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Comments by

Kevin Baker

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General Comments on the ISG Report, entire page
January 9, 2007, 2:17 pm

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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9. Intelligence, paragraph 5
January 9, 2007, 1:19 pm

Here is a casual mention, buried deep within the report, of how brazenly the administration has attempted to cover-up the real situation in Iraq.

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9. Intelligence, entire page
January 9, 2007, 1:17 pm

More shocking numbers. The lack of intelligence analysts demonstrates once again the criminal negligence of this administration in preparing for future terrorist attacks, while trying to run this war on a shoestring.

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8. U.S. Personnel, entire page
January 9, 2007, 1:15 pm

The general difficulty in recruiting personnel for either the military or civilian support missions should put the lie, once and for all, to all the loose talk on the right in favor of a new, “American empire.” I refer particularly to Robert Kaplan’s advocacy of this over the past five years, in books and a long series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly.

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8. U.S. Personnel, paragraph 2
January 9, 2007, 1:13 pm

This is a shocking figure, and it shows how very little the administration has done to improve U.S. security at home as well as abroad, in the wake of 9/11. How can so few Arabic speakers possibly be employed by the U.S. in Iraq, despite a large and growing pool of potential recruits in America?

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7. Budget Preparation, Presentation, and Review, paragraph 2
January 9, 2007, 1:10 pm

Still more of the fiscal chicanery necessary for the Bush administration to press ahead with massive tax cuts for the wealthy, in the teeth of this war.

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6. U.S. Economic and Reconstruction Assistance, paragraph 4
January 9, 2007, 1:08 pm

No figure better illustrates the Bush administration’s essential lack of seriousness in Iraq. We have previously been informed in this report that the conduct of the war costs some $2 billion a week. Yet here is the Study Group, begging the administration to increase U.S. economic assistance to all of $5 billion a year–in other words, the equivalent of what it costs to run the war for half a month. The $753 million authorized for emergency economic assistance in 2006, mentioned in the paragraph above, is the equivalent of roughly 2.5 days of conducting the war.

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5. The Oil Sector, paragraph 4
January 9, 2007, 1:02 pm

Here again, conservative economic dogma triumphs over all. Are we really to believe, as the last paragraph of this recommendation implies, that ending fuel subsidies will create less unrest among the Iraqi population, instead of more?

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4. Police and Criminal Justice, paragraph 11
January 9, 2007, 12:59 pm

Considering the make-up of the Interior Ministry, this would have been rather like saying that Tammany Hall should purge itself of Democrats.

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4. Police and Criminal Justice, paragraph 6
January 9, 2007, 12:58 pm

But how, in the long-run, will subordinating the National Police to the military create the sort of civil society the Study Group claims to want in Iraq? Isn’t this just one more lurch away from the model democracy, and toward a new strongman?

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3. Security and Military Forces, paragraph 21
January 9, 2007, 12:56 pm

But this is the same General Casey who has recently been cashiered, as part of the Bush administration’s new effort to pass the blame for Iraq onto the military. This is clearly signaled in a January 7, 2007 column in The New York Times, by longtime administration apologist David Brooks:

“For over three years, President Bush sided with the light-footprint school. He did so for personal reasons, not military ones. Casey and Abizaid are impressive men, and Bush deferred to their judgment.
“But sometimes good men make bad choices, and it is now clear that the light-footprint approach has been a disaster. If the U.S. had committed more troops and established security back in 2003 when, as Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek recently reminded us, the Coalition Provisional Authority had 70 percent approval ratings, history would be different.
“It is now 2007, and President Bush has finally replaced Donald Rumsfeld, Casey and Abizaid…”

This is about as bald-faced an effort at historical revisionism as as has been seen in recent years. Down the memory hole goes the fact that it was Bush himself who ordered up a cheap, “light” war, and who promptly canned Gen. Eric Shinseki when he dared to point out that the occupation of Iraq would take hundreds of thousands of troops. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to any other army brass who might be tempted to ask for more men.

Now we are to believe that poor Bush was snookered by all those “impressive” men in the high command. It is impossible to see how this sort of buck-passing can bring about the sort of new rapport and honesty between the military and civilian authorities, that the Study Group calls for below.

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3. Security and Military Forces, paragraph 16
January 9, 2007, 12:08 pm

This simply underscores the fact that the combined occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq–some 420,000 square miles of the most fractious territory in Asian history–without a draft. The strain on the army is yet another consequence of launching a vast, global crusade that is supposed to be vital to the security of our couuntry, without demanding any sacrifice of anyone, save for the men and women already in uniform.

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3. Security and Military Forces, paragraph 4
January 8, 2007, 7:51 pm

This recommendation reminds me of that scene in “The Life of Brian,” the old Monty Python movie, in which the “Judean People’s Front” solemnly demands that all Romans must leave Israel immediately…save for those involved with architecture, road-building, wine-making, etc., etc.

“Support forces, rapid-reaction forces, special operations forces, intelligence units, search-and-rescue units, and force protection units,” and an increased number of trainer units? Just who are they recommending we send home? Military bands?

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2. National Reconciliation, paragraph 25
January 8, 2007, 7:46 pm

Just above, in paragraph 18, the Study Group is insisting that we negotiate with nearly “all parties in Iraq,” including “militia and insurgent leaders.” But seven paragraphs later, it seems, the militias will simply be negotiating their own demise. Why should they, and their leaders, possibly acquiesce in this?

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1. Performance on Milestones, paragraph 24
January 8, 2007, 7:41 pm

Once again, Republican economic dogma tops all. This report is a veritable compendium of vague hopes, wishful ideas, and sketchy solutions…save when it comes to an anti-inflation program. Then we see hard numbers, and demand for a regimen that will come down hardest on the average Iraqi.

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3. Dealing with Iran and Syria, paragraph 9
January 8, 2007, 7:37 pm

The idea conveyed here that Iran’s nuclear program can be kept as a separate issue, apart from negotiations regarding Iraq (and, probably, Lebanon and Israel) is purposefully naive. Negotiations with Iran are necessary but, thanks to the Bush administration’s reckless blundering in Iraq, we start from a position of weakness and will have to give up something. Either Iran will retain its nukes, or its influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

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1. The New Diplomatic Offensive, paragraph 1
January 8, 2007, 7:31 pm

No paragraph in the report more enraged right-wing commentators, who summarily rejected the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has anything to do with the war in Iraq. Their reaction was indicative of how far the administration is from facing even the most elemental realities in the Middle East. A polite silence was maintained when our one remaining ally, Tony Blair, showed up in Washington soon after the report was issued and said much the same thing about the need to link all these issues.

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D. Achieving Our Goals, paragraph 1
January 8, 2007, 7:23 pm

This is truly a stunning quote from George W. Bush, and it’s almost as stunning that the Study Group blandly agrees with it. After years of neocon claims that we would make Iraq a light unto the nations, a model democracy that would transform the region, we now are willing to settle for a state that can ‘govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself”? Isn’t this what we had with Saddam?

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4. Devolution to Three Regions, entire page
January 8, 2007, 7:20 pm

But regardless of the longer history, important as it is, isn’t it true that the modern Iraqi state is an artificial creation? And that it was kept together, under Saddam Hussein, by brutally pitting one group against another? Isn’t it possible that these facts–plus the current civil war, under the U.S. occupation–have created a new reality, however tragic, that make the longer history irrelevant?

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B. Consequences of Continued Decline in Iraq, paragraph 4
January 8, 2007, 7:10 pm

The fears of a widening Sunni-Shia conflict voice here are well-justified. They also stand in direct contrast to longstanding, conventional wisdom on the right-wing that either the Palestinians, or the Arabs, or the “Islamic world” will have to have their civil war before it will be possible to negotiate with any of them; see The New York Times columns of William Safire and David Brooks, among others.

Who wants to wager, should such a civil war indeed engulf the region, on which administration figure will emerge first to claim that this was the real strategy behind the invasion of Iraq all along? My money is on Cheney.

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3. Economics, paragraph 7
January 8, 2007, 6:54 pm

It may be “fortunate” indeed for Iraq that “global energy prices have been higher than projected,” but of course it has done nothing for American consumers. This speaks to a contradiction at the heart of the Study Group’s plans. It forsees an Iraqi economy that continues to be oil-driven…just as a broad consensus is emerging in the U.S. and the West that we must finally wean ourselves from our dependence on oil.

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3. Economics, paragraph 1
January 8, 2007, 6:51 pm

Here the report neglects to mention one, additional economic disaster: the fantastical, laissez-faire regime that Paul Bremer attempted to foist upon Iraq during his term as viceroy. Once again, ideology topped any pragmatic effort to resurrect Iraq, as the Bush administration tried to impose all of its most cherished ideas of privatization–ideas that it had so singularly failed to push through in the United States. For an excellent account of how Bremer’s new model economy managed to simultaneously raise unemployment and discourage both domestic and foreign investment during this critical period, read Naomi Klein’s article, “Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in the Name of a Neocon Utopia,” in the July 24, 2004, Harper’s Magazine.

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4. International Support, paragraph 12
January 8, 2007, 1:53 am

Here the Study Group again touches most delicately upon a sore subject, no doubt to preserve its own, fragile consensus. The reason for the “limited role” played by the international community is, of course, the Bush administration’s insistence on rushing to war without building a consensus within the U.N. Nowhere in the report is there a real consideration of how the U.S. is to repair this wider damage to our international relations.

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4. International Support, paragraph 3
January 8, 2007, 1:46 am

This paragraph is patently false, based on no discernible evidence. It reflects the fatal contradiction at the heart of our misadventure in Iraq, the gap between what we want to be true, and what is true. No country in the region should want a chaotic Iraq, just as everyone in Iraq should want a prosperous, peaceful democracy, with liberty and justice for all. It does no more good to insist on these sentiments that it would to say, for instance, that the Vietnamese should have surrendered to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, instead of sticking with communist totalitarianism and becoming the world’s sweatshop slaves. Even when we do know what is best for other people, it does no good to force it upon them.

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2. Politics, paragraph 30
January 8, 2007, 1:32 am

The report repeatedly stresses the need for Prime Minister Maliki to suppress the militias, and particularly Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. And yet, even in the same paragraph, it acknowledges that Maliki “owes his office in large part to Sadr…”

This is rather like expecting a freshman Republican congressman to “suppress” Grover Norquist, and instead of serving as a useful recommendation, it only mirrors the tortured contradictions at the heart of the administration’s policy in Iraq. How is Maliki to suppress his own political sponsor? We are not told, only reminded that it would be a good thing to do, even the most important thing to do.

This whole line of “analysis” reminds me of nothing so much as Graham Greene’s skewering of U.S. attempts to build up a “third way” strongman in “The Quiet American.” It has about as much hope of success.

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1. Security, paragraph 31
January 8, 2007, 1:22 am

Here the Study Group discreetly fails to mention one of the main reasons for the failure to build a professional, effective police force: the disastrous supervision of disgraced, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, whose actions in Iraq remain cloaked in mystery prior to his sudden bolt out of Baghdad.

Kerik’s regime was all-too-indicative of U.S. personnel policies in Iraq. As has now been well-documented, the Bush administration has consistently filled vital, nonmilitary positions by trawling Republican think tanks for volunteers; ignoring lack of experience or expertise and placing a premium on ideology and political loyalty.

Somehow, though, no hint of this surfaces anywhere in this report…in order to preserve the Study Group’s vaunted “consensus,” perhaps?

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1. Security, paragraph 25
January 8, 2007, 1:08 am

The lack of funding for seemingly obvious purposes that would benefit the reconstruction of Iraq surfaces again and again in this report. It is baffling, except if one recalls that the Bush administration’s move to war coincided with its massive tax cuts for the wealthiest elements of American society. This is, I believe, the first time in U.S. history that the government has slashed taxes while the nation is at war. It may well be the first time that any government has done so during the whole of human history, and it reflects once again the administration’s determination to hide the full costs of the war from the American people–and the unsustainability of this policy.

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1. Security, entire page
January 8, 2007, 12:58 am

To get a good idea of how vastly inadequate the U.S. military commitment to Iraq has been from the beginning, one need only examine the Bush administration’s own, favorite analogy, the occupation and reconstruction of Germany after World War II.

Robert Mackey, writing last month on the Guardian’s commentary site ( mackey/2006/12/ robert mackey on iraq troops.html.), puts the number of American troops in the U.S. section of occupied Germany as stabilizing at 290,000 soldiers and 38,000 police. In other words, well over twice as many troops as we now have in Iraq, and that to oversee a population of 17 million Germans (as opposed to 27 million Iraqis), in a much smaller area…and not to mention the fact that the German population in question had been thoroughly disarmed and demoralized, pounded into submission by a devastating war, and left with an urgent incentive to embrace their American occupiers as the only alternative to a much more onerous, Soviet occupation. (Mackey’s source is James Dobbins’ Rand Corporation study, “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.”)

Here, once more, we return to the original problem of the Bush administration’s illegal rush to war. Subjecting the war to a congressional vote, as mandated in the Constitution, might have brought about a real examination of the force levels necessary to occupy Iraq. This, in turn, would have made clear that the necessary troops would have been nowhere available–based upon our experience in Germany–without a draft. And as the Bush administration well understood, anything approaching universal conscription would have fatally undermined the move to war.

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Executive Summary, entire page
January 8, 2007, 12:25 am

To say that “The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government” here is only technically accurate, and reflects to some degree how the Bush administration and the media have distorted the major Iraqi elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Sunnis overwhelmingly boycotted the first such vote, and then delivered a resounding “no” to the nation’s new constitution, meaning that a critical faction of the country had rejected the very idea of this government from the get-go. For a further description of how U.S. diplomats failed to either anticipate or accurately report this, see Mark Danner’s generally brilliant overview, “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” in the December 21, 2006 New York Review of Books.

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Letter from the Co-Chairs, entire page
January 8, 2007, 12:14 am

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.

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Letter from the Co-Chairs, paragraph 5
January 7, 2007, 11:48 pm

“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.