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."
Hence, a fourth question: In a (perhaps intentionally) opaque statement on "The Charlie Rose Show" (Oct. 6), Baker said: "If we are able to promote representative -- representative government, not necessarily democracy, in a number of nations in the Middle East and bring more freedom to the people of that part of the world, (Iraq) will have been a success." Can President Bush's "freedom agenda," which Iraq has shredded, be recast by the Study Group showing that there is more than semantic sleight-of-hand in the distinction between democracy and representation?
Perhaps the Study Group will function as did the Tower Commission, which provided a pivot point for the last two years of a troubled presidency. Chaired by former Sen. John Tower, the Texas Republican, it analyzed the Reagan administration's failings that produced the Iran-contra fiasco. This story is told in the book "Saving the Reagan Presidency" by David Abshire, to whom Reagan gave extraordinary powers to examine his administration's dysfunctions and recommend remedial measures.
Abshire, a seasoned diplomat now advising the Study Group, told Reagan that his presidency could not be revived without the removal of Don Regan as White House chief of staff. Regan was removed. The Study Group almost certainly will, like the Tower Commission, refrain from making personnel recommendations. But is it plausible that the Bush presidency can pivot without changing senior Defense Department personnel?
In September 1942 the U.S. government purchased 58,575 acres of wilderness in eastern Tennessee. Soon there was a town, Oak Ridge, and amazing scientific facilities. Thirty-four months after the purchase, an atomic blast lit the New Mexico desert. After 43 months in Iraq, U.S. forces still struggle to cope with improvised explosive devices.
On Sept. 19, Hamilton said "the next three months are critical." On Oct. 5, Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that the next "two or three months" are critical. If only the worsening insurgency were, as the president suggested Wednesday, akin to North Vietnam's 1968 Tet Offensive. The insurgency is worse: Tet was a military defeat for North Vietnam. The president says the war in Iraq will be "just a comma" in history books, but by Nov. 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, with the Study Group's recommendations due, the comma will have lasted as long as U.S. involvement in World War II.