President George W. Bush conferred yesterday with members of the James Baker-led Iraq Study Group came against a background of chaos in Baghdad, a quisling government demonstrably incapable of stemming the violence, and an Iraqi resistance emboldened by the vote of no confidence given to the president’s Iraq policy. As expected, yesterday’s meeting was primarily photo-op.
The important question is: Can the Iran Study Group be expected to come up with constructive suggestions for alternative policy on Iraq. The answer is no.
The Iraq Study Group project was forced on a reluctant president by members of Congress last March, with Rep. Frank Wolf (R, VA) pushing the initiative. I had a brief conversation with Wolf in front of the House Rayburn office building in March. He had been to Iraq and echoed the party line that “We cannot withdraw our troops quickly”-but it seemed to me, without whole-hearted conviction. I had the impression that, even then, he sensed that neither could we stay.
Wolf moved mountains to set the study group in motion as a way of providing cover for the president if/when it became clear even to Bush that the approach authored by the Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal was not only amateurish but politically nonviable. The president may be smart enough to recognize that that time has now come and use the cover that the study group could provide; and, then again, he may not. He has shown a stubborn propensity to turn a deaf ear to sensible suggestions on Iraq in the past; the question is who will have his other ear. It is highly unlikely to be the study group.
Yesterday’s White House photo-op reminded me of the one orchestrated in early January with a dozen former secretaries of state and defense, who were given all of ten minutes (that would be 50 seconds a piece) to “advise” the president on Iraq. It was not just serendipitous but quite telling that the president’s other main visitor was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, because, if past is precedent, Bush is likely to be give as much weight to Olmert’s views as to those of the Iraq Study Group.
Who has the president’s open ear was made abundantly clear by the circumstances surrounding the benching of the person far better equipped to lead such a group-national security adviser to former president George H. W. Bush, Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Chairman from 2001 to 2004 of the prestigious President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001-04), Scowcroft took the highly unusual step of complaining publicly that Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, had our current president “mesmerized” and “wrapped around his little finger.” For that unforgivably candid remark, Scowcroft was sent packing and told never again to darken the White House doorstep.
It remains to be seen whether Olmert and the Israel lobby will still have as much hold on the president in the light of the fiasco in Iraq-not to mention in Lebanon-and the mid-term election outcome. But the entreaties of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to do the sensible thing and include the core problem of Israel-Palestine in any discussions of a solution to the Iraq imbroglio are likely to hit the president’s deaf ear-no matter the pleading by Blair to the study group by video-conference today. And, while Baker has shown some sensible flexibility on Israel-Palestine in the past (in the process winning the enmity of hardliners in Tel Aviv), it is unlikely that he can impart wise balance to the group on this question-due in part to its very intentional “bipartisan” composition.
Needed: Nonpartisan, NOT Bipartisan
Co-chair of the Iraq Study Group is the always-eager-to-co-chair, co-star of the 9/11-commission whitewash, former Democrat congressman, Lee Hamilton. But for an effort to come up with bold policy initiatives, “bipartisan,” is the kiss of death. Such a group needs to be nonpartisan, as was the group of “Wise Men” put together by presidential adviser Clark Clifford, at Lyndon Johnson’s request, after the Vietnam Tet offensive in early 1968, when Johnson could no longer avoid the conclusion that he had gotten bad-often dishonest-advice from his generals and his always-up-beat inner circle. (More on LBJ and the “Wise Men” below.)
Other members of the Iraq Study Group are: Lawrence Eagleburger (who just replaced Robert Gates), Vernon Jordan, Edwin Meese, Sandra Day O’Connor, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Charles Robb, and Alan Simpson. “Bipartisan” also are the study group’s “Expert Working Groups” and “Military Senior Advisor Panel.” There sit a truly remarkable congeries of ideologues, think-tankers, and captains of industry and finance-sprinkled far too lightly with non-ideological former government officials with substantive expertise-like Larry Diamond, Chas Freeman, and Wayne White.
We are told that all are sworn to secrecy on the substance of ISG discussions. But some are speaking openly about the issues at hand. Baker has said publicly he thinks it would be wise to include Syria and Iran in discussions on Iraq. In an apparent effort to nip that one in the bud, the president chose yesterday to reiterate his refusal to talk with Iran until it gives up its nuclear program.
Panetta has commented on what he learned from U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic briefers when the ISG spent three days in Baghdad in early September. “We left some of those sessions shaking our heads over how bad it is in Iraq,” said Panetta, adding that private assessments are “much more grim” than what one hears from the administration in public.
“Economy and Reconstruction” sub-group member Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings, is speaking freely about what he calls the “mess” in Iraq and told ABC News that the administration will probably opt for incremental “pragmatic approaches, including involving Iran and Syria” to improve the situation in Iraq. The things being proposed, says O’Hanlon, are “a lot of second-level ideas that hopefully all together add up to something notable.” With all due respect, the dynamics in play are such that the ideas will not be “second-level,” but second-rate. For example…
More Troops to Iraq?
Gen. John Keane (USA, ret.) of the “Military Senior Advisor Panel” takes a different tack. He recommends that 40,000 additional U.S. troops be sent to secure Baghdad. And Sen. John McCain (R, AZ), too, continues to press for sending more troops to Iraq as the only way to “salvage” the situation. McCain, a likely contender for president in 2008, seems to be positioning himself to avoid the blame that inevitably will be pinned on those who “lost Iraq.”
His comments echo the views of die-hard “neo-conservatives” like Bill Kristol which merit the Ralph Waldo Emerson label, “a foolish consistency.” Kristol is now strongly against the current policy of “staying the course;” rather, he presents the administration with an un-nuanced choice: “Do what is necessary to succeed, or quit.” Kristol wants 50,000 more troops sent to Iraq to secure the capital and then conduct “clear and hold operations.” (Please don’t laugh; he says he’s serious.) Where would he get the troops? Easy, says Kristol; through “rapid steps to increase the overall size of American armed forces.”
Do not completely rule out a troop increase. That would be Vietnam déjà vu, of course, but such untutored strategizing, with no adult supervision, is common among those who never took “Insurgency and Civil War: Vietnam 101. And Emerson, of course, was right. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
It is a critical problem-the ever-tightening circle around a president who admits he doesn’t read the newspapers. However disappointing Colin Powell’s knee-jerk saluting of the commander-in-chief, at least Powell had been around and knew something of the world. (Rumsfeld, of course, is good riddance.) But what you now have around the president is what we call, in intelligence parlance, a self-licking ice-cream cone.
Bush cannot say he was not warned. We closed our first Memorandum for the President from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (a critique of Colin Powell’s UN speech that same day) with these words:
“We are convinced you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond…the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
LBJ’s “Wise Men”
The contrast between the Iraq Study Group and the group of “Wise Men” appointed by President Johnson could hardly be starker. The latter was nonpartisan and comprised of experienced old hands-hardly an ideologue among them: Clifford, Harriman, Acheson, Generals Omar Bradley and Maxwell Taylor, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Douglas Dillon, Rusk, and Justice Abe Fortas. Equally important, they were supported not by a cast of thousands but a small group of military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials dripping with expertise and courageous enough to speak truth to that powerful president.
The result? In less than a month (March 1968), Johnson was persuaded the war was lost and so was his presidency. He curtailed the bombing of North Vietnam, chose the path of negotiations (yes, direct negotiations with the “insurgents”), and announced that he would not run again for president.
RAY McGOVERN works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. After serving as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and then 27 years as a CIA analyst, he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com.