A Perfect Failure
The Iraq Study Group has reached a consensus.
There is another problem for Baker, of course, which justifies the money the commission is spending to hire the Edelman public relations firm. It is that the Baker commission report is, as the press likes to say, dead on arrival. Over the course of the past few weeks, and especially this past week, President Bush has made clear that he has no intention of following the commission's recommendations. In his press conference with the Iraqi prime minister this past Thursday, Bush took a direct slap at the Iraq Study Group. "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," he told reporters. But "this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."
As for Baker's other significant and more original recommendation--that the United States hold direct talks with Iran and Syria to get their help in Iraq--Bush nixed that idea, too. In Estonia last Tuesday, the president said, "Iran knows how to get to the table with us, and that is to do that which they said they would do, which is verifiably suspend their [uranium] enrichment programs." This the Iranians have steadfastly refused to do, of course. As for Syria, Bush continues to accuse Syria, rightly, of trying to retake control of Lebanon by means of assassination and support of terrorist violence. He gave no indication that he was willing to begin direct talks with Syria on Iraq.
It's not as if the Baker commission has accomplished nothing, however. Although its recommendations will have no effect on American policy going forward, they have already had a very damaging effect throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East and in Iraq. For the Iraq Study Group, aided by supportive American media, has successfully conveyed the impression to everyone at home and abroad that the United States is about to withdraw from Iraq. This has weakened American allies and strengthened American enemies. It has exacerbated the problems in Iraq, as all the various factions in that country begin to prepare for the "inevitable" American retreat. Now it will require enormous efforts by the president and his advisers to dispel the disastrous impression that the Baker commission has quite deliberately created and will continue to foster in the weeks ahead. At home and abroad, people have been led to believe that Jim Baker and not the president was going to call the shots in Iraq from now on.
Happily, that is not the case. Although neither the American media nor many observers of the American political scene seem to realize it, there is nothing the Baker commission can do to force Bush to take a different course than the one he chooses. Nor is it easy for a Democratic majority in Congress to call the shots in Iraq. In the American system, the president always has enormous authority in foreign policy, if he wants to exercise it. President Bush clearly does. He intends to pursue steadfastly his own course in Iraq. He is determined not to withdraw before it becomes stable and, yes, democratic. He will not be buffeted by conventional wisdom or by Baker and his colleagues, no matter how much they employ public relations tactics to defeat him.
Yet there is one "power broker" that still matters: the American public. Unfortunately, and dangerously, the president appears to have largely lost their confidence. Certainly, the election results were a strong signal that Americans are unhappy with the war in Iraq. At the same time, we were struck by exit polls that showed the public was equally concerned with a too precipitous pullout from Iraq, suggesting the American people know quite well what is at stake in the war there. Many Americans, it would seem, are still open to a plan for Iraq that has a chance of working--if the president acts soon. If not, no matter how strong a position he has constitutionally, he will not be able to sustain his Iraq policy.
We remain dissatisfied with the way the president has allowed his Pentagon and top military officers to persist in what has proved to be an ineffective strategy in Iraq. We hope that he will now take the steps necessary to accomplish his stated objectives in Iraq, including a substantial increase in the number of U.S. forces in Baghdad and throughout the contested parts of the country, as well as a long overdue increase in the total size of American ground forces so that higher force levels in Iraq can be sustained. But right now we can only applaud the president's courage and determination and his willingness to resist the pressures of those who would now sound the retreat.
--Robert Kagan and William Kristol