The war is too small for the stink of confusion and defeat to percolate out very far from Washington. Elsewhere, the prevailing mood seems to be disgust and disappointment.
The closest to what is happening now might have been when the British burned Washington while James Madison, a President whose bad judgment rivals George Bush’s, dithered in impotence. You could compare today with the turmoil of the Vietnam War years, when the will of the American ruling class began to crumble and the rich and powerful commenced arguing with each other about what to do and how to do it.
The big difference between then and now is that the Vietnam argument was a straightforward debate between stay and go; no in-between position was ever seriously considered. Not so with the Iraq war. Our ruling circles simply cannot bring themselves to pack up and leave. They think the consequences would be too horrible.
The war hawks of the Vietnam era argued the same kind of thing. It was said then that an American pullout would lead to the communization of much of Southeast Asia, but it didn’t happen. Could the predictions of what might happen in the Middle East come true after an American pullout? Yes, they could. Will they? Who knows?
In the Middle East, there is oil and Israel and there is America, caught in a war of its own making, unable to prevail and unwilling to leave. At this juncture, it’s important to emphasize that, even though the ruling circles have pretty much turned away from George Bush, they agree that the U.S. cannot pack up and clear out.
Usually, the prevailing opinion of the ruling classes must be doped out inferentially, but on this occasion we have a document that clearly shows what they think—even if they do not think very clearly. That document is the report of the Baker-Hamilton commission.
While recommending some sort of pullback of American forces, the Baker-Hamilton crew strikes a political missionary position that, in its high-minded obtuseness, is comparable to some of George Bush’s stances. They know how to lay down the law to the Iraqis as well as the President does:
“RECOMMENDATION 32: Minorities. The rights of women and the rights of all minority communities in Iraq, including Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis, Sabeans, and Armenians, must be protected.”
It is one thing to write the Iraqi Bill of Rights when you can back it up with an army, but to do so when, instead, you are half-backing out of the country is moral blockheadism. It is exactly the kind of thing that George Bush has been doing the last four years.
One can only read recommendations 50 and 51, dealing with the Iraqi National Police and the country’s border police, with astonishment. Writing from a position of weakness and, one suspects, vast ignorance, Baker-Hamilton indulge in telling the Iraqis how to rearrange their bureaucracy.
With all the Baker-Hamilton talk about it’s time for the Iraqis to step up and take charge of themselves, it’s obvious this gang of Americans still wants to run somebody else’s country. Whether or not these recommendations are good ideas—and who of us non-Iraqis can even form a sensible opinion about that?—you shouldn’t put such stuff out in a public document unless you intend for the Iraqis and Arabs in general to know that we think they are inept children without the capacity to conduct their own affairs. The all-knowing attitude such pronouncements convey!
If there were any doubt about the attitude, this recommendation takes care of it: “RECOMMENDATION 67: The President should create a Senior Advisor for Economic Reconstruction in Iraq.” Yes, the little people will need one of them.
Given the worldwide suspicion concerning our motives for being in Iraq, one can only wonder at what may have been going through the Baker-Hamilton noodle when it penned these sentences: “The United States should encourage investment in Iraq’s oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies …. The United States should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise, in order to enhance efficiency, transparency, and accountability.”
It is possible that reorganizing the Iraqi oil industry might be a good thing, but in this document? How could the people who signed it have decided this was the moment to privatize Iraqi oil and invite in Western corporate interests unless their purpose was to ensure the opposition of Hugo Chávez and every other left-leaning person on the face of the globe? One can only chalk it up to a kind of cuckoo naïveté.
If the oil paragraphs were not enough, Baker-Hamilton had to stick in a sentence guaranteed to raise up every pro-Israeli group in the United States against the document. It read: “The only basis on which peace can be achieved is that set forth in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and in the principle of ‘land for peace.’” Resolutions 242 and 338 call for the Israelis to give back to the Palestinians the territory stolen from them decades ago. Baker-Hamilton cannot have written the sentence oblivious of the rule which holds that while Arab states are bound to obey U.N. resolutions, Israel is not. But this was hardly the moment to stir up that controversy, even though everybody knows there will be no peace for Israel or the U.S. until they disgorge their ill-gotten gains and make nicey-nicey with their neighbors. If we are going to wait upon the Israelis making peace before we depart Iraq, a lot more of our soldiers are going to die.
Apparently, Baker-Hamilton looks upon our continuing to lose people as an inevitable cost. Certainly many of them will die if Baker-Hamilton is acted on. The document calls for scattering 20,000 of our people in Iraqi military units to teach them how to run armies and police forces à la Americain. At the same time, Baker-Hamilton observes: “All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency. In a conflict that demands effective and efficient communication with Iraqis, we are often at a disadvantage.”
Again, what were they thinking to suggest leaving thousands of our people in small numbers in detached semi-isolation, unable to communicate with the people around them except through the dubious offices of possibly treacherous translators? It probably will not happen anyway. Since our armed forces do not have 20,000 teachers to dispatch to Iraq, it will take years to train them up and act on the proposal. It is the Baker-Hamilton fuzzy thinking that is so alarming, because these people are our big shots. They come from the groups whose opinions are decisive.
Who can argue with Senator John McCain when he called Baker-Hamilton “a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq”? The question is, if not that recipe, then whose recipe? Mr. McCain believes we can still win—whatever that word means—by sending in more troops that most others say we do not have to send. Of course we could raise them, which ought to take a couple of years, while the ones we have in Iraq now hold on by their fingernails.
Another nation in our situation might save itself by picking out the commander of one of the warring militias and backing him until he subdued the country and assumed power as a dictator. That would bring us full circle, but it’s not our style. It is no more our style than subduing Iraq as Belgium’s King Leopold subdued the Congo by cutting the hands off males of military age.
Baker-Hamilton could not look defeat in the face. The document is a fudge, a way of putting off conceding that we have lost. That last statement will enrage many a patriotic supporter of our armed forces, who will say that we haven’t lost a single engagement. They will be correct, though it means nothing. Military historians tell us that in a guerrilla conflict, the occupying power wins every battle and still loses the war. That is what happened in Vietnam. We never lost a battle, not one.
And if we do pull out? Will there be worse chaos, a full-scale civil war, a failed state that Al Qaeda can use as a base, more horrors for the Iraqi people, a battle pitting the Sunni powers against the Shia and Iran? Maybe and maybe not. At this juncture, there is nothing else for us to do but pull out, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.