Wednesday, December 06, 2006

No There, There

I empathize with Kevin Drum when he says this about the just released report from the Baker-Hamilton led Iraq Study Group:

I can't very well say nothing about the Baker-Hamilton report, can I? On the other hand, I'm sort of shaking my head trying to figure out anything I ought to say about it.
I feel the same way - and this is no surprise. The Baker-Hamilton report had all the hallmarks of a grand anti-climax: The anticipation was pitched. The media, and punditocracy, kept our attention rapt (aided by the intervening factor of an election that only served to add to the speculation about the "secret plan-iness" locked away in the eventual report).

Yet, despite the baited breath: The roster of participants failed to include any real anti-war voices. President Bush has been warning for weeks that there would be entire categories of recommendations that he would not even consider adopting - chief among them any real suggestion of timeline-based withdrawal. And, perhaps most importantly, the structural problems in Iraq are so complex and deeply-rooted, that no well-intentioned, blue ribbon panel could likely produce anything resembling a pony anyway. Even if it did, Bush would likely ignore those parts - as promised.

The report has not failed to disappoint. The short version of my reading of the recommendations: there's just no there, there.

If you want something more substantial than this, Matt Yglesias gives a nice run down (see, also, Kevin as cited above). Matt offers a pessimistic take that is probably more accurate than I would prefer:
As the report outlines, the fundamental problem in Iraq is the absence of broad-based national reconciliation. Absent such reconciliation, it's impossible for the US military to provide security to the country, impossible to create effective Iraqi institutions, and impossible to isolate hard-core extremists on either side of the sectarian divide.

As the report also recognizes, the main obstacle to broad-based reconciliation is that none of the relevant parties seem to want it... [...]

I don't blame the ISG for not having any smarter ideas about this; I don't have any smarter ideas either. But the whole plan founders on this point. Nothing is worth doing absent national reconciliation and nobody knows how to create it.
On the other hand, this Michael Gordon piece quoting Anthony Zinni is chilling - not the least because Zinni has been such a level-headed and prescient observer of the relevant areas for the past six-plus years (via Greg Djerejian) . Some excerpts:

No military expert was more forthright in opposing the war in Iraq than Anthony Zinni.

The retired U.S. Marine general who once served as the United States's top military officer in the Middle East argued that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq was vastly overstated and that invading the country would be a burdensome distraction from the struggle against Al Qaeda.

These days Zinni is delivering another provocative message: Leaving Iraq quickly would strengthen Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, create a sanctuary for terrorist groups, encourage even more sectarian strife in Iraq and risk turmoil in an oil-rich region.

"This is not Vietnam or Somalia," said Zinni, who served in both places. "It is not one of those places we can walk away from. If we just pull out we will find ourselves back in in short order."
Zinni, it appears, has produced his own report:

As President George W. Bush and the Iraq Study Group have reviewed Iraq strategy, Zinni has developed his own plan. His program, which was outlined in a paper released Monday by the World Security Institute, calls for a new steering group to ensure that America's policies toward Iraq are carried out efficiently, including job creation programs, integrating Iraq's militias into government supervised national guard units and encouraging the Iraqi Army to develop a civil affairs capability.

The proposal also opens the door for a temporary increase in American troops to improve security and build a sense of political momentum, something advocated by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican.
I'll have to look into Zinni's proposals in greater depth, but I remain resigned to the fact that despite Zinni's considerable abilities, there are no ponies to be found by anyone. The best one can hope for is that Zinni's - or some other author's - plan puts forth a plausible set of policies capable of achieving some level of damage control, and that our increasingly petulant President can bring himself to accept such counsel. One more bit from the Gordon piece:

There is also a consistent logic to Zinni's position. He forcefully opposed the invasion of Iraq in part because he thought it would undermine stability in the Middle East and because he thought holding a post-Saddam Iraq together would be a monumental, troop intensive enterprise.

But now that the United States is in Iraq he opposes a quick withdrawal for the same reason.

"If we pull out it will ignite all these problems in the region," he said. "The U.S. will have been damaged so badly our ability to stay in the region in any capacity and to have any influence will be tremendously diminished."
Every danger that Zinni warns about is real. The sheer size of what is at stake should at the least give us pause - even those that believe that withdrawing all of our troops now is the proper course of action. It is the enormity of the potential catastrophe that has caused me to hesitate on the brink of advocating withdrawal. The question should not be how to salvage "victory" in Iraq as that term was defined by the Bush administration pre-invasion. As Matt, and others, have pointed out, that goal is not attainable.

However, I'm still not convinced that some level of damage control short of "victory" is not possible - or at least worth pursuing - considering the alternatives. The Baker report, and Zinni's own paper, might be instructive in connection with these narrow, limited objectives. In other words, I'll make an effor to find a there, there.

Despite this, the tragedy is that our ability to affect the outcome one way or the other, or even control the damage, has eroded on Bush's watch to the point of near-futility. So Zinni's admonition about what would happen should we adopt the "wrong" set of policies going forward may end up being better described as a prediction of the eventual outcome regardless of how we conduct ourselves at this time.

It's that bad.

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