So. The James (Baker) Gang have finally come down from the mountain to deliver to us their long-awaited recipe for salvation from the Mess in Mesopotamia.
Can you say “bold”?
No, actually, you can’t. And neither can Baker. Unless, of course, he’s making sure that George W. Bush becomes president of the United States after losing an election. Or maybe when he’s defending the House of Saud against lawsuits filed by American victims of 9/11.
That was as bold as it gets. Not to mention contemptuous.
Unfortunately, the Baker report on Iraq is only one of those two things, and if you need to guess which, here’s a hint – it doesn’t start with a ‘b’.
True, it is a measure of the extent of Bush’s wreckage how little Baker and his people could have done, even had boldness been a part of their vocabulary. There are simply no good answers to the question, “What the hell should we do now?” In fact, there probably haven’t been any for about two years now, but the situation goes on deteriorating considerably with every passing month, such that maintaining the present disastrous course surely cannot be the best choice.
Remember how cute it once was to have a tough guy in the White House, governing by his gut, rather than by the concerns of pesky State Department bureaucrats who’ve spent a lifetime learning about the Middle East? Not any more. This is what happens when the greatest military and economic power ever to exist on the planet is put in the hands of an emotional cripple, whose agenda is driven by a palpable need to show the world that he’s not a screw-up (despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary), and that he can outdo his daddy, after all. This is why we don’t let thirteen year-olds drive cars, folks, and why we cringe when we do hand over the keys at sixteen. Imagine an immature ten year-old piloting a fleet of oil tankers, and thinking, “I wonder what would happen if I rammed them all together”. If, like that kid, you’re also wondering what the result might look like, take a glance at the Mid-East.
Now, almost four years later, there will be no democracy in Iraq. There will be no American victory in Iraq. There will be no great blow struck against evildoers in Iraq. And – very likely – there will ultimately be no Iraq in Iraq either. The very best the country and the region and the world can hope for at this point would be precisely the status quo ante. That is, a pacified Iraq, united under the autocratic and repressive leadership of some brutal dictator. Nearly 3,000 American deaths later, with perhaps two-thirds of a million Iraqis similarly dispatched, and wide-scale destruction of the country’s physical and social infrastructure – all that, and the best we can hope for is Saddam, Version 2.0.
And that’s the best-case scenario. Let’s not kid ourselves about how bad this can get. The chances of Humpty-Dumpty ever going back together are minimal at this point. While the embarrassingly ever-obsequious American media debates whether or not to call this a civil war, precisely that rages across Baghdad with white-hot intensity. Or perhaps even worse. What was once a civil war is now increasingly looking like pure, unorganized, chaotic human violence, the stuff of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Now, the factions have factions, the reprisals have reprisals, the second cousins avenge the grand-nephews, the violence is increasingly random, and the flavor is of a national-scale Clockwork Orange, turned up to eleven.
Iraq was always an improbable state, just as was Yugoslavia. Both survived for the same reason – an iron-fisted strongman who wielded unvarnished brutality to impose the will of the state – and both predictably fell to pieces when that top-down unifying force was removed. If only George Bush had thought a bit about that before committing other people’s sons and daughters to his great folly. But that would have meant actually doing the “hard work” he repeatedly referenced in his 2004 debates with John Kerry, as he was all the while apparently avoiding exactly the same with equal intensity, whenever out of the public eye. No wonder Jim Webb admitted to wanting to detach this guy’s head from his body at their White House meeting last week. Could you imagine having your son in harm’s way in Iraq, sent there by a guy who only found out that the Muslim community is divided into Shia and Sunnis two months before the invasion began, and months after he had in fact already ordered it to go forward? In my book, the mystery isn’t why Webb nearly exploded, but rather why that hasn’t been happening every day of the week for three years now.
In any case, what’s much more probable than Iraq’s best-case scenario of unbelievable tragedy and waste, only to end up about where we started (minus one or two shattered lives), is something far more grievous than even that. Iraq is already in deep into civil war, and even if the violence could be stopped today, the damage to social capital is immense, and very likely far too widespread to ever again contemplate even some sort of federalist power-sharing arrangement within a unitary polity. That’s a fancy way of saying that too many people hate too many other people to imagine them ever trusting each other enough to cooperatively govern a single country. In a region where political affinities and identities are tribal and familial, and where even the perception of insult according to often-Byzantine honor codes must be avenged with death in order for a man to be a man, it borders on the inconceivable that there could ever be an Iraq again, except by means of terrible repression in the hands of some Saddam-like Shiite junta, and perhaps not even then.
More likely is that the civil war rages on, gets a lot worse, then gets a lot worse again by dragging in surrounding states like Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and then perhaps gets even worse yet by inflaming the region sufficiently to diminish the flow of oil to, and therefore also the economies of, those parts of the world which depend on the black heroin, which nowadays means just about everybody outside of Myanmar and Bhutan. About the only thing ‘good’ you can say concerning this crisis is that, in our (rapidly-fading) unipolar moment, it is unlikely to suck in a gaggle of adversarial big dogs into a great power war, a la Sarajevo in 1914, but even that can’t be guaranteed. Everybody’s got interests at play in those latitudes.
I’m not predicting the dire outcome of a regionalized civil war at this point, but I would say it is a more likely bet than the best-case scenario described above, which is of course itself hardly any picnic. Let’s not forget just how not-good that best-case scenario is, and how incredibly costly it would be as well – politically, morally, fiscally and strategically. The Chinese must be laughing their heads off, standing by and waiting their turn while today’s hegemon is kind enough to do the work of imploding for them, rolling out the red carpet for China’s ascendance as the next Masters of the Universe. Lord knows the Iranians and al Qaeda are partying down. Any doubts about whether Allah is the one and true god have surely now been resolved. How else to explain a ridiculously improbable victory of rag-tag militants over an infinitely more powerful enemy who decided to play every possible wrong card and thus self-destruct? If this had happened two thousand years ago, it would be a chapter in somebody’s bible today, and we’d all be celebrating it as some religious holiday. So-and-so slew so-and-so, and these ones marched upon those ones, but then the hand of the Almighty reached down and caused parting waters / burning bushes / storms of locusts / whatever whatever, causing the very bad people to do really stupid things and miraculously hand over victory to the nice god-fearing folks.
Meanwhile, there are to this day some hard-core kooks still running around saying that this thing can yet be won. Notice, however, that they are not on the Baker Commission, which has clearly given up on the war, even if it can’t say so. And notice, as ever, it is always with somebody else’s blood, not theirs or their children’s. But just about anybody with any sense (that is, pretty much everybody outside of the White House) now realizes that that idea is sheer fantasy (and may have been even back in March 2003), and is busy at the ugly task of trying to choose the least-worst alternative (for themselves, if not also for America and Iraq). In any case, any slightest prayer of America salvaging this war would require a massive deployment of forces for an extremely long time, which of course means a draft.
If the Republican Party seems like it is in free-fall now, imagine how it would look after the advent of compulsory military service (and attendant riots) in order to support the escalation of W’s personal grudge match against Saddam. Which is precisely why the GOP, ironically but nevertheless especially, would never let such a bill get through Congress. ‘Dead-ender’ neoconservatives can rant all they want about how impatient and misguided Americans are, and how they are unwilling to sacrifice in GWOT, their silly global war on terror (next stop, Belfast!), but Americans are no fools (at least not in the longer term). Neither is the White House for that matter. There’s a reason why the war had to be sold on the basis of fear. Nobody from Kansas or South Carolina wants to send their kid off to die for democracy in the Mid-East, and far less so now than three-and-a-half years ago. Since that’s the most that war can now be claimed to be about (the WMD and al Qaeda links somehow mysteriously disappearing), the war is rightly seen by many as a foolish waste of American blood and treasure, and – most ironic of all – even American security, since our forces are now pinned down in this endless war of choice and are thus unavailable for any real emergency elsewhere. All of which means that a draft would represent the greatest case of American partycide since the Whigs imploded over the question of slavery, half-again a century ago.
Meanwhile the regressives who rejoiced at this war and worshiped the plastic turkey tough-guy who ordered it up are furiously scrambling to affix blame anywhere else they can. A couple of them have had the good sense and intellectual honesty to be properly mortified at the monster they’ve created, if not the moral courage to try to rectify it, compensate those harmed for it, and – at the very least – mercifully spare us their policy and opinion making insights from this point forward. If I were Francis Fukuyama or Thomas Friedman, for example, I would be sorely tempted to engage in the professional equivalent of what the English used to delicately refer to as ‘doing the right thing’, and pen a final column declaring something along the lines of “Nobody as painfully lacking in wisdom as me ought to have the public’s ear anymore, and I will therefore cease and desist from pontificating about international politics, a subject about which I am obviously and dangerously ill-informed”. Perhaps these idiot-savants-turned-just-plain-idiots could become color commentators for college football broadcasts, instead. Can’t you just see it?: “Well, Francis, contrary to your emphatically expressed assurances, State did get that first-down after all. Fortunately, even though you were egregiously and embarrassingly in error, I’m happy to report that tens of thousands of people nevertheless still remain alive. And now back to the field.”
But even those guys are the more honorable (which is not to say honorable, however) of the lot. The rest are replaying the Vietnam end-game once more, looking for any possible explanation upon which to affix this tragedy other than their own sheer stupidity. Some are now already blaming the press for reporting the demoralizing truth, as if that is what the media has done anyhow. After blindly cheerleading for the war from before it began until long after, the press still hasn’t begun to touch the actual horrors of this disaster, in part because of their corporate interests, in part because of their sense of ‘good taste’ (as in, “please crawl off into a corner and do your brutally horrific dying off camera, if you don’t mind – our viewers don’t wish to see that during dinner”), and in part because Iraq is so incredibly, chaotically bloody that it cannot be realistically covered now, anyhow, anymore than you could dig a really deep well and expect a satellite cam to send you a live feed from Hell.
Many neocons (as if the old con wasn’t bad enough) have now formed a circular firing squad and are turning their wrath upon the likes of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for a war that could hardly have been more ineptly executed if Michael Brown himself had been presiding over it. And they’re right about that much. Forget for a minute whether invading Iraq was a good idea or awful. For a guy whose whole presidency rides on this single initiative, it is breathtaking to contemplate how many ways in which George Bush has been his own worse enemy by making astonishingly foolish decisions about the war. But, of course, it was an awful idea, which is where the neocons are yet again being deceitful in their scramble for cover. It is doubtful this war could have been won even if all the right cards had been played. Moreover, why weren’t they telling us back then that Bush was becoming his own train-wreck, so we could have said no thanks?
And so here, finally, comes James Baker, tattered broom in hand, sent by Poppy to clean up yet another (sigh) of Sonny’s screw-ups. But the absurd set of possibilities (not even recommendations) his group has produced is even worse than the classic case of bureaucratic death by committee. It is as if they did an average of everybody’s position, from Hugo Chávez to General Jack D. Ripper, hoping to please everyone just a little bit. This useless piece of anodyne garbage timidly nudged into daylight by Washington’s über-Establishment is just one notch slightly less deluded than is the Resident, himself. Even if there were real options for Iraq, this look-like-you’re-doing-something-while-actually-not-doing-anything choice of deck-chair rearrangement – possibly moving some small number of battalions, to some place out of harm’s way, on some unspecified timetable, all depending on the Iraqi ‘government’ doing what the infinitely more powerful American military cannot – would surely be the worst of them. Its only purpose can be to extend the day of reckoning another few months, and another few thousand deaths, down the line.
Oh, and let’s not forget the happy talk with Syria and Iran! More bold solutions! (Actually, for George W. Bush, yeah.) Fat lot of good that’s going to do in 2007. Nobody controls the streets of Iraq today, especially, anybody from outside. And why would Iran or Syria want to do the US any favors, anyhow, after the way Bush has trashed them both for six years? They wouldn’t. Unless, of course, he cut a deal with them that had something for everybody. And so that’s what it’s come to then, huh? Enhancing the power of a member of the Axis of Evil along with its Mini-Me junior partner, in order to extricate ourselves from the mess we’ve made invading another in that same club? And this is the ‘moderate’ position in Washington? What’s next, trading ICBMs for help from North Korea?
As for the mighty James Baker, himself – who, we are told, apparently fancies himself something of a great statesman out of the nineteenth century European great power mold rather than the oily (pun fully intended) political hack that he really is (not for nothing is he often referred to as the Bush family consigliere) – the man ought to be on his knees begging our forgiveness for the unmitigated disaster of a presidency he foisted upon us in 2000, even if he hadn’t also trashed the Constitution and democracy itself in the process of bequeathing to us the fine gift of eight years under the Boy King.
Remarkably, though, even Baker’s dinner of cold and lumpy Malto-Meal is too bold for the Caligula Kid in the White House, who is already indicating that he won’t be following the Commission’s ridiculously watered-down recommendations. For all the wrong reasons, Bush won’t be listening to even his daddy’s surrogates’ (especially not to his daddy’s surrogates) pretty-please suggestions that he end this war in bloody shame now, rather than ending it in bloodier shame tomorrow.
Maybe if his daughters were pinned down right this moment in some Baghdad rathole of a shooting gallery, their filthy fatigues stuck to their skin and reeking of grime, sweat and terror – rather than off partying, as they are, their sorority girl selves through Argentina – maybe (and I mean maybe, because who knows just how deep the selfishness and cowardice runs in this frightened boy masquerading as a man) their dad would not be blowing off even the hapless Baker to remain still longer in Iraq, hoping for a miracle to save his own skin (as if that could possibly happen now, anyhow).
Maybe Barbara and Jenna’s dad would be thinking more like another James – the one who wanted to deck him last week for asking “How’s your boy?” regarding Webb’s son trapped in Bush’s Iraqi inferno.
Maybe, like the senator-elect, he would also want nothing more than just to bring those kids home.