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General Comments on the ISG Report

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At a time when America produced somewhat larger gauge leaders, a report of this consequence might have been produced by a combination of Robert Lovett, Averill Harriman, George Kennan, and John J. McCloy, or by George Marshall alone with his typewriter. Either way, it would have had a longer shelf-life than 48 hours. But, of course, in those days journalism itself was larger gauge.

It is apparent that this is less a prescription for managing retreat from a failed imperial overreach than a very consequential foreign policy taffy-pull between a neoconservative cabal now largely in retreat or hiding and re-emergent traditional “realists.”
Given Mr. Bush’s obvious unwillingness to abandon his effort to impose theological idealism on the Middle East (“victory” over the forces of evil) in favor of grubby reality (cutting our losses), this report has already become an historic anachronism to be pondered by future generations of international relations dissertation writers.

The constitutional time bomb at the center of this bizarre departure from mainstream American foreign policy is the dangerous theory of the “unitary presidency.” Once 9.11 gave Mr. Bush the opportunity to declare “war on terrorism,” this theory automatically triggered itself into an executive branch run amok, a presidency conducted without regard to Congress’s Article I powers, judicial review, oversight, accountability, or checks and balances.
It causes one to wonder whether the first casualty in war is the truth or whether it is the U.S. Constitution.

Gary Hart

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Howard Zinn swiftly punctures the “precipitous withdrawal” bogyman that the Bush Administration, the Neocons, the ISG, the liberal Democrats and, in this space, Joost Hiltermann uses it to cloud the real terms of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. (Precipitous = premature = foolish, therefore not up for discussion.). Zinn also makes the relevant point that liberal “opponents” of the Vietnam war like Senators Fullbright and Church used the same language to block discussion of putting an end to that invasion and occupation. (Should we expect different from Congress people today?) If the real goals and terms of the U.S. war on Iraq were bluntly and honestly discussed, there would be little surprise that none of the establishment critics of the war, much less its architects, are actually opting to end it short of some reasonable definition of “success.”

David Fromkin employs the same terms of argument in his comment that the ISG is correct when it predicts a catastrophic result from “precipitous withdrawal,” but argues that “an even more catastrophic results will ensue when we withdraw later.”

But what is this catastrophe? Those of us demanding an immediate U.S. withdrawal are not talking about the same catastrophe as the war’s planners, backers and liberal critics.

When anti-war forces speak of catastrophe, they overwhelmingly mean for Iraq and its people: an intensification of the bloody horrors of death and destruction that America has brought to Iraq through both its direct carnage and the sectarian bloodletting that the invasion and occupation have unleashed (and promotes). Immediate withdrawal will remove American guns and bombs from the killing fields. There is no guarantee that the vengeful violence of the sectarian forces operating under the control of reactionary fundamentalist religious ideology will then quickly dissipate. But there is certainty that the continued U.S. presence will ensure continued death and destruction, Colin Powell’s false aphorism, “You broke it, you own it,” notwithstanding.

When Bush & Company and the authors of the ISG report talk about the necessity of success and the “catastrophe” that failure will bring for generations to come, they are not talking about Iraq or the suffering of its people. They are talking about the global political and economic dominance of the U.S. and the potential fatal weakening of the American Empire a “precipitous withdrawal” might precipitate. This is why, despite strategic and tactical differences, Bush, the ISG Report, the new Democratic Congress, and virtually the entire corporate media still predicate “success” as essential. When establishment critics, like Rep. John Murtha, speak of disengagement, they don’t mean “accept defeat.” They mean reposition for some definable version of victory.

The catastrophe Bush and the ISG see as the alternative to success is real. So they wont pull out unless forced by a combination of Iraqi resistance and dramatic domestic opposition.

Success? Their vision of success is not secret knowledge. It’s about achieving and maintaining unchallengeable U.S. global political and economic domination. Rhetorical as that statement might ring in some ears, it’s hardly contestable. The key to success is control of the petroleum resources of the Middle East, which the State Department in 1948 called the “greatest strategic prize in history.” Modern industrial societies float on oil. The country that controls the petroleum resources of the region has gigantic advantages in global rivalries. No surprise that the ISG Report makes Approval of the Petroleum Law a key milestone.

The Bush administration may have had a muddle headed and arrogant plan for grabbing this historic prize when it came to office, but it won near unanimous consensus among the power elites. Now the consensus on method has unraveled, and numerous plans are proffered to suck the U.S. out of the quagmire, but only to put it on sure footing to bring the mission to a successful end. That success could have a variety of incarnations. All entail some kind of stable client government that can guarantee U.S. control of Iraq’s oil resources and prevent potential global rivals from moving in. Optimally it might even mean coercing and cajoling Iran and Syria to join the team and play the game. It certainly means completing the necessary restructuring of the region’s governments and eliminating threats to American hegemony.

Of course it also means democracy for the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. And that’s not the cruel hypocrisy progressives like to sneer at. The architects of the war mean democracy in its basic historic context: the freedom of capital to move where it needs, when it needs and how it needs.

Catastrophe? Imagine if petroleum were priced in euros instead of dollars. Imagine if some not too distant future coalition of China and Russia or China and the EU etc. were able to exercise suzerainty over the region at U.S. expense. This is not to argue that there might not be other, perhaps more collaborative methods of insuring “America’s strategic interests” in the Middle East. But to lose when its played its strongest hand, its unequalled military power, in order to secure economic and political control of the region and hence the world would be devastating.

The ISG Report is a major effort to constrain the terms of debate, to make illegitimate any positions that accept defeat or welcome the catastrophe they are struggling mightily to prevent.

Is there a middle way? Is there path that preserves and enhances the American Empire but does not bring more destruction and domination to Iraq or Iran or Somalia or the long list of states potentially in the gunsights of an endless U.S. “war on terror?” Not really. And the unraveling of yet another empire is not a bad thing.

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What strikes me most keenly about the Iraq Study Group report is its failure to anywhere delve into the origins or motives for our current policies. No doubt this was due to considerations of time; in order to preserve the delicate, bipartisan structure of the Study Group, and to keep the report from being rejected out of hand by the Bush administration (which it pretty well has been, anyway).

Yet without probing into why we have failed in Iraq, I do not see how the Study Group could ever have succeeded in its own, stated goals. Clearly, the group was modeled after the assemblage of Cold War “wise men” who finally persuaded Lyndon Johnson that the war in Vietnam could not be won. But the difference between the Johnson and Bush administrations, and between the ways the wars in Vietnam and Iraq have been conducted, make it impossible for the group to emulate that model.

Vietnam was certainly a disastrous intervention into a foreign civil war, an endeavor marred by hubris, a misreading of recent history, a misperception of our vital interests during the Cold War, a misunderstanding of a people we barely knew, and–once the war was well underway–a certain amount of deception in order to cover up administration and military failures.

Yet for all that, Vietnam was at least an honest mistake, in the sense that the Johnson administration committed enormous financial and military resources to the effort, and attempted to have the whole country share the sacrifice through military conscription and tax increases. While our intervention in Vietnam also suffered from the lack of a formal declaration of war, and a close examination of the whole venture in the Congress, the stated goals under which we went to war–to preserve the South Vietnamese state, and stem Communist encroachment in Southeast Asia–were sincere and unwavering. Thus, when the original wise men could point out that these goals were ultimately unwinnable, despite our best-faith effort, Lyndon Johnson and his advisors (and, ultimately, his successors) could be persuaded to de-escalate and eventually abandon the war.

Yet again and again, the Study Group’s own analysis makes it clear that such a good-faith effort was never made in Iraq by the Bush administration. Bush and his advisors went to war for a profusion of purposely confusing reasons; they refused to promote consensus but instead used the war as a political cudgel, in order to hammer through unrelated, domestic agendas; and they deliberately underfunded and undermanned the war effort, ignoring the best military and civilian advice to the contrary in order to keep from inconveniencing most of the American people in any way.

One need only read the sections in this report that detail the criminally insufficient numbers of troops, qualified civilian personnel, intelligence analysts, and even Arabic speakers committed to the war in Iraq to understand how dishonestly the Bush administration has proceeded. This dissembling was quickly extended to our relations with the Iraqis themselves, as we have grotesquely covered up the true numbers of deaths and atrocities in country, and insisted that the tools of partisan militias are in fact worthy, national officials that we can treat as real heads of state.

Thus, how are even the wisest of men to convince a president who has never truly viewed this war as something necessary to safeguard the nation’s future peace and security, but primarily as an opportunity to intimidate domestic opponents and consolidate political power, to create a model for social and economic theories espoused by the most extreme elements of his party, and to serve as a gigantic patronage mill? And all to be accomplished as cheaply, as quickly, and as thoughtlessly as possible.

Without seriously assessing how the mess in Iraq was allowed to happen, it’s an exercise in futility to talk about possible solutions. Without acknowledging that our troops were deliberately undermanned and underfunded from the beginning, it’s useless to speculate on why they failed and what they could do differently. Without acknowledging that many of our most prominent “allies” in Iraq are more committed to their own religious and ethnic allegiances than the idea of a unified Iraqi state, it’s pointless to talk about making them stop corruption and suppress partisan militias.

Without a leader willing to truly build consensus and to commit everything we have to it–our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor–it is useless for us to embark upon any great enterprise, or to continue it.

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In the policy of the Bush administration, the publication of the ISG report, and the contours of this very debate, what is happening in Iraq is an American project and an American tragedy.

It is, of course, so. But the moment US forces unleashed their bombs and punched across the border, the tragedy has been mostly Iraq’s and Iraqis’. In every step along the way, from April 2003 onward, the fundamental interests of Iraq and Iraqis have not been taken into account in Iraq’s reconstruction, except piecemeal by the hand of well-intending US officials. The overall policy, when there was one, has been consistently driven by overriding US concerns that were mostly linked to domestic interests, or more narrowly, the Bush administration’s need for self-perpetuation.

And so the debate today is about preserving US interests in Iraq and the region, not about saving Iraq from civil war, chaos and disintegration. For those of us who live in the region, who love the region, who do not wish to see it go to hell, this is the most frightening aspect of all the patter in Washington and beyond. It’s fine and well to talk about halting imperialism, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and bringing the boys home. But the crisis Iraq faces today is real and threatens the entire region. Packing one’s bags and leaving, regardless of what one leaves behind, is adding insult to the injury of serial fuck-up. It is also irresponsible from the perspective of US self-interest: the disintegration of Iraq, which seems likely as neighboring states see their proxies wobble and go in to preserve their vital interests, can only redound upon US strategic interests in the Gulf, imperial as these may be.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having opposed the US invasion but now advocating a withdrawal that must be contingent on leaving behind viable Iraqi structures that will ensure the country’s survival. It may well be too late for this, but as long as there is even a glimmer of hope, we must try. This will require a gradual withdrawal of US and other foreign forces, somewhat along the lines proposed by Baker-Hamilton. But while the ISG’s diagnosis of what ails Iraq is sober and honest, if rather incomplete, its prescription is seriously deficient in several respects, most importantly in linking the withdrawal of the main military force to the start of the election year in the US rather than to actual benchmarks reached.

The report’s strong points are the following:

**It recognizes the importance of Middle East peace in stabilizing Iraq.

**It advocates constructive engagement with Iran and Syria as indispensable for Iraq’s stability.

**It recognizes the strategic US need for Iraq to stay united.

**It recognizes the grave dangers to US intersts should the US fail in Iraq.

**It recognizes that there is no military solution to the Iraq crisis.

**It recognizes the need for internal Iraqi reconciliation as the only way to deal with the violence.

**It calls on the Bush administration to make clear its intention not to retain permanent bases in Iraq or seek to control its oil.

**It recognizes that the principal Iraqi political actors are not seeking reconciliation and are not working toward a united Iraq.

**It implicitly recognizes that the constitution failed to be the national compact it was meant to be, but has served instead to further polarize society.

**It recognizes the key issues of tension and the need to address these urgently (constitutional review, oil, de-Baathification, etc.)

**It criticizes the International Compact for Iraq as econo-centric and, as such, insufficient.

**It recognizes the urgent need for governance and delivery of essential services to all Iraqis.

**It contains sensible recommendations on oil and revenue sharing, as well as on Kirkuk.

**It places emphasis on the need to hold provincial elections in 2007, which could, inter alia, redress the dangerous imbalance on the Baghdad provincial council.

**It recommends opening channels of communication with Ayatollah Sistani, as well as Muqtada al-Sadr.

**It derides the notion that Iraq somehow can be devolved into three semi-autonomous pronvinces without the country’s break-up.

The report’s failings lie in the following, inter alia:

##It vests the solution to the crisis in the Iraqi government, which has proven it cannot solve it, in part because it is one of the principal parties to a very nasty vendetta-based and sectarian conflict.

##It imposes yet another timetable on Iraq that appears driven by domestic US concerns (the 2008 presidential elections; Baker will be Baker!!). Such timetables have done great damage in the past.

##It does not offer any real mechanisms for obtaining the objectives it sets, nor a package of incentives and disincentives linked to given milestones.

##It posits the need for Iraqis to contemplate the constitutional review before national reconciliation. This wrongly assumes that serious progress on the constitution can be made in the absence of a new national compact through a process of reconciliation. The parties that control the review process are intent on allowing no substantive changes to the text.

##While seeking to reverse de-Baathification, it uses the wrong criteria: “senior leadership,” rather than persons who have committed serious crimes.

##It fails to recommend establishment of a transitional justice program (including an all-important truth-telling component), or at least a mechanism for screening out those who have committed crimes from positions in the new political order.

##It fails to propose that the federal structure in Iraq should be asymmetrical (a broadly autonomous Kurdish region, and the rest of Iraq decentralized according to existing provincial boundaries) as a way of keeping the country from disintegrating.

##While it recommends steps designed to entice the Sunni Arab community and others who feel cut out from the new order, it fails to propose constructive engagement with insurgent groups or community leaders.

The views of my colleagues and myself on what ought (but is unlikely) to happen in Iraq can be found in the latest report of the International Crisis Group, “After Baker-Hamilton: What To Do in Iraq” (December 19), available here:

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Given their assessment of the situation in Iraq, the members of the Iraq Study Group might have simply concluded that the US government has lost control of events and can not avert the disasters they see ahead. But it is not in the nature of blue-ribbon panels to counsel despair, so instead they have recommended a half a dozen Hail Mary passes, all of which must be completed at once if current trends are to be reversed. Whatever its members actually think, the report is a counsel of despair.

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Having been an advisor to the ISG, I would like to note that, to my knowledge, no specific recommendation in the final report was vetted with the panel’s advisors. Also, some of the issues relating to the recommendations were not discussed at any useful length in sessions the ISG principals had with the advisors. This despite the fact that the advisors had considerable experience relating to Iraq and the Middle East region writ large.

The “Assessment” section of the report is appropriately dismal in the picture it paints of the situation on the ground. However, the recommendations that follow are, at least implicitly, more hopeful. Yet, when Secretary Baker and Rep. Hamilton asked for a vote in their final meeting with their advisors by show of hands, on the part of the advisors, regarding, essentially, whether to stay in Iraq and attempt to stabilize the country as opposed to conducting a withdrawal and redeployment, just under half of the group’s advisors, including myself, voted for withdrawal.

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It might be interesting and amusing to apply mass psychology via Freud to this report. The original psychology of the Bush administration’s rush to war was “infantile.” It was first a rejection of the world view and the language of Baker and Kissinger before him and their theories of diplomacy and detente. The neo-cons killed the father, Kissinger, killed diplomacy, and indulged in the logic of children. They came to believe in the “omnipotence of thought,” the over-estimation of the influence of the mental faculties on the outer world. Well, the neo-con pack has obviously run up against reality. Now with the Iraq Study Group Report we have the return of the repressed, the return of the murdered father, scolding, urging “diplomacy.” The grandeur of the primieval father–Kissinger,Baker, and G.H.W. Bush (the literal father)–is restored. This is what will pass as “sanity” at least for a while. Meanwhile, G. W. Bush must continue to try to play the role of father while feeling a creepy sensation of absence in his crotch. He is the neurotic. Thus one of the most common mythic assumptions about this war, “he was avenging his father against Hussein,” turns out to be a mere reaction formation. Hussein was never the point. G. W.’s administration was always a rejection of everything his father had stood for, from military caution to environmental protection. At this point, Bush has no choice but to continue to kill the father even though he is already dead. The Iraq Study Group with the daddy surrogate Baker at the helm becomes the Totem Father that must be both worshipped and murdered, into infinity if need be. Of course, all of the participants in this drama are detestable. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the super-ego must merely squirm on the sidelines. This is why Bush, by his own account, sleeps so well and the rest of us sleep so badly.

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The Bush Administration functions on the basis of central organizing principles which are believed to hold the key to a benevolent future for mankind. These “truths” are said to be universal and either “self evident” or divinely inspired.

In pursuit of a future governed by these principals, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq guided by a sincere belief that the “Iraqi People” would rise up in a moment of joy reminiscent of the chorus of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to take their rightful place by the side of the United States in a “crusade” for the implantation of Western Civilization and “democracy” in the Middle East in particular and the Islamic World generally.

These expectations have not been met. After four years of war against social revolution and military occupation, the various Sunni Arab insurgent groups persist in their wayward, stubborn refusal to accept the defeat of the Baath government and the reduction of the social and political power of the Sunni Arabs. They have been joined in this “war” by true terrorists of the international Jihadi network.

At the same time, the majority Shia Arabs have been empowered mightily by the American insistance on electoral politics on the basis of “one person – one vote” in a region where electoral politcs traditionaly reflect group rather than individual interests. The Sunni Arabs do not see the resulting Shia controlled government and security forces as an accident of political events, soon to be reversed. No, they see present situation for what it is, a permanent transfer of power to the Shia Arabs, not to be reversed by pacific means.

At the same time the Shia Arabs squabble among themselves to learn who will rule Iraq after the Ajanib (foreigners) are gone. While engaged in that private struggle they appear to compete for “pride of place” among the ethnic cleansers of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Their efforts are then matched by Sunni groups, etc.

This situation seems to “cry out” for a massive diplomatic effort, led by the great powers to resolve the perceived and sometimes real conflicts of interest among the various GROUPS. These groups clearly include the various peoples, parties and sects of Iraq as well as ALL the surrounding countries, without whose help no solution to the problem of Iraq can be found. To be effective such negotiations would have to address ALL the issues thought to be outstanding among the conferees. To imagine that any part to such negotiations would be willing to deal on the basis of the issues important to only one side is simply foolish.

To negotiate implies a willingness to compromise with the interlocutor. The Bush Administration sees the world in Manichean terms. Men and countries are seen as either good or evil. One does not compromise with evil and so serious diplomacy is out of the question.

It was clear from the beginning of its rumored “progress” in deliberation that the guiding spirit of the ISG would be anything but. Manichean. The frantic babblings of the “commentariat” in the weeks before release of the report made that even clearer.

It should have been understood from this that the president and commander in chief of the armed forces would have none of it. Predictably, he has simply ignored the report after accepting the advice proffered by people powerless to affect his decisions.

President Bush will soon pronounce himself on a “new” policy with regard to Iraq. It will focus yet more intensely on his devotion to his struggles.

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Round Up the Usual Suspects

Generally troops in retreat lay down a cover of smoke, and that would appear to be the tactic of the Baker-Hamilton report, although I have doubts that adjectives like “dire” and “costly” will obscure the front lines long enough for coalition forces to flee safely to the rear. But then the only flanks covered in the report are those of tarnished reputations in Washington.

Let’s be clear: the report has little, if anything, to do with Iraq. The authors of the study do not read or speak Arabic. They went only once to Iraq, and then, of the ten, only one member ventured briefly beyond the cordon sanitaire of the Green Zone. Even inside the American redoubt, they would have learned little about Iraq, given that of the 1000 Americans manning that diplomatic fortress, only six speak Arabic well and only about 35 can stumble through a few elementary phrases. The rest of the sources, cited in the appendices, read like the A list for a Council on Foreign Relations dinner party. (Among the Grand Panjandrums consulted are Messrs. Lake, Scowcroft, Holbrooke, Kissinger, Powell, Schultz, Brzezinski, Christopher, Kerry, etc.) Think of it as The Best and Brightest Ball. Such are the sources from which Messrs. Baker and Hamilton cut and pasted their Iraq term paper, which with its terrible punctuation and awkward style reads no better than yet another cribbed assignment downloaded from the Internet.

Thinking about the authors of this so-called bipartisan report, it is hard to imagine putting together a group less informed about the Middle East. For example, who would consult a list of 300 million Americans and then decide that former Attorney General and Reagan administration bagman, Edwin Meese III, is the right person to get to the truth about the Sunni triangle or Iranian influence in Najaf, a place, even now, I suspect he could not locate on a map? In terms of Middle Eastern knowledge I doubt Ed Meese ranks any lower in the class than the likes of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or Clinton presidential pal, Vernon Jordan, both of whom strike me as more qualified to fix parking tickets on Capitol Hill than to explain the motivations of those laying down improvised explosive devices on the roads outside Falluja. (The good news: 17 of the report’s 142 pages are devoted to the biographies of the panelists.)

Judged by its members, the Iraq Study Group’s report would appear to have been put together as a firewall to protect various reputations, as if it were a white paper whose sole purpose is to remain on display in the gift shops of various presidential libraries. What else explains the presence on the study group of so many Washington political operatives, each with their careers linked to one or more presidential image?

It would seem that Bill and Hillary Clinton, for example, were given three votes at the Study Group table, and they chose former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, and the family lawyer, Mr. Jordan, whose mission is to argue that the first Clinton administration was not soft on terror and that a possible second Clinton administration shares the pain of the American people over losses in Iraq. The first President George Bush clearly had a hand in nominating the likes of Robert Gates (the archivist of his papers) and former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, there to emphasize that while Desert Storm was a box office hit, the sequel, March to Baghdad, is too long, lacks convincing special effects, and has a terrible ending.

Why the Lyndon Johnson lobby was given a delegate is a mystery, but there in the Study Group is his son-in-law, former Senator Charles Robb (D-Miss Virginia), perhaps to wall off the analogy that Iraq is another Vietnam and further tarnish LBJ’s quagmire presidency. The Reaganites were given two complimentary seats at the dinner, and they sent Judge O’Connor and Ed Meese, to be sure that no part of the study brought up Iran-Contra days, when the Reagan administration was embracing Iran with a Bible and a cake. Vice President Dick Cheney chose as his proxy Cody, Colorado lawyer and retired Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (R-Bechtel), maybe on the basis that he planned not to read the report anyway. Only former president Jimmy Carter was not given a chair, as the other members perhaps feared he might actually travel around Iraq, do the required reading, and write (by himself) a dissenting opinion.

No doubt the current President Bush assented to the co-chairmanship of Fix-it Everyman, James Baker, for the same reason that his campaign had him recount votes in Florida in the 2000 election: it was hoped he might yet again save an otherwise doomed election (one in Washington, not in Baghdad). The former Congressman Lee Hamilton is there to take the sting out of any possible House investigations, including the possibility of impeachment. No one wanted to duplicate the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson made at Versailles (that of ignoring the Congress), although it was the messianic American president who thought, fatally, that Mesopotamia should be “regarded as a single unit for administrative purposes.”

Read as a plea bargain for errant presidential behavior, the Iraq Study report is a triumph, as it covers the walls of numerous presidential libraries with gallons of whitewash. Lyndon Johnson is not remembered for the Iraq-like folly of wanting to nail Ho Chi Minh’s coonskin to the White House door. Ronald Reagan continues to lie in state as the great communicator, rather than someone who dispatched Donald Rumsfeld to a warm embrace with Saddam Hussein. The first President Bush is recalled as one of the seven pillars of wisdom, someone who knew where to draw lines in Arabian sands. Nothing in the report establishes paternity between President Clinton’s dalliance with air power (cf. Belgrade, Sudan, Afghanistan) and the later feckless shock-and-awe policies of Secretary Rumsfeld. Even the current President Bush is voted an “E” for effort in Iraq–an exporter of democracy and hope, not someone running up a $2 trillion tab in the desert so that Karl Rove would not have to shoot all his campaign spots in a studio. In the end no one is to blame for the splendid little war in Iraq–save for some pesky roadside anarchists, and those suspects are best rounded up by the next president.