, “an earthquake more violent than any ever before it set everything in motion-and in one terrifying moment, the mountain’s peak split wide open!” Some people got on their knees and began to pray. Others couldn’t take their eyes off the mountain, wondering how it would end.
Suddenly the roaring, the shaking, and the shocks simply stopped. The whole region went silent. And then, slowly, “and with hardly a whisper of sound . out of the huge cleft in the mountain peak there slowly emerged . a tiny little mouse.”
I was reminded of Aesop’s fable about the mountain that birthed a mouse as I finished reading the long-awaited-what an understatement-report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by those two Washington fixtures, ex-Secretary of State and chief and Bush family consigliere James Baker and former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, who also co-chaired the 9/11 Commission. Working together with eight other “formers,” “exes,” and “has beens” (the kind of distinguished elderly gentlemen and one lady who under the British system would have probably been taking naps in the House of Lords), Baker and Hamilton were supposed to lead the ISG in producing what one might have expected, based on the suspense built up by the members of the chattering class, was a report akin to a cure for cancer, or the discovery of life on Mars, or the vanishing of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Looking anew at Iraq with their “fresh eyes,” as one pundit described the perspective that panel members were reputed to bring to the issue, they were supposed to devise a plan to extricate the U.S. troops from Iraq, fix the mess in Mesopotamia, secure Iraq’s stability, and maintain U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. A tall order if ever there was one. Baker and Hamilton tried to lower public expectations by insisting that they weren’t going to offer a “magic bullet.” But the hope was that their bullet would hit close to the target.
And apropos of Mount Ida, Zeus, and ancient Greek civilization, a favorite theatrical device of many ancient Greek tragedians was the machine, “mechane,” which served to hoist a god or goddess on stage when they were supposed to arrive flying. This device gave origin to the phrase deus ex machina (god from a machine), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of a tragic event. In the sad and depressing story we refer to as the Iraq War, the ISG was expected to play the role of the god from the machine, providing the opportunity to change the tragic ending unfolding before us.
U.S. officials, lawmakers, journalists, and citizens have discovered that they are acting in a tragic farce, as highlighted by the foundering nature of the war, the continued violence in Iraq, and the poor Republican showing in the November 7 midterm elections. And they are hoping that someone could show up with the ability to write a new denouement. But unfortunately, when it comes to real world tragedies, there are no stage props to save the story.
Nevertheless, there was an element of historical drama in what took place in Washington in the first week of December 2006. When the grand narrative of the American Empire is written decades from now, it will describe the preparation and the issuance of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, together with the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as elements in a powerful political coup staged by the members of the old American foreign policy establishment against the neoconservative ideologues who had taken control of the Bush administration’s national security apparatus and much of official Washington after 9/11.
Indeed, Baker, Hamilton, and other ex-officials and lawmakers who were associated with the more Realpolitik-oriented administrations of George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton published on December 6 what Glenn Kessler and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post described as “the Realist Manifesto.” The ISG authored a scolding repudiation of the diplomacy and national security policies that were drawn up by neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and their allies in the administration, Congress, and the media, and advanced by President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Rumsfeld. If Baker were a university professor and the current White House occupant his student, Bush’s term paper, “What I’ve Done in Iraq in the Last Three Years,” would have been graded with a big red “F.” And in an attached note, Professor Baker would have added: “Avoid collaborating with your neocon pals. Next time, consult your dad.” While Bush Senior is not quoted in the reports, there is little doubt he would have approved of most of the ISG’s assessments of Junior’s performance, along with the group’s 79 recommendations to Junior.
The situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating,” the ISG’s report concludes, and “the ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing,” it warns, basically accusing those responsible for the policies in Iraq of incompetence, disorientation, and even deceit. The report criticizes U.S. officials for underreporting the number of attacks by Iraqi insurgents-now about 180 each day-by failing to count individual Iraqi slayings and attacks on U.S. troops that do not result in serious injuries. It notes that on one July day the military counted 93 acts of violence; the ISG’s reexamination of the data found 1,100. “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals,” the report states, underscoring one of its major points: “Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people.”
In terms of recommendations, the ISG’s report addresses diplomatic and military solutions in Iraq, and it calls on the new Iraqi government headed by Nouri al-Maliki, whom Bush described as the “right guy” for Iraq, to shoulder more of the load of ending the violence and restoring order. And by setting milestones that measure improvements in Iraqi security, governance, and reconciliations, the ISG suggests that Washington make it clear that its support will be reduced if the milestones are not met. The recommendations also call for revamping the number of U.S. troops providing training to the Iraqi military in the short term from about 4,000 to as many as 20,000, with the goal of withdrawing most of the U.S. combat troops by early 2008.
Though it intended to offer a rescue plan for the failing U.S. military mission in Iraq, the ISG delivered a broader rebuke of the Bush administration’s policies there and throughout the Middle East, including the goal of spreading democracy. More specifically, the ISG suggests that the time has come to set realistic goals for U.S. Mideast strategy and to launch a new “diplomatic offensive.” Notably, the study group’s chief recommendation is that Bush pursue a diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran, countries that border Iraq and have been criticized by the administration for aiding violence there. “The United States should embark on a robust diplomatic effort to establish an international support structure intended to stabilize Iraq and ease tensions in other countries in the region,” the report states. “This support struc
ture should include every country that has an interest in averting a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors-Iran and Syria among them.”
In addition to calling for a dialogue with Tehran and Damascus, including inviting them to take part in an “Iraq International Support Group,” the ISG urges the Bush administration to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and negotiations between Israel and Syria that would lead to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Damascus. “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,” the report notes.
These and other elements in the Realist Manifesto make a lot of geostrategic sense. They might have worked if implemented in the immediate aftermath of the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. At the time, Iran expressed a willingness to cooperate with the United States in stabilizing Iraq (in the same way it helped the Americans in Afghanistan following the ouster of the Taliban regime). Syria was signaling its desire to join the pro-American camp in the Middle East, and the Palestinian Authority was still under the control of the moderate Fatah group. Since then, the political and strategic conditions in the Middle East have changed dramatically, as the U.S. policies in Iraq and the Middle East helped to strengthen the power of Iran and its Shiites allies in Iraq and Lebanon and to cement its ties to Syria, while the radical Islamist Hamas came to power in Palestine. Hence, it is doubtful that a more assertive Iran has any incentive to make a deal with a weakened United States that seems to be losing its credibility in Iraq (especially among the Shiite parties), in Lebanon (where Hezbollah seems to be gaining power), as well as in Israel/Palestine. And there is certainly no indication that Bush is even willing to adopt the notion of a “diplomatic offensive.” Nor is there any sign that either the administration or Congress would be willing to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel two years before critical U.S. presidential and congressional elections. In short, the Realist Manifesto is based on some unrealistic assumptions.
Moreover, most military analysts seem to agree that the U.S. military will not be able to train the Iraqi military and security forces in two years, as the ISG proposes, and many experts on Iraq are doubtful that the Iraqi government will succeed in embracing the set of improvements in security, governance, and reconciliation by 2008, as the report suggests. Cynics might argue that Baker, Hamilton, and colleagues are creating the political conditions under which Iraq can be blamed for the mess and for the inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In the best-case scenario, the ISG report would provide the Bush administration and Congress with the outlines for a strategy of gradual military disengagement from Iraq that will permit Washington to cut its losses while consolidating its influence in the Middle East through alliances with the moderate Arab states (perhaps including Syria), Turkey, and Israel-and not to mention containing Iran. Such a scenario would fit very much with the “Empire Lite” approach favored by the U.S. foreign policy establishment that wants Washington to maintain its Mideast hegemony through indirect military influence (via military bases in the Persian Gulf) and more direct diplomatic engagement. But a realist would point out that it’s not clear whether Washington has the power or the will to advance even a low-cost strategy like the one proposed by the ISG. The Realist Insurgency may have come too late.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.