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Letter from the Co-Chairs

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“Consensus” is indeed the key word here, an achievement vital for any nation at war. The Founding Fathers recognized this by assigning the power to make war and regulate our armed forces to the Congress, in Article I, Section 8, parts 10-16 of the Constitution. Yet this power has been systematically usurped by the executive branch ever since the last time an American president actually asked Congress for a declaration of war, on December 8, 1941.

It was this failure to build consensus that would poison everything to follow in Iraq. The time for a “robust debate” within our democracy was during the lead-up to war, when it would have still been possible to examine the intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, and to assess the real costs and consequences of regime change in Iraq. Instead, the Bush administration’s illegal rush to war–its desire to evade real consensus-building–compelled it to overstate the threat Iraq posed, to constantly shift the rationale for the conflict, and to vastly underestimate the commitment of men and materiel necessary for victory.

Every subsequent debacle proceeded from this original sin, and none of it can be put right by the intervention of a powerless, extra-constitutional body, however well-intentioned.

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Baker and Hamilton’s introductory letter spells out two of the report’s central and overarching themes: the U.S. has legitimate “interests” in Iraq and the Middle East, and bipartisan consensus and domestic unity are essential to advancing them. In most all discussions of the ISG report, these two statements are treated uncritically, as self-evident truths and worthy goals.

Yet if anything needs discussion, dissection, and debate, it’s these two foundational, generally unquestioned, assumptions. What are “U.S. interests” in Iraq and the Middle East? Why should the population support their pursuit?

Later (Part 1 – Assessment), the report tells us that “Iraq is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to U.S. interests.” In this instance and mainstream discourse, “interests” is a euphemism for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East – hegemony aimed at controlling global energy sources and markets (the lifeblood of modern empire), preventing others from doing so, and dominating this geopolitical nexus between Europe, Asia and Africa. This predominance has been a pillar of U.S. strategy for 60 years under Republicans and Democrats alike, key to ensuring the smooth functioning of U.S. global capitalism in the interests of its imperial elite.

Pursuing these objectives has meant turning Israel into a regional gendarme and supporting the dispossession of the Palestinians, maintaining ruthless tyrannies while overthrowing popular governments, and intervening covertly and overtly on many fronts, over decades.

In Iraq alone, these depredations have directly or indirectly cost some 1-2 million lives over the past 40 years, even before Bush’s 2003 invasion. The U.S. supported the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power in the 1960′s (3,000-5,000 executed afterward); it manipulated and betrayed the Kurds in the early 1970′s (thousands killed and 150,000 to 300,000 forced to flee into Iran, the coup de grace coming in 1975 under then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger); it encouraged then helped prolong the Iran-Iraq war (roughly 1 million total casualties); its 1991 Desert Storm invasion (100,000 plus Iraqi deaths) was followed by encouraging Shias and Kurds to rise against Saddam, then allowing him to crush them (30,000 deaths or more); and finally by 13 years of sanctions – justified by WMD which were non-existent by the early 1990′s (500,000-1,000,000 or more deaths). Is it any wonder that the Bush regime wanted Saddam hung before this sordid record could be raised at his trial?

For the Bush administration, invading Iraq was viewed as critical to changing the region’s trajectory – in particular stemming the rapid and destabilizing growth of anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism. Hussein wasn’t a fundamentalist, but the Bush team saw conquering Iraq as a way to dramatically assert U.S. power and begin restructuring (“democratizing”) the region’s brittle tyrannies, undercutting Islamists, and facilitating U.S.-led globalization. Control of Iraq would place U.S. forces in the heart of the Middle East/Central Asian region – home to 80% of world energy sources – and give it enormous military and economic leverage over potential global rivals. It was conceived as phase two (after Afghanistan) in an ongoing war for unchallenged and unchallengeable empire, theorized by the neocons and codified in the U.S. National Security Strategy (of 2002 and 2006).

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” has now cost an estimated 655,000 Iraqis lives according to the latest Johns Hopkins study, and turned Iraq into a waking nightmare of counterinsurgency, crime, sectarian violence, and chaos. The Baker-Hamilton report never questions the war’s legality, morality, or justness; it examines neither Bush’s actual motives nor the enormous toll the war has taken. What will the total be a year from now, or two, or five if this war isn’t ended now (a course the report counsels against)?

This raises Baker-Hamilton’s second point – the governing class’s need for consensus: “U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure … if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus.” Their introductory letter revealingly notes that their report’s “aim” is not primarily their particular prescriptions (some of which are critical and some of which are shared by the Bush team, including an openness to a “surge”). Rather, it is “to move our country toward such a consensus” – both within the political class and between government and governed broadly. In other words, undercut antiwar forces and help the Bush administration and the establishment salvage as much as possible in Iraq and the Middle East and get through the current crisis.

One Wall Street Journal columnist concluded (“Wonderland,” 12/8) that the ISG’s “primary purpose wasn’t saving Iraq from catastrophe but saving the political system of the United States from catastrophe.” And the Journal’s editorial page (12/7), while criticizing the report also noted, “If the report helps to politically isolate John Murtha and the get-out-now left, its authors will have done some good.”

But who gave the U.S. have the right to wreck havoc and determine the fate of peoples and countries (which never attacked it) a half a world away? And why should there be “consensus” behind goals that are fundamentally unjust, and guarantee ongoing (even expanding and escalating) war and an intensification of the current horrific dynamic created by the clash between reactionary imperialism on the one side and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism on the other?

What’s needed is more “political polarization” – i.e., more determined resistance to the war and the Bush regime, including driving it from power (whether by impeachment, indictment, or disgrace). This means rejecting efforts to paralyze war opponents, counsel a “wait-and-see” attitude, and allow Bush more time to prosecute the war. Such resistance is possible and extremely urgent. The New York Times and others editorialize the “nation is in crisis,” and this crisis could sharpen if (as is likely), Bush chooses escalation (the so-called “surge”) in defiance of November’s mid-term election referendum against the war.

But the necessary “surge” of opposition won’t occur without rejecting the current terms of debate – shared by leading Democrats and Republicans: the notion that we share common “interests” with the Bush’s, Baker’s and yes Hamilton’s of the world; that the Bush administration’s unjust war can somehow become a just occupation; that given its agenda, the U.S. can somehow do good in Iraq; and that “victory” – which can only mean an ongoing bloodbath, consolidating some form of pro-U.S. Iraqi tyranny (with or without a democratic facade), and legitimizing further aggression in the region – is desirable. Instead, we must face the reality of what our government has done and is doing, the even greater horrors in store if it’s allowed to continue, and our responsibility to others on the planet, including how our actions (or inaction) reverberates powerfully and globally.

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Mr. Everest raises many salient criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but it is neither accurate nor productive to view our intervention in the region solely through the prism of traditional, Cold War dogma. The United States has hardly turned “Israel into a regional gendarme,” it has not overthrown any popular regimes in the region that I’m aware of, and it is not solely responsible for all of the “depredations” committed in the area. To so strip all local actors of choice and responsibility reflects a mindset as imperialistic and condescending as that which Mr. Everest claims to deplore.

Rather than consisting of one long, “hegemonic” plot on behalf of world capitalism, U.S. policy in the Middle East has suffered most from a lack of sustained purpose. American administrations have alternated almost willy-nilly between sincere efforts to solve the Israel-Palestine dilemma, attempts to subjugate all local conflicts to the checking of Soviet and later Islamisist influence in the region, and the latest, Bush-neocon fantasy of building a model, right-wing democracy in Iraq. Until we make some attempt to coordinate these disparate goals, we will accomplish nothing in the region.