I don’t know how the poet Horace managed to get an advance copy of the report of the Iraq Study Group—everyone expects leaks, but 2,000 years ahead of time?—yet he seems to have managed it: “Mountains will be in labor, the birth will be a single laughable mouse.”
James Baker is an intelligent man, so it beggars belief that he favors every one of his simultaneously obvious and unlikely recommendations. (Sample: “Syria should control its border with Iraq.” Yep, it should. And all the young men of Al Qaeda should abandon the profession of mass murder and get engineering degrees. But how should we make it happen?) So what does Mr. Baker really have in mind?
Like many elder statesman, Mr. Baker wants to do what he did before. In today’s Middle East, that means restoring the Sunni alliance against Iran. Fear of Iran, as a powerful, aggressive and radical Shia state, is already out there. Mr. Baker seems to believe it can be mobilized in three steps.
Step one is to woo Syria. Syria has made itself a partner of Iran, having alienated its other neighbors and patrons. Yet the alliance is essentially unnatural, since Syria is about three-quarters Sunni. The Assads, father and son, made a family business of selling themselves to the highest bidder. Hafez al-Assad joined the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Now Bashar al-Assad has sold himself to the Iranians, but it should be possible to buy him back.
The second step in Mr. Baker’s plan is, as he said in another context, to “fuck the Jews.” The self-esteem of Sunni governments requires professions of loyalty to the Palestinian cause. So Israel will be wanded at the security checkpoint, to determine how much it will throw to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Step three will involve showing that the Iranians are unreasonable. This must be the purpose of Mr. Baker’s insistence that we talk to Iran, since he surely knows that anyone, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who believes that he already talks to the 12th imam will not negotiate substantively even with James Baker. Once Iran stonewalls yet again, we can then turn to the Sunni world and say: We have brought your erring Syrian brother home; we have pressured your annoying Jewish neighbor; now let us link arms against the Shiite menace.
This was essentially the strategy of the United States after the Khomeini revolution, with a few blips, notably the Iran-contra back channel. What would be wrong with restoring such a plan now?
Its religious template is too sweeping. Although there is no love lost between the Shia and Sunnis, they are not monolithic masses. Instead of spending so much time on Syria, why not keep wooing Iraq’s Shiites? Most of them, far from being Iranian agents, have their own interpretation of their religion and their own ethnic identity (Arab, not Persian). Saudi Arabia’s richest oil regions are inhabited by that country’s despised Shiite minority; Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, has a Shiite majority; why follow a strategy that pre-emptively alienates them?
More important, why abandon the region to such identity-bloc calculations? It is wrong to say that the desire for liberty is universal—or, as President Bush put it in his second inaugural, that “the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul”—yet it is equally wrong to leave it out of account. Culture, religion and tribes are mighty things—and not just in the Middle East—but they are not the only things. Men will commit every sacrifice and atrocity to maintain their old ways, yet they also want to better themselves. The media and the Internet stimulate both desire and thought. Lebanon’s communities have been fighting each other for centuries, yet most of them came together in a national movement to throw off Syrian overlordship. Hezbollah, with its Syrian/Iranian bankroll, has rallied crowds just as large. No one said freedom is easy. James Baker wants to take freedom to the dumpster and move on.
If George W. Bush doesn’t want to adopt the Baker plan, he will have to come up with a better one of his own. If present trends continue, he too will go down in history as a laughable mouse. Pressing need (the prospect of W.M.D. in Saddam’s hands) and high goals (the call of freedom) will not redeem the bad execution of the Iraq War.
We have played the Iraq War various ways. Gen. Tommy Franks drove to Baghdad and resigned. Paul Bremer fired the Iraqi Army and called a constitutional convention. A constitution got written, and most Iraqis rallied to it, but the men of blood continued their work. Lately we have been appealing to Sunni tribal leaders—with some success, though not enough. By this ass-backward route, we have arrived at the place we were in Afghanistan on Halloween of 2001, three and a half weeks into Operation Enduring Freedom, with everyone in a tizzy and the late R.W. Apple savoring the “the ominous word ‘quagmire.’” The solution then was to stop worrying about the effects of our actions on the long-term fate of the country and to kill as many Taliban as possible. Which we did, and which led to victory. (Yes, the Taliban are still out there; no one said freedom is easy.) The solution now is to put 30,000 troops into Baghdad, without stripping Anbar, and kill the enemies of order. If the generals say they don’t need 30,000 more troops, find new generals.
Livy was another old writer—a historian, not a poet. He said that when the ancient Romans were digging the foundations of a Temple of Jupiter, they uncovered a bleeding head (commemorated in the word capitol, which comes from caput, the Latin for “head”). The state begins in violence. Free states give way to order and peace, but they too begin there.
This is not international social work, or finishing a job. Since the violent in Iraq include Al Qaeda, and terrorist wannabes, killing them is a twofer. Let the end begin.