In America we like quick fixes, closure and an uplifting show. Such were the high hopes for the Iraq Study Group, and on one of the three it delivered.
The report of the 10 Washington elders was rolled out like a heartwarming Hollywood holiday release. There was a feel-good title, “The Way Forward,” unfortunately chosen as well by Ford Motor to promote its last-ditch plan to stave off bankruptcy. There was a months-long buildup, with titillating sneak previews to whip up anticipation. There was the gala publicity tour on opening day, starting with a President Bush cameo timed for morning television and building to a “Sunshine Boys” curtain call by James Baker and Lee Hamilton on “Larry King Live.”
The wizard behind it all was the public relations giant Edelman, which has lately been recruited by Wal-Mart to put down the populist insurgency threatening its bottom line. Edelman’s vice chairman is Michael Deaver, the imagineer extraordinaire of the Reagan presidency, and “The Way Forward” had a nostalgic dash of that old Morning-in-America vibe. In The Washington Post, David Broder gushingly quoted one member of the group, Alan Simpson, musing that “immigration, Social Security and all those other things that have been hung up for so long” might benefit from similar ex-officio bipartisanship. Only in Washington could an unelected panel of retirees pass for public-policy Viagra.
Mr. Simpson notwithstanding, the former senator who most comes to mind is Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. In the early 1990’s he famously coined the phrase “defining deviancy down” to describe the erosion of civic standards for what constitutes criminal behavior. In 2006, our governmental ailment is defining reality down. “The Way Forward” is its apotheosis.
This syndrome begins at the top, with the president, who has cut and run from reality in Iraq for nearly four years. His case is extreme but hardly unique. Take Robert Gates, the next defense secretary, who was hailed as a paragon of realism by Washington last week simply for agreeing with his Senate questioners that we’re “not winning” in Iraq. While that may be a step closer to candor than Mr. Bush’s “absolutely, we’re winning” of late October, it’s hardly the whole truth and nothing but. The actual reality is that we have lost in Iraq.
That’s what Donald Rumsfeld at long last acknowledged, between the lines, as he fled the Pentagon to make way for Mr. Gates. The most revealing passage in his parting memo listing possible options for the war was his suggestion that public expectations for success be downsized so we would “therefore not ‘lose.’ ” By putting the word lose in quotes, Mr. Rumsfeld revealed his hand: the administration must not utter that L word even though lose is exactly what we’ve done. The illusion of not losing must be preserved no matter what the price in blood.
The Iraq Study Group takes a similarly disingenuous tack. Its account of how the country Mr. Bush called a “grave and gathering danger” in September 2002 has devolved into a “grave and deteriorating” catastrophe today is unsparing and accurate. But everyone except the president knew this already, and that patina of realism evaporates once the report moves from diagnosis to prescription.
Its recommendations are bogus because the few that have any teeth are completely unattainable. Of course, it would be fantastic if additional Iraqi troops would stand up en masse after an infusion of new American military advisers. And if reconciliation among the country’s warring ethnicities could be mandated on a tight schedule. And if the Bush White House could be persuaded to persuade Iran and Syria to “influence events” for America’s benefit. It would also be nice if we could all break the bank in Vegas.
The group’s coulda-woulda recommendations are either nonstarters, equivocations (it endorses withdrawal of combat troops by 2008 but is averse to timelines) or contradictions of its own findings of fact. To take just one example: Even if we could wave a magic wand and quickly create thousands more military advisers (and Arabic-speaking ones at that), there’s no reason to believe they could build a crack Iraqi army and police force where all those who came before have failed. As the report points out, the loyalties and capabilities of the existing units are suspect as it is.
By prescribing such placebos, the Iraq Study Group isn’t plotting a way forward but delaying the recognition of our defeat. Its real aim is to enact a charade of progress to pacify the public while Washington waits, no doubt in vain, for Mr. Bush to return to the real world. The tip-off to the cynical game can be found in a single sentence: “We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq, as stated by the president: ‘an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.’ ” This studious group knows that even that modest goal, a radical devaluation of the administration’s ambition to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, has long been proven a mirage. The Iraqi government’s ability to defend anything is so inoperative that the group’s members visited the country but once, with just one (Chuck Robb) daring to leave the Green Zone. The Bush-Maliki rendezvous 10 days ago was at the Four Seasons hotel in Amman.
The only recommendations that might alter that reality, however evanescently, come not from “The Way Forward” but from its critics on the right who want significantly more troops and no withdrawal timetables whatsoever. But a Pentagon review leaked to The Washington Post three weeks ago estimates that a true counterinsurgency campaign would “require several hundred thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as heavily armed Iraqi police,” not the 20,000 or so envisioned as a short-term booster shot by John McCain.
Since these troops don’t exist and there is no public support in either America or Iraq for mobilizing them, the president can’t satisfy the hawks even if he chooses to do so. Since he’s also dead set against a prompt withdrawal, we already know what his policy will be, no matter how many “reviews” he conducts. He will stay the course, with various fake-outs along the way to keep us from thinking we’ve “lost,” until the whole mess is deposited in the lap of the next president.
But as Chuck Hagel said last week, “The impending disaster in Iraq is unwinding at a rate that we can’t quite calibrate.” It is yet another, even more reckless flight from reality to suppose that the world will stand still while we dally. The Iraq Study Group’s insistence on dragging out its deliberations until after Election Day for the sake of domestic politics mocked and undermined the urgency of its own mission. Meanwhile the violence metastasized. Eleven more of our soldiers were killed on the day the group finally put on its show. The antagonists in Iraq are not about to take a recess while we celebrate Christmas. The mass exodus of Iraqis, some 100,000 per month, was labeled “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world” by Refugees International last week and might soon rival Darfur’s.
THE Iraq-Vietnam parallels at this juncture are striking. In January 1968, L.B.J. replaced his arrogant failed defense secretary, Robert McNamara, with a practiced Washington hand, Clark Clifford. The war’s violence boiled over soon after (Tet), prompting a downturn in American public opinion. Allies in our coalition of the willing — Thailand, the Philippines, Australia — had balked at tossing in new troops. Clifford commissioned a re-evaluation of American policy that churned up such ideas as a troop pullback, increased training of South Vietnamese forces and a warning to the South Vietnamese government that American assistance would depend on its performance. In March, a bipartisan group of wise men (from Dean Acheson to Omar Bradley) was summoned to the White House, where it seconded the notion of disengagement.
But there the stories of Vietnam and Iraq diverge. Those wise men, unlike the Iraq Study Group, were clear in their verdict. And that Texan president, unlike ours, paid more than lip service to changing course. He abruptly announced he would abjure re-election, restrict American bombing and entertain the idea of peace talks. But as Stanley Karnow recounts in “Vietnam: A History,” it was already too late, after some 20,000 casualties and three years of all-out war, for an easy escape: “The frustrating talks were to drag on for another five years. More Americans would be killed in Vietnam than had died there previously. And the United States itself would be torn apart by the worst internal upheavals in a century.”
The lesson in that is clear and sobering: As bad as things may seem now, they can yet become worse, and not just in Iraq. The longer we pretend that we have not lost there, the more we risk losing other wars we still may salvage, starting with Afghanistan.
The members of the Iraq Study Group are all good Americans of proven service to their country. But to the extent that their report forestalls reality and promotes pipe dreams of one last chance for success in this fiasco, it will be remembered as just one more delusional milestone in the tragedy of our age.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company