Baker‐​Hamilton Can’t Save Us

December 4, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the McClatchy‐​Tribune on December 4, 2006.

Next week, the Baker‐​Hamilton Commission will make its recommendations on U.S. Iraq policy, and Congress will begin hearings on defense secretary nominee and Cold War realist Robert Gates. Both events will reflect the failings of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. But even as a grudging acceptance of reality takes hold in Washington, the architects of the war are urging that we double down on the losing bet in Iraq.

Amid spiraling sectarian violence, the leading advocates of invading Iraq seem now to have centered on an explanation for how their idea has driven that country to blood‐​soaked disaster: deposing Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a secure, stable and democratic government would have required around 400,000 troops—as well as a willingness to occupy Iraq for many, many years.

But that was never going to happen. The elusive significance of this acknowledgement is that a serious strategy to democratize Iraq was impossible. America was never going to make such a commitment. So the strategy itself was the flaw.

Early reports indicate that the Baker‐​Hamilton commission will recommend that U.S. troops “pull back” from the fighting in Iraq, perhaps cutting the U.S. presence in half. Many observers have wondered whether the commission can salvage the U.S. position in Iraq.

But James Baker and Lee Hamilton aren’t in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and the report itself can do little more than provide political cover for the president to change course—if he wants to. And as President Bush said on Thursday, “This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.” The president appears to have jettisoned the rhetoric, but not the substance, of “stay the course.”

Part of the problem is rooted in the neoconservative ideology by which the president is inspired. The track record of neoconservative thought is not good. Max Boot, the Council on Foreign Relations fellow and LA Times columnist, wrote in 2003 that 60,000 to 75,000 troops could stabilize Iraq. Oddly enough, now that disaster has ensued with twice that number, Boot now concedes that “pacifying the entire country would probably require 400,000 to 500,000 troops, an obvious nonstarter.”

But it was equally an obvious nonstarter three years ago. The passion with which the neocons argued for invading Iraq was never coupled with a serious examination of what it would require to achieve our goals there. An honest discussion about the costs of war would have greatly diminished the case for invading. But neither the advocates for war nor the Bush administration were interested in such a discussion, as evidenced by the apparent dismissal of a NSC memo in the spring of 2003 that warned that if historical precedent were followed, the Iraq mission would require 500,000 troops.

But hawks have now settled on the way to fix things: pour an additional 50,000 troops into Baghdad in an attempt to secure the capital. First proffered by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, this plan would try to tamp down the civil war by demonstrating that the capital is secure, providing a clear symbol that the country is on the path to stability.

To be sure, the importance of securing the capital of a state pervades the literature on reconstruction and stabilization. As James Quinlivan, an expert on stability operations at the RAND Corporation wrote in 1995, “unless the capital city is quickly brought under both control and visible order, the credibility—locally and globally—of the intervention as a force for stability drains away together with whatever political legitimacy the intervention possessed.”

In the case of Iraq, the capital city was not quickly brought under control, and could not be brought quickly under control now, even with 50,000 more troops. A low‐​level civil war is ongoing, and in order for it to stop, either one side is going to have to win, or both sides must become fatigued enough that they compromise.

The Baker‐​Hamilton commission cannot change this reality. And if the commission were to confront the negligence and recklessness of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, it is certain that President Bush would dismiss their thoughts out of hand. The only thing that can right our course at this point is an outright rejection of the neoconservative approach that steered us into the quagmire in Iraq in the first place.

Neoconservatives have been wrong about every possible aspect of Iraq: wrong about the threat from Saddam, wrong about the way to deal with it, wrong about the costs of war, wrong about the insurgency, and wrong about staying the course. The only question left is how long the country and the Bush administration will continue listening to them on foreign policy. And at what cost?

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