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Conclusion First, Debate Afterwards

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The stacked Baker-Hamilton Commission.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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POLICYMAKERS ARE ABUZZ with the explosive recommendations for U.S. policy toward Iraq soon to be released by the Baker-Hamilton Commission: Abandon democracy, seek political compromise with the Sunni insurgents, and engage Tehran and Damascus as partners to secure stability in their neighbor. While former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton said they would withhold their report until after the elections on November 7 to avoid its politicization, they have discussed their findings with the press. On October 8, for example, Baker appeared on ABC's This Week, and the next day he discussed the group's findings with Charlie Rose. On October 12, both Baker and Hamilton appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Both men are master inside-the-Beltway operators. Rather than prime the debate, they sought to stifle it. While on March 15, 2006, Baker said, "Chairman Hamilton and I have the same objec tive . . . to make an honest assessment of where we are and how we go forward and take this issue to the extent that we can out of politics," both chairmen designed the commission to affirm preordained conclusions that are neither new nor wise.

Take the four subordinate expert working groups: Baker and Hamilton gerrymandered these advisory panels to ratify predetermined recommendations. While bipartisan, the groups are anything but representative of the policy debate. I personally withdrew from an expert working group after concluding that I was meant to contribute token diversity rather than my substantive views.

Many appointees appeared to be selected less for expertise than for their hostility to President Bush's war on terrorism and emphasis on democracy. Raad Alkadiri, for example, has repeatedly defined U.S. motivation for Iraq's liberation as a grab for oil. Raymond Close, listed on the Iraq Study Group's website as a "freelance analyst," is actually a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, which, in July 2003, called for Vice President Dick Cheney's resignation for an alleged conspiracy to distort intelligence, which they said had been uncovered by none other than Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The following summer, Close posited that "Bush and the neocons" had fabricated the charge "that the evil Iranian mullahs inspired and instigated the radical Shia Islamist insurgency." To Close, the problem was not Iranian training and supply of money and sophisticated explosives to terrorists, but rather neoconservatism.

Other experts include a plaintiff in the January 17, 2006, lawsuit against the National Security Agency for its no-warrant wiretap program and a think-tank analyst who had not traveled beyond the Green Zone on her only trip to Iraq in September 2003, but nonetheless demonstrated her open mind by declaring the Iraq endeavor a failure in an interview with a German magazine just days before the commission's inauguration.

Baker placed Chas Freeman, his former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, on the panel, despite Freeman's assertion, in the antiwar documentary Uncovered: The War in Iraq, that the Bush administration had fabricated its justifications for war. Why seek advice from an area specialist who has clearly crossed the line from analysis to conspiracy?

Even if the eight other commissioners--all distinguished retired gov ernment officials--approached their work with honesty, they had little opportunity to get an independent look at developments in Iraq. U.S. evaluations of Iraq have long suffered from an overemphasis on both PowerPoint presentations and conversations with a limited circle of Green Zone interlocutors. During the commission's three-day visit to Iraq, only former senator Charles Robb left the Green Zone, despite the embassy's willingness to facilitate excursions. Had commission members embedded with U.S. servicemen on patrol, each in a separate area of the country, they might have expanded their contacts, broadened their collective expertise, and gained access to unvarnished opinion.

Had they done so, they might not conclude that the solution in Iraq lies with further engagement of Iran and Syria. Rather than inject a "new approach" to U.S. strategy, the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations resurrect the old. In May 2001, Hamilton co-chaired an Atlan tic Council study group that called on Washington to adopt a "new approach" to Iran centered on engagement with Tehran. And, in 2004, Baker-Hamilton Commission member Robert M. Gates co-chaired another study group that called for a "new approach" toward Iran consisting of engagement.