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Baker-Hamilton Group Report - Critique

James Baker, a distinguished Secretary of State in more peaceful times, co-chaired a Study Group on Iraq with Lee Hamilton. The Baker-Hamilton Group, bi-partisan to the core, released its long awaited report on 6 Dec 2006. We applaud their effort as they have made many good recommendations. Most need to be heeded and acted upon as soon as possible. At the same time, we expected more, as even the good recommendations are little more than Band-Aids--however badly needed.

These are hard words to write, as we have great respect for each of the authors and their good faith is obvious. And they have indeed produced a plan far superior to any tabled on Pennsylvania Avenue with parts crying out for implementation. But write these words we must, for civilization itself is at stake.

Our considered appraisal follows:

Baker-Hamilton Group is right to suggest that we not leave Iraq in an irresponsible lurch, and we are heartened to read the many indictments of present policies. We were also heartened by the many examples of how things went askew. For example, if a roadside bomb did not injure an American, it was not reported; so also, if the bomb origin could not be determined. To quote from p 95: "...on one day in July 2006 there were 93 significant acts of violence reported [officially to upper levels and the media].Yet a careful review of the [field] reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals." This difference of a dozen multiples lends credence to the only scientific study of violence in Iraq made to date. That study found Iraq violence was some twenty times larger than the Administration admits to. See: Body Counts in the Middle East. To under-count in this way was a decision made early on to avoid the political problems accurate counting generated during the Vietnam War.

As much as we respect this collection of distinguished individuals, we are truly dismayed at their lack of depth in their analyses. Certainly it is a truthful account and assessment of the situation. Certainly too, it is a factual report of events covered. And except perhaps for McGovern and Polk, it is certainly the best proposal we have seen from governmental and ex-governmental types.

However, by ignoring the vitally important works of Dean, Altemeyer, Zimbardo, and Milgram, it avoids the uncomfortable truth that underlies all violence, war, terror and genocide. That truth, a hang-over from jungle and savanna times, shows itself now as the Authoritarian Personality.

See for example: Natural History and Society, Monotheism and Violence, Extremism, and Nature / Nuture and Violence.

Politicians, however esteemed, by definition never rise to the level of insight; only statesmen or stateswomen do that. The panel was unanimous; there was no minority opinion--itself a red flag. With no statesman or stateswoman on the horizon, what next?

Back to the Baker/Hamilton report.

Its sincere producers have the good sense to repeatedly state: "There are no guarantees...," "There is no magic formula...," "There is no military solution." This feature is itself both a green-flag (for being an improvement) and a red-flag (for its naivete). The authors proceeded in good faith with logic and eloquence, but their product at best represents a band-aid. They did their very best, but they do not have much faith in it. Neither do we, perhaps for much the same reasons. We can only hope we are wrong about this. The report's mandate was to assess Iraq, nevertheless there are many reasons to disbelieve its efficacy--many are contained in the report itself.

So many doubtful events of disparate types have to line up, their combined probablility is effectively zero for any lasting solution for Iraq, much less limiting terror.

One of these is the Sunni vs Shia militias. The Sunnis told the study group: "...the US military had to take on the Shia militias (plural for there is more than one). And the Shia politicians told the group: "America has to help them take out the Sunni insurgents." How probable is a resolution to that chasm, given the current situation? These major sects of Islam have been at war for some fourteen centuries! The current situation is summarized in the report: "...there are many armed groups within Iraq, and very little will to put down arms." See page 20. Percentagewise, the likelihood of any such single event is in single digits. The joint likelihood of all of them doing so is surely less than one percent if there is any likelihood at all. And this is just one issue.

The government, while duly elected in a fair election, does not represent the Sunnis. It also has additional governance problems outlined in the report:

  • It plays sectarian favorites; Sunni neighborhoods are neglected in favor of Shia neighborhoods.
  • It cannot provide security.
  • Corruption is rampant.
  • Basic ability to govern is lacking; skilled people have scattered; infrastructure has largely broken down.
  • The judiciary is weak; cannot act effectively.
  • The economic sector reflects the extremely high unemployment and is woefully weak. No government lasts long under such conditions without external support.
  • Oil production is running at 70% of pre-war levels.
  • Neighboring states frequently meddle in Iraqi affairs. And they largely get away with it.

Unemployment, which the report deals with only obliquely, must drop below 10% or so before the populace will have any faith at all in the possibility for progress. High levels of unemployment make any solution to violence that much less likely.

Without populace support, no government can deal with terrorism or accomplish reconciliation. At the same time, any Iraqi government cooperating with the US will not remain in power for long, given the current mood of the Iraqi people and the general ascendency of jihad (including terror) as a means for resisting western influence and control.

Some of the many factions at war in Iraq might well evaporate with full employment. Those savoring political vacuum as opportunity, will stay around, compete by any available means for supremacy. Those that have been at war for centuries will continue to be. Those that have been disenfranchised by their own leaders, or fellow Muslims, will continue internecine violence. Those who have been kicked out of power will strive to get it back. How to cool those situations is not addressed in the report. Specifics are needed, many, but there are none beyond platitudes and the Band-Aid variety.

While the report as a whole indicts the Bush administration as inept, it neverthelss agrees with the policy toward Iraq stated by Bush: "An Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself." While we too agree, it is disheartening to read how superficial these recommendations to accomplish that goal really are.

Without full employment, reconciliation is a dream; it is simply not possible. America has no credibility left and cannot deal with this problem from Hades effectively. This job can only be done by others and the sooner we hand it off the better. Pages 62 and 63 of the report present Milestones for Iraq. Unemployment is not mentioned.

On page 64 the report recommends the US work with the Iraqi government toward national reconciliation, security, and services. On pages 8-17, the report paints such a gloomy picture of the Iraqi army, police, and sectarian politics that it is obvious that the Iraqi government is incapable of moving forward. So what kind of recommendation is this? Political? Certainly, from both sides of the aisle. Naive? That too. But it does take time for a society and the politicians it creates to absorb uncomfortable truths amd admit to and act upon them in positive ways. The Enlightenment only came about after centuries of darkness. It is once again time for a new dawn, but we cannot tarry: nuclear bombs await.

Some of our problems with specific Baker-Hamilton recommendations follow:

"Stop destabilizing interventions and actions by Iraq's neighbors." Do we use military to chase insurgents outside Iraq borders?

Do we build an Iron Wall a la Israel?

Is diplomacy effective when it is in Iraq's-neighbors best interests to eject us from the Middle East?

Or what?
"...engage directily with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to reconstructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues. In engaging Syria and Iran, the United States should consider incentives as well as disincentives, in seeking constructive results." Hmm. What does this really say? Are we asking Syria and Iran to fix the mess we made?

If the media is even half right in its reporting, it seems quite likely that, while we are so bogged down in Iraq, we will be little more than a paper tiger to Iran.

Is it not in the national interest of both Iran and Syria to embrace their own solutions rather than ours? Iran with its nukes potential and Syria with designs in Lebanon have at least as much leverage as we do. This is a sad state for what was to become empire.
"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi Government." It seems to most observers, including us, that we are already past that point. Several things that reasonably should have happened by now, have not. Things continue to get worse. For example, how can a dysfunctional Iraqi army hope to subdue both the Shite and Sunni militias when it is rife with deserters from each sect?

To extend our stay will make our eventual exit all the harder.
"This effort should include--as soon as possible--the unconditional calling and holding of meetings, under the auspices of the United States or the Quartet (i,e,. the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations), between Israel and Lebanon and Syria on the one hand and Israel and the Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel's right to exist) on the other. The purpose of these meetings would be to negotiate peace as was done at the Madrid Conference in 1991, and on two separate tracks--one Syrian/Lebanese, and the other Palestine." What will HAMAS have to say about this? HAMAS is the duly elected government of Palestine. It will not go away, even if deposed. We have little leverage here.

Is it fantasy to think a lasting peace can be wrought under U.S. auspices? Not as long as we continue to support Israel as we have.

Because of the above and many other problems, we believe that the "new approach" is some years too late, and too little in any event. Moreover, there is no analysis of how anyone can get two warring factions to reconcile, much less how to relax tension among the twenty odd centers of local power in Iraq, many of which wish to fill the power vacuum that is modern Bagdad.

Leaving Iraq may stop attacks on Americans, but it may also ignite a two- or three-way civil war. This event looks inevitable. With sactuaries within Iraq as well as outside, many terror groups, including al Qa'ida have the wherewithal to not only outlast America's patience, but to force their own resolution by force eventually. Since we can only fill the power vacuum with a force with an American taint [which would continue to be targeted by terrorists of several colors and blends], all we can really do is limit our losses and do the best we can by the people of Iraq by restoring their quality of life to the degree we can. The Baker-Hamilton Group expects much too much of the Iraqi government. Even if it were disposed to do so, it almost surely could not assimilate the Sunnis who have already spoken with ballots unmarked--and continue to with terror.

As advocates of democratic principles, we fear the option of supporting a strong man such as Hussein to force security under US hegemony. That would not work. Rather it would prolong the bloodshed. Since we cannot entertain such a solution in the first place, our best, perhaps only, remaining option seems to be an orderly, but fast-and-responsible, withdrawal.

Our studied conclusion is that the principal value this report will have is in giving Bush some cover during his lonely days as a lame duck. Its negative value lies in telegraphing our intentions to essentially stay the course a while longer and then withdraw. The report, surely caught Mr. Bush's attention. But we fear he will use it as political cover to overstay in Iraq when all he can really do is lessen the pain on the Iraqi people and perhaps mitigate his colossal failure. Mr. Bush, already ignominious, will further damage his legacy if he hangs on to his pronuncement: "I am a war president" and leaves it to his successor to clean up his mess.

Meanwhile, every day before an orderly withdrawal begins makes it more probable that Iraq, and perhaps much of the Middle East will descend into the chaos of multi-sided wars. How that might come out is impossible to predict other than that a large fraction of humanity will once again suffer through yet another needless conflagration. That too would be a first-order disaster--one that could involve the US yet again in yet another failed "crusade" as the oil well runs dry in the chaos.

A possible positive from this report could be the crystallization of public opinion that the war in Iraq is lost beyond redemption, and the sooner we exit the better. Another remotely-possible positive could result if the world polities begin twin-path dialogues about the basic causes of violence on the one hand and what to do about it on the other. The latter involves a lot more than mere politics, religion, armed might, or economics. It involves a lot of insightful self analyses, logos, research, and follow through. It may take generations, if indeed we have that much time.

For earlier, further, commentary, see Cut and Run for more on this vital subject.

You may download the full Baker-Hamilton Group report from United States Institute of Peace. Read it carefully and please let us know if you think we have gone astray. A new window is provided for your convenience in comparing it with the above.


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