Politics & Policy

It’s a War, Not a Buffet

All the backslapping over the Baker panel's report ignores the fact that the Iraq Study Group didn't say much.

In Washington, sometimes it’s preferable to be wrong in a group than to be right alone.

#ad#Nothing demonstrates the triumph of this truism better than the release Wednesday of the final Iraq Study Group report. The commission’s chairman, James A. Baker III, could not have been more obvious if he had used hand puppets to illustrate what he thought was most important about this supposedly momentous occasion: the fact that all the report’s authors actually agree with its contents.

Their product, Baker gushed, is “the only recommended approach that will enjoy, in our opinion, complete bipartisan support, at least from the 10 people that you see up here.” Whoop-de-do. No one in the media was sufficiently motivated to ask the emperors why they had no clothes on, or to raise the simple question, “Who cares?”

Instead, viewers at home (all three broadcast networks broke in to cover the “news” live) watched as one commission member after another grew misty-eyed over their own statesmanship. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta waxed lyrical about how this document represented “one last chance at unifying this country on this war.” Heads sagely nodded at the relentless self-adulation of commissioners who put their “partisan differences” behind them in the spirit of unanimity, unity, bipartisanship, comity, handholding and all around mutual respect and love.

(It’s no wonder one of their key recommendations is to form an international Iraq “support group.” Who can resist the image of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whining about how his father never loved him, only to be interrupted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia complaining that the Zionists ate all the good doughnuts?)

At the end of the day, the report reflects the man who put the deal together. Baker is a deal maker, a power broker, a difference splitter. And that’s the real spirit of the Baker-Hamilton commission.

Some people want more troops in Iraq, so it calls for some more troops at first — so as to better train the Iraqis. And then, because other people want far fewer troops, it calls for a timetable for far fewer troops by 2008. Because no foreign policy commission could ever be complete without blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for something, the group throws a bone to that crowd as well. And because Baker thinks everything is a negotiation, he sees nothing wrong with chatting up everyone — including terrorist militias and our enemies in Iran and Syria.

The commissioners are latter-day Laodiceans, whom the Book of Revelation describes as “neither cold nor hot … [but] lukewarm.” As a result, most of the report hits stratospheric heights of banality. For example, the commission put aside partisan differences to reach the startling conclusion that “Syria can establish hotlines to exchange information with the Iraqis.” If it requires consensus to deliver such Solomonic wisdom, then I say “feh” on consensus.

The group also recommends that “Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation.” Phew. Thank goodness Vernon Jordan signed on to that one. If only nine out of ten had agreed, some people might have concluded that maybe Iran shouldn’t do that stuff.

In short, Baker did not seek to find a solution for Iraq at all. His mission was to stuff a grab bag with enough mundane blather that nine graybeards plus Sandra Day O’Connor could assent without really risking anything. Indeed, former Justice O’Connor was a perfect choice given her preternatural gift for reaching decisions with no discernible principle to them other than the need to please everybody a little. Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That, it seems, was the commission’s approach.

According to the New York Times, the findings are “a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March.” And because “everyone felt good about where we ended up,” according to one member of the commission quoted in the Times, they must have gotten it right. Right?

Unfortunately, that’s not right. Nowhere does the commission ever seriously consider how to win the war in Iraq. Why? Because winning is no longer a possible consensus position. And pulling out isn’t a consensus position either. So rather than a real strategy about Iraq, we get Laodicean tripe about how the Iraq Study Group is our last best hope to unite Americans. I’m sorry, but that wasn’t its mandate.

Some have labeled the commission’s plan of handing off Iraq to the Iraqis a replay of Nixon’s Vietnamization. But the similarities go beyond that. In fact, the commission is making the same core mistake that was made in the Vietnam era: treating a war like a political problem to be haggled, spun and bartered. It may not seem like it because Baker & Co. claim so often to be transcending politics in the name of unity. But in fact, their political values trump everything, including the war.

(C) 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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