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Matthew Stevenson

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General Comments on the ISG Report, entire page
December 23, 2006, 9:24 am

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.