Revolution #73, December 17, 2006
The Baker Report on Iraq:
Desperate Straits, Deep Divisions, Dwindling Options
“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating…. Despite a massive effort, stability in Iraq remains elusive …..No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos. If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe…. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shiite clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized…. The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out….”
These are the conclusions of the Report by the Iraq Study Group (ISG). The ISG is composed of 10 veteran ruling class politicians, 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. It was formed by Congress to assess the state of the Iraq war.
On one level, the ISG or Baker report represents a shot across the Bush regime’s bow to puncture its talk of “progress” in Iraq, to force it to face the depths of what the liberal, pro-imperialist New York Times calls “a foreign policy disaster of epic proportions,” and to shift course.
On a deeper level, the report and the ensuing debate reveal the huge contradictions the U.S. rulers are up against--including those they have heightened by invading Iraq. The central problem the U.S. faces in Iraq is that the war and occupation have not succeeded and, indeed, have largely backfired. The war has fueled and strengthened anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism--in the form of both the Sunni-based anti-occupation insurgency and the Shia factions who have come to dominate Iraq’s government, and now in the current civil war raging between the two. It has given momentum to Islamist forces across the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. This is exactly the opposite of what the Bush team intended. This is reflected in escalating attacks--both against U.S. forces and inter-communal sectarian killings--and the fractures within the current Iraqi government. The Iraq quagmire has also drastically constrained the U.S. ability to project power globally and has provided openings and “room to maneuver” both for its imperialist rivals and for other forces that it views as inimical or potentially inimical to its interests, such as China and Venezuela.
The report and debate show the glaring contrast between the U.S.’s shrinking options--any course of action could spell disaster--and the enormous and growing stakes involved, as well as the impossibility of just walking away. The report’s release and the Bush administration’s response also highlight both the sharp differences within imperialist ranks over how to deal with the escalating Iraq crisis, and, at the same time, their urgent need to forge a “bipartisan” consensus to avoid strategic disaster.
There is great peril for the imperialists and their system in all this, but there is also great peril--as well as potential openings--for the people. The Baker report is not an anti-war declaration; it doesn’t expose or criticize the nature of this illegal, immoral and unjust war for empire. Rather, it’s an assessment of how to best maintain U.S. imperialism’s dominance in the Middle East in the face of mounting dangers. Neither is it a repudiation of the “war on terror” or the overall program of the Bush regime, even while there are sharp criticisms of some ways in which that program has been carried out in Iraq and the region.
Instead, it’s an attempt to find some “common ground” from which the ruling class can maneuver to avoid what they would consider a “strategic disaster” to their interests. (The fact that the war has already been a terrible disaster for the people of Iraq does not enter into their calculations.) And it is also an attempt to prevent discontent and anger from erupting from the millions in the U.S. who hate the war, and thought they were voting against it in the last election.
Re-Deploying Troops, Pressuring Iraq's Government, Taking the Diplomatic Offensive
There are three key elements in the Baker report’s 79 recommendations. First, changing the focus of U.S. military efforts from combating the insurgency to training the Iraqi military, and gradually withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by 2008, conditions permitting, in hopes of dampening the flames of the insurgency and civil war, and undercutting the appeal of anti-U.S. Islamist forces (both Sunni and Shia) who’ve been gaining strength as a result of the invasion and occupation.
Second, these steps are coupled with U.S.-imposed “milestones”--that is, deadlines after which there would be cuts in aid. These milestones would supposedly force the various factions within the Iraqi government to come to an accommodation and take steps toward “national reconciliation, security, and governance” as the Baker report puts it, in order to gain legitimacy, stabilize the country, and halt the slide toward sectarian civil war. Such a war would threaten the very existence of Iraq as a nation, as well as raise the possibility of a wider regional war.
Third, the report calls for a diplomatic offensive which would both enlist the region’s countries--including Syria and Iran--in helping to stabilize the situation in Iraq (currently, different countries are adding fuel to the fire by supporting and arming rival militias) and also to attempt to douse the flames of anti-American, Islamic radicalism by trying to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the formation of a Palestinian state.
In many ways, the report’s recommendations aren’t a dramatic departure from what the Bush regime has been calling for. There is no firm timetable for U.S. troops to leave, let alone any call for immediate withdrawal. In fact the report envisions thousands of U.S. troops staying in Iraq (somewhat in the background) indefinitely. The report even leaves the door open to a temporary troop increase if military commanders deem it necessary. All in all, there is a strong element here of “reaching out” to Bush. This means trying to get him to be more flexible and more accommodating to other forces in the ruling class, pressing him to admit that there is a very serious problem here and that some of his aims may have to be scaled down in that light, trying to work some adjustments in military and diplomatic posture in the hope of buying time--but taking great care not to directly challenge him and instead to present him with a wide range of measures that he can adopt and claim as consistent with his basic goals.
Bush & Neocons Respond With Their Own “Realism”
Yet despite this effort to reach out to Bush, the President has so far rejected the main thrust of the report: pulling back combat troops and talking to Iran and Syria. “I also believe we’re going to succeed. I believe we’ll prevail,” Bush declared at his press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “If we were to fail, that failed policy will come to hurt generations of Americans in the future…We agree that victory in Iraq is important.”
Meanwhile, Bush’s neocon allies have savaged the report as unrealistic if not delusional at best and surrender at worst. This debate illustrates the minefield the U.S. is in. The Baker-Hamilton group can rightly declare that the Bush policy has so far been a disaster. Yet the neocons can also rightly retort that the Baker-Hamilton report could make things much worse.
Pull back U.S. combat troops and let Iraqis fight in their stead? But that’s what the U.S. has been trying to do--without success--for three years. “The report basically punts on the most important issue of the day--establishing security in Iraq,” a columnist in the far right-wing Weekly Standard argues. “All of the pious exhortations to get Iraqis to sit down with one another, to engage Iran and Syria and to find political compromises are meaningless if we are unable to stem the tide of bloodshed that now engulfs much of Baghdad and Anbar province.”
Pressure the Iraqi government to abandon sectarian issues and come together? “The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state,” the liberal, pro-imperialist Washington Post reports. “The study group is threatening to weaken a weak government,” said bourgeois military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman.
Talk to Iran and Syria? This is problematic for the Bush regime for several reasons. First, it would probably undercut a central Bush goal of weakening both governments and perhaps overthrowing them, and in the case of Iran, removing a key source of state support for anti-U.S. Islamist movements. Moreover, it is not clear what Iran would do for the U.S. or why it would do it. Baker himself has said as much, but claims it would be good because at least Iran would be seen as unreasonable. But to the Bush/neocon group, such an offer would lend too much legitimacy to Iran. Finally, while especially Iran and to some degree Syria have influence in Iraq, neither entirely control the forces unleashed by the U.S. invasion.
More fundamentally, the Bush regime and its supporters argue that there is no going back to the status quo ante before the Iraq invasion, much less to the policies of preserving the Middle East status quo (and moving away from the Bush goal of regional transformation) that has mainly guided U.S. strategy in the post-World War 2 period. And the Islamic fundamentalist forces which have been the main target of this strategy, the neocons argue, would only be further emboldened if the U.S. retreats from Iraq. As for the recommendation to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, this runs smack into the Bush Regime's goal of defeating fundamentalist forces such as Hamas and strengthening Israel as a regional assault weapon for the U.S.
Baker-Hamilton: Dealing With Political Fragility and Turmoil on the Home Front
The Baker-Hamilton report also called attention to the growing political divisions and polarization within the U.S.--both between different elements in the ruling class and between broad sections of the population and the Bush regime, as well as the political establishment generally. One Wall Street Journal columnist concluded (“Wonderland," 12/8):
“Notwithstanding its 79 recommendations for "the way forward," the Iraq Study Group's primary purpose wasn't saving Iraq from catastrophe but saving the political system of the United States from catastrophe….The commission's two chairs, Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, make this explicit in the report's first pages. ‘U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure…if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus.’ Leon Panetta, a Democrat in the House from 1977 to 1993, said at their news conference, ‘This country cannot be at war and be as divided as it is today.’”
These two kinds of divisions are in constant, dynamic interplay. Splits on the top can create room for expressions of discontent from below, while resistance from below can create problems as well as widen divisions at the top over how to proceed. The Baker-Hamilton group is trying to deal with both by forging a consensus over how to go forward in Iraq and avoid strategic catastrophe, and by undercutting opponents of the war within the Democratic party and antiwar forces more broadly. “If the report helps to politically isolate John Murtha and the get-out-now left,” the Wall Street Journal editoralized (12/7), “its authors will have done some good.”
Finally, for all those who placed their hopes on the elections and the Democrats or who hoped the spiraling difficulties in Iraq would be enough to force the pendulum to swing back and the Bush regime to reverse course, think again. First, Bush isn’t abandoning his agenda, and he is still running the government, as hardcore right-wingers William Kristol and Robert Kagan note gleefully:
“Although neither the American media nor many observers of the American political scene seem to realize it, there is nothing the Baker commission can do to force Bush to take a different course than the one he chooses. Nor is it easy for a Democratic majority in Congress to call the shots in Iraq. In the American system, the president always has enormous authority in foreign policy, if he wants to exercise it. President Bush clearly does.”
Meanwhile, the Democrats have ruled out cutting off funds for the Iraq war, are applauding the imperialist recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton group, voted nearly unanimously to approve Robert Gates, Bush’s choice for Secretary of Defense, and some are even arguing for more troops.
So the people still need to drive the Bush regime from power. World Can’t Wait writes:
“In this situation of intense debate inside the government, real divisions emerging, and no easy solution, what is all the more needed is massive opposition to this unjust war that demands it end now. Opposition so powerful that those currently debating how best to deal with the debacle they face in Iraq face a populace that refuses to let them continue carrying out war crimes in our names. Otherwise, no matter how many problems the Bush administration faces, nothing good for the people of the world will come out of this situation.”
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