A realist with a wintry smile, James A. Baker III, who helped make George W. Bush's presidency possible, is seeking ways to salvage it. After the 2000 election, Baker orchestrated the Bush campaign's lawyering against the Gore campaign's lawyering that tried to overturn Bush's 537-vote Florida margin. Today Baker is co-chairman -- with former congressman Lee Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat -- of the Iraq Study Group, which will issue recommendations after Thanksgiving.
International crises rarely conform tidily to electoral cycles. Too bad. America's electoral cycles are constitutional facts: Every two years, elections take the nation's temperature; every four years, the nation selects the occupant of the office responsible for formulating foreign policy.
Today the policy of "staying the course" means Americans dying to prevent Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other. If in January 2009 more than 100,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, there might be 100 fewer Republicans in Congress. So "stay the course" is a policy stamped with an expiration date. Here, then, are four questions the Study Group might address:
What are 140,000 U.S. forces achieving in Iraq that could not be achieved by 40,000? If the answer is "creating Iraqi security forces," a second question is: Is there an Iraqi government? In "State of Denial," Bob Woodward quotes Colin Powell, after leaving the administration, telling the president that strengthening Iraq's military and police forces is crucial, but that "if you don't have a government that you can connect these forces to, then, Mr. President, you're not building up forces, you're building up militias." And making matters worse.
Third, what limits on U.S. aims are set by the character of the Iraqi people, as we now understand that? Bing West, a former Marine who frequently visits and writes about Iraq, wrote in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly about accompanying coalition forces that seized an oil pumping station near Basra in March 2003:
"The engineers were appalled to find open cesspools, rusted valves, sputtering turbines, and other vital equipment deteriorating into junk. Heaps of garbage lay outside the walls of nearby houses. Yet inside the courtyards, tiny patches of grass were as well tended as putting greens. That defined Iraq: a generation of tyrannical greed had taught Iraqis to look out for their own, to enrich their families, and to avoid any communal activity that attracted attention."