Consensus on an Iraq plan
that works will come a lot harder
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
THAT OLD GUARD sure can get things done — so long as you don’t expect too much.
On the very day that the Iraq Study Group released its much-anticipated report, it produced results. Politicians from across the spectrum aligned themselves with a bipartisan unanimity that would do credit to the worthies on the study panel itself.
“I appreciate the hard work and thought that the distinguished members of the Iraq Study Group put into their final report,” said Sen. John McCain, Republican presidential hopeful.
“The Baker-Hamilton report is a first step toward a bipartisan way forward in Iraq,” wrote Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat who would also like to occupy the White House.
“I commend the Iraq Study Group for offering a serious contribution to the discussion of how we should move forward in Iraq,” concurred independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who used to want to be president.
The man who actually is the president couldn’t have agreed more. After noting that the report was “prepared by a distinguished panel of our fellow citizens,” George W. Bush promised it “will be taken very seriously by this administration.”
No one could deny that the panel was distinguished. And bipartisan. And serious.
But before we line up for the victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, note that few elected representatives were promising more with regard to the report than what Rep. Jim Clyburn promised: “We will use it for what it is intended to be — recommendations… .”
Many expected the group’s report would provide cover for both the president and the newly Democratic Congress to… well, to do something, and the most popular “something” was to get us the heck out of there.
But the release of the group’s report helped clarify again what we learned in the days after the election that many of our antsier citizens had hoped would settle this business: There is no way to conclude our involvement in Iraq that is both quick and satisfactory.
The 10 elders on that panel brought some sorely needed qualities to the debate — collegiality, maturity, pragmatism and a sincere desire for what is best for our country. The nation will be well-served if everyone involved adopts those same virtues as the debate continues.
And the job will be a lot tougher than the panel made it look. They labored in obscurity, left in relative peace for most of the panel’s existence — without the frantic, insistent pull of unavoidable constituent groups. Our elected officials won’t enjoy such luxury. But it is, after all, their job to do. It can’t be delegated.
And approaches that will work will be harder to agree upon than the ones the panel adopted.
Take the widely reported proposal to draw down U.S. combat troops by early 2008 to the point that none are left except those “embedded with Iraqi forces.”
According to The New York Times, the panel achieved the miracle of agreement on that point via a simple expedient: “The group’s final military recommendations were not discussed with the retired officers who serve on the group’s Military Senior Adviser Panel before publication, several of those officers said.”
Advisers that the Times spoke to said the prediction is not based in reality. One noted that the panel’s assumption says more about “the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq.”
Not that the panel didn’t leave wiggle-room. Few have noted that the 142-page report actually says that “all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq” by the stated deadline. That’s a loophole big enough to drive several divisions through, if you can find the divisions.
As for working with Iran and Syria, Sen. McCain exhibited his mastery of understatement when he said, “Our interests in Iraq diverge significantly from those of Damascus and Tehran.” Sen. Lieberman and others have rightly echoed that assessment.
The panel leaders’ defense of the idea has been lame. James Baker said if Iran is uncooperative, “we will hold them up to public scrutiny as (a) rejectionist state.” Ooh. I can just see the mullahs trembling over that one.
Lee Hamilton said, “We do not think it’s in the Iranian interest for the American policy to fail completely, and to lead to chaos in that country.” Really? It’s hard to imagine an outcome more likely to generate welcome opportunities for Tehran. A weakened, discredited United States and a power vacuum in the Shi’a-majority nation next door? They would see it as final proof that Allah is on their side.
The fundamental truths about our involvement in Iraq have not changed. The security situation has worsened greatly, and with it the political environment back in the United States — the “absence of political will” described above by retired Army Chief of Staff Jack Keane.
Well, we’re going to have to muster some to come up with something more realistic than the Baker-Hamilton approach, because here’s what hasn’t changed: As Sen. Lieberman put it, “There is no alternative to success in Iraq.” Sen. Graham said, “we have no alternative but to win.”
And how are we going to accomplish that? I’m inclined to think Sen. McCain has it right when he says we need a lot more troops over there. You say it’s impossible to make that happen with our current defeatist attitude? You may be right.
But note that on Wednesday, it was the conventional wisdom that the president and Congress had little choice but to embrace whatever the study group came up with. By Friday, many of its core proposals had been declared toast by the president, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and most of the folks quoted above.
As unlikely as it sometimes seems, attitudes change. In this case, they’re going to have to.