As a result of the Iraq Study Group, President Bush has been given one last chance to alter course on Iraq. This did not, however, come about the way James Baker intended. It came about because the long-anticipated report turned out to be such a widely agreed-upon farce. From its wildly hyped, multiple magazine-cover rollout (Annie Leibovitz in Men's Vogue, no less) to its mishmash of 79 (no less) recommendations, the report has fallen so flat that the field is now clear for the president to recommend to a war-weary country something new and bold.
The ISG has not just been attacked by left and right, Democrat and Republican. It has invited ridicule. Seventy-nine recommendations. Interdependent, insists Baker. They should be taken as a whole. "I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad and say, 'I like this but I don't like that.'" On the basis of what grand unifying vision? On the authority of what superior wisdom? A 10-person commission including such Middle East experts as Sandra Day O'Connor, Alan Simpson and Vernon Jordan?
This kind of bipartisan elder-statesmen commission is perfectly appropriate as a consensus-building exercise for, say, a long-range problem such as Social Security. It is a ludicrous mechanism for devising strategic changes in the middle of a war.
Its major recommendation of gradual retreat is unremarkable -- exactly what you'd expect from a committee whose objective is consensus. It reflects a certain conventional wisdom in Washington that the war is already lost. And if that were true, we should indeed be retreating. And the sooner the better, even more quickly than the ISG recommends.
But having told us that the price of leaving Iraq to chaos is unacceptably high, the commission never attempts to come up with a plan for actually succeeding. Its only new initiative is to go regional, and involve neighboring Syria and Iran.
Syria should stop infiltration, declares the report. And Iran ``should stem the flow of equipment, technology, and training to any group resorting to violence in Iraq.'' Yes, and obesity should be eradicated, bird flu cured, and traffic fatalities, particularly the multicar variety, abolished. Such fatuous King Canute pronouncements give the report its air of detachment from reality.This holding back of the tides is to be accomplished by negotiations with the likes of Iran. Baker admits that Iranian representatives told the commission that they are unlikely to cooperate. But we must press on, Baker insists, because we will thus expose Iran as "a rejectionist nation" that is "not ... willing to help try and stabilize Iraq."
Now there's a diplomatic achievement: undermining our hard-earned agreement with the Europeans to make any future approach to Iran dependent on the suspension of uranium enrichment in order to ... demonstrate to the world that a country providing sophisticated weapons, roadside bombs and financial support to both sides of the civil war does not support stability there. Is there a sentient adult outside this commission who does not know that already?
A major objective of the New Diplomatic Offensive (as if pompous capitalization makes for substance) is to bring Arab-Israeli peace. Baker thinks that if only the Israelis would surrender to Arab demands, all would be well in the Middle East.
OK. Imagine that there is peace between Israel and the Arabs. No, imagine an even better solution from the Arab point of view -- an earthquake that tomorrow swallows Israel whole and sinks it (like Santorini, 1650 B.C.) into the Mediterranean. Does anyone imagine that the Shiites stop killing Sunnis? That al-Qaeda stops killing Americans? That Iran and Syria work any less assiduously to destabilize post-Saddam Iraq? It's these obvious absurdities that made the report so dismissible.
He must do two things. First, as I've been agitating, establish a new governing coalition in Baghdad that excludes Moqtada al-Sadr, a cancer that undermines the Maliki government's ability to work with us. It is encouraging that the president has already begun such a maneuver by meeting with rival Shiite and Sunni parliamentary leaders. If we help produce a cross-sectarian government that would be an ally rather than a paralyzed semi-adversary of coalition forces, we should then undertake part two: "double down" our military effort. This means a surge in American troops with a specific mission: to secure Baghdad and (together with the support of the Baghdad government -- a sine qua non) suppress Sadr's Mahdi Army.
It is our last chance for success. Bush can thank the ISG and its instant irrelevance for making it possible.