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James Baker's First Steps Into The Iraq Debate

Bush and troops in iraq.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Dec 04, 2006
The Baker-Hamilton commission, or Iraq Study Group, could not be off to a worse start. Even before it officially announces its findings, it is being assailed from left and right alike as either giving away too much, or giving away far too little. But if everyone hates it for such radically different reasons, can they all be right? And if not, is it possible that all of them are wrong?

Months before it finished its deliberations, the ISG was subjected to what amounted as preemptive rhetorical strikes from loyalists to President George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives who pushed the policy of remaking Iraq. Those attacks are now intensifying again with Mark Steyn in a New York Sun column Monday ridiculing Baker and the ISG for taking testimony from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who voted for the congressional authorization that cleared the way for the war in Iraq.

"Perhaps the Baker Commission's proposals will not prove to be as empty and risible as those leaked. But if they are, the president should pay them no heed," Steyn wrote.

From the other side, on Friday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., one of the most prominent Democratic critics of the war, who has been calling for a full pull-out of U.S. forces from Iraq, blasted reports of the ISG conclusions in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer Friday.

Murtha told Blitzer that the possible timeline of having all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2008 was "unacceptable to me."

It is easy to agree with Murtha and Steyn simultaneously, though when it comes to Iraq they probably disagree about everything else. Steyn ridiculed the Baker-Hamilton commission as being comprised of a "a stellar line-up" -- Washington insiders with impeccable experience and career credentials on apparently everything except Iraq.

With the arguable and not-insignificant exception of Robert Gates, the former Director of Central Intelligence and close personal friend of Baker, whom President George W. Bush has named as the next U.S. secretary of defense, almost none of the other members of the commission appears to have the slightest familiarity with the California-sized country of 54 million people that is now being ripped apart by sectarian chaos and rapidly escalating civil war.

It is the very vagueness of what has been leaked as the ISG's conclusions that infuriates both left and Bush-loyal right. The ISG appears to be genuinely seeking for a change of course in Iraq. The reports say it envisages significantly cutting the overall number of U.S. troops there by the end of 2008. The ISG is also expected to call for a regional security conference and to try and bring Syria and Iran into that process, possibly by trying to get Israel to make more concessions in a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For supporters of Israel and those who believe confrontation is inevitable with Iran, even contemplating the possibility of such a policy revives the specter and metaphors of the 1938 Anglo-French Munich agreement with Adolf Hitler that sold off Czechoslovakia's to Nazi Germany.

For those like Murtha, and others, who fear escalating threats to the 135,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, the expected ISG recommendations are far too little, too late. Many critics of the ISG note that its expected conclusions will, indeed, leave President Bush with the option of dramatically increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq in the short term in order to achieve, theoretically, more favorable conditions for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.

Throughout former Secretary of State James A. Baker III's long career in politics, however, his remarkable record of experience and achievement has often been obscured by claims of Machiavellian maneuvers, cynical U-turns and devious practices that are simply not borne out by the record.

Baker is a closed-mouthed pragmatist who has always embodied the teaching of the ancient Jewish Rabbi Shammai. Shammai counseled his disciples to "say little and do much." Baker indeed has warned repeatedly that the findings of his group would probably not be as dramatic or abrupt as so many critics of the president's Iraq policy wanted. In other words, it would "say little." But that does not mean it is not, in the long term, going to "do much."

However, this does not mean at all that the conclusions of the ISG will be insignificant. In this respect, Baker's critics on the neo-con and Bush-loyal right are probably more on the mark than his disappointed opponents on the left like Murtha. For what the ISG will literally say is going to be far less important than the process it is going to launch.

Once Baker has enabled the president and other disenchanted former hawks in the administration to sip the bitter medicine of acknowledging that Iraq cannot be transformed into a pro-American, stable, Shiite-led democracy delivering huge quantities of cheap oil within only a few months, other changes can rapidly follow.

A president who continues to rule out any fixed timetable for any major or total U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq would never change direction on that just because of a recommendation from a prestigious commission. But if that commission's recommendations were vague in literal terms, there would be far greater likelihood that the president could comfortably embrace them, and thereby prepare the American people -- and himself -- for greater changes that reality might demand down the line.

Serious critics of the ISG's expected conclusions may indeed be proven correct. It is quite feasible that history will record them as having fiddled while Baghdad burned. Murtha told CNN Friday that when he first "spoke out" in forthright criticism of keeping U.S. military forces in Iraq, "there were 400 attacks a day. Now there's 800 attacks a day. ... the Iraqis want us out of there ... we have to find a way to redeploy the troops and we have to do it sooner rather than later."

The legendary Chinese sage Lao Tzu said 2,500 years ago that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Perhaps the ISG, or Baker-Hamilton Commission, may yet provide that step.

Source: United Press International

Related Links
US Institute Of Peace - Iraq Study Group
Learn about the Superpowers of the 21st Century at SpaceWar.com
Iraq: The first techonology war of the 21st century

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